Is it American decline, or merely change? I’ll report; you decide.
A while back, when your football team or any particular player had a bad day, you cheered all the harder. They’re your team. And that’s when they need it more than ever. On Jan. 10, 2010, when New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady fumbled and threw interceptions, the New England crowd booed him. Tom Brady has brought more football glory to New England than any other five stars you can name put together. And they booed him off the field.
In the mid-20th century, when a football player scored a touchdown, he handed the ball to the nearest official and, with the dignity of a Libyan camel, disappeared as quickly as he could into the crowd of his adoring teammates, seemingly desiring nothing more than for the moment to move on, eliminating all attention to himself. Today, it’s strictly “Look at me!” with all the theatrics, dancing, strutting, moon-walking and all the self-enshrinement they can get away with without incurring a penalty, which the National Football League established to try to eliminate such childish behavior. And it doesn’t have to be a touchdown. A field goal, a first down, a defensive sack, a fumble recovery, a tackle holding the other side to a gain of no more than two yards – all are now grounds for fitting yourself with a public halo.
When a player on our team, or even on the opposing team, was injured – say his name were Clemmons – we would all yell, “Yeah, Clemmons! Shake it off!” No more. Sportsmanship lived. Now it’s not even remembered. Do you know why there’s such a thing today as the “home-field advantage”? Think about it. Football fields are deliberately all alike. (Down South many a high-school football stadium doubled as a baseball diamond, meaning only part of the field was grassy. Occasionally the next play was merely to run the ball over to the nearest part of the baseball diamond so the quarterback could diagram the following play in the dirt with his index finger!) Why, then, should the home team have an advantage? It turns out the home crowd has caught on that if they yell loudly enough at the right moments, the hated visitors won’t be able to hear their own snap signals.
This hardening goes deeper than stadium manners, and it didn’t start all that recently. The following story was told to me by Dr. Saul Pavlin, who was head of a home for young boys who didn’t have one. The original name of the institution was the Wiltwyck School for Boys, in midtown Manhattan. It was tough raising money for any charity, no matter how worthy, with a name that left the emotions totally untouched. And “The Wiltwyck School for Boys” didn’t jiggle anybody’s needle.
Somebody on the board got the brilliant idea to contact the heavyweight boxing champion of the world at that time, Floyd Patterson, and see if he would allow them to change the name over to “Floyd Patterson House.” Floyd not only agreed; he showed up, hands-on, and taught the kids how to box and work out, build yourself a good body, study hard and stay out of trouble. Patterson gave them all autographed pictures of himself, and each picture quickly found a home on the bedroom wall of the proud owner.
And the donations rolled in. Floyd Patterson was one of the nicest gentlemen ever to climb between ropes and hold out his gloves to a referee for inspection. The boys all loved Patterson, and the members of the board all loved whomever it was who came up with the idea to rename the place Floyd Patterson House.
Floyd Patterson even managed to supply the entire population of Floyd Patterson House with tickets to his title defense bout against Sonny Liston. Dr. Pavlin positioned himself at the rear of the jubilant parade from Floyd Patterson House to Madison Square Garden for the big fight. That way he could make sure no boy wandered off into the night.
The boys of Floyd Patterson House took their seats, cheering wildly as their hero entered the ring and did the little dance with his boxing robe on. The great boxing journalist Burt Sugar jokes about telling his cab driver to wait outside an arena in Las Vegas one night, figuring the fight would be very short. Sugar said, “I figured the knockout would come somewhere between ‘O, say can you see’ and ‘by the dawn’s early light.’”
Alas, this was one of those nights. Sonny Liston knocked Patterson out in Round 1. Had that happened in front of my crowd at that age, we’d have locked ourselves in our rooms and refused to eat for three weeks. On the somber march home, Saul Pavlin noticed three or four of the young “leaders” were caucusing at the head of the procession. Then one of the boys turned around and approached Dr. Pavlin.
“Dr. Pavlin,” the youngster began. “A few of us have been talking. Do you think we could change the name of our place to Sonny Liston House?”