Posts Tagged ‘NFL’

The Chicago Bears, the Miami Dolphins, and the Legacy of Perfection

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

Professional athletes are forced to live up to legacies.  Retired uniform numbers, highlight films, and statues of icons from past eras remind them of the giant footprints to fill.  Or at least in which they must tread.  Such was the burden for the Miami Dolphins on December 2, 1985 in a Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears.  The former had a legacy of perfection to protect—the 1972 Dolphins squad had 17-0 record; the latter compiled a 12-0 record, theretofore.

During the same year that Marty McFly went back to the future, the Bears had an aura of celebrity transcending popular culture.  A spat concerning quarterback Jim McMahon wearing an Adidas headband became a matter of national debate—NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined McMahon $5,000 for endorsing a product during a game.  McMahon responded the following week—during the NFC Championship—by wearing a headband with Rozelle’s name written on it.

William “Refrigerator” Perry transformed from a defensive back into a fullback—but only with the end zone in sight.  This tactic may have seemed to be a gimmick because of Perry’s size, but it did result in touchdowns, as well as guaranteed prominence on national and local sportscasts.

Head Coach Mike Ditka had Bears blood running through his veins—he played for the team in the 1960s; Walter Payton’s graceful running garnered cheers from and catharsis for Chicagoans; Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense alignment protected leads; and Mike Singletary’s single-mindedness set a model for defensive players to be aware of every twitch, movement, and indicator of their opponents.

There was a scent of destiny surrounding these Monsters of the Midway.  With each victory came a certain inevitability that the Bears would go to their first Super Bowl.  When pre-game shows mentioned Chicago, eyes and ears narrowed their focuses to ingest the latest information about the personalities, performances, and progress of the Bears.

Marching towards perfection, the Bears took the field at the Orange Bowl on December 2nd; a perfect season was a sustainable reality.  Miami would not allow that to happen.  Tension tighter than a prospector’s clutch on his gold pervaded the stadium.  And it pored through television screens tuned to the game, from Puget Sound to Passaic, New Jersey.

Larry Csonka and other members of the ’72 Dolphins stood watch on the sidelines, with arms folded and sober visages.  Theirs was a mission of intimidation, steadfastness, and pride—Miami’s  perfect season will not be matched.  Not tonight.  Not tomorrow.  Not ever.  It was an event made for the moment—ABC’s Monday Night Football was the only national telecast of NFL games; CBS and NBC aired games regionally.

The Dolphins beat the Bears 38-24.  Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino had an outstanding game:

  • Completed 14 of 27 passes
  • Threw for three touchdowns
  • Total yards:  270

Chicago Tribune sports columnist Bernie Lincicome tried to put things in perspective.

“So much for immortality,” wrote Lincicome.

“Not to underrate history, but the Bears did not lose a season in the Orange Bowl Monday night, they merely lost a game, and they already have so many.”

The day after, the Bears recorded “The Super Bowl Shuffle”—this rap song became a signature of the Bears’ brashness.  When the music video aired, it showed the Bears wearing their jerseys and singing in a studio.  If cockiness bled through the song’s lyrics, confidence poured.  Perhaps it was the right time for a diversion; the Bears won the remaining games in the schedule, dominated the playoffs, and beat the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on January 25, 2017.

The Landmark Case of Ludtke vs. Kuhn

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

In the 1970s—the decade of disco, Watergate, and bell bottom pants—the women’s rights movement escalated to a new level, continuing a legacy ignited by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Ida Harper.

Billie Jean King’s defeat of Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match underscored the women’s movement.  More than a sports event, it was, indeed, an occasion of spectacle, news, and social commentary.  “I was playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which is why we should be paid equally,” wrote King in her 2008 book Pressure Is A Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, co-written with Christine Brennan.

Barbara Walters became the first female anchor of a network news broadcast when she combined with Harry Reasoner to co-anchor ABC’s nightly news program, CBS hired Jane Chastain as the first female national sportscaster for NFL games, and Melissa Ludtke became the first female journalist allowed in a Major League Baseball team’s locker room.

Ludtke’s journey took her through a legal battle that highlighted an additional burden for women to compete in sports journalism.  It hinged on equal access to athletes, coaches, and managers—if the locker room paradigm excluded female reporters, then they would not have the same opportunity as male reporters to get quotes, insights, and background information from players.  A level playing field, pardon the expression, would not exist.

“We saw the women’s movement emerging in the political realm and the nation had just come out of the civil rights movement,” says Ludtke, then a reporter for Sports Illustrated.  “In our court case, we relied on the Fourteenth Amendment and a number of precedents developed in legal arguments and judicial decisions about racial discrimination.”

Ludtke’s lawsuit for equal access took her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  In Ludtke vs. Kuhn, Judge Constance Baker Motley—who had argued many key civil rights cases as an NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Attorney—reasoned, “By definition, female reporters who are excluded from baseball clubhouses are not given the same access to the news and newsmakers as their male colleagues and competitors.  This denial of equal access places female reporters at a severe competitive disadvantage because they miss stories witnessed or heard by male reporters inside the clubhouse, because they are unable to take advantage of the group questioning inside the clubhouse and because they are unable to talk to some players at all.”

One of the defendants, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, led the policy of exclusion.  At issue in Judge Motley’s court were privacy for players, due process, and state action—a financial connection between New York City and Yankee Stadium had been established during the rebuilding of the iconic ballpark in the mid-1970s.  Kuhn’s positions suffered under legal scrutiny.

Motley ruled, “The undisputed facts show that the Yankees’ interest in protecting ballplayer privacy may be fully served by much less sweeping means than than implemented here.  The court holds that the state action complained of unreasonably interferes with plaintiff Ludtke’s fundamental right to pursue her profession in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on July 12, 2016.

“Ball Four Goes Hollywood”

Tuesday, March 7th, 2017

When Jim Bouton’s book Ball Four hit bookshelves in 1970, it exploded myths, revealed secrets, and offered tales of baseball, theretofore kept protected from the public.  If reporters knew about Mickey Mantle’s alcohol problem, for example, they didn’t cover it.  Womanizing, drug use, and clubhouse conflicts were other Ball Four topics, once forbidden from baseball scholarship.

It infuriated Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, betrayed long-observed rules of the locker room, and relieved reporters of the pressure to keep quiet on what they saw, heard, and learned.

And the public ate it up, shooting Ball Four to the best-seller list.

A right-handed pitcher, Bouton broke into the major leagues with the New York Yankees in 1962, ending the season at 7-7.  His next two seasons showed terrific promise:

  • 21-7 in 1963
  • 18-13 in 1964
  • 2 wins in the 1964 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals

Thereafter, not so much.  Bouton spent seven seasons in pinstripes, then played for the Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros in 1969.  He stayed with Houston in 1970, his last season, presumably.  A comeback with the Atlanta Braves in 1978 resulted in a 1-3 record; his career was over.

Bouton finished his career with a 3.57 Earned Run Average, 720 strikeouts, and a 62-63 record.  In Ball Four, co-authored with sports writer Leonard Shecter, Bouton captured his season with the Seattle Pilots, in addition to a sprinkling of tales about Mantle et al. during his tenure in the south Bronx.

In 1976, CBS aired an eponymous television series based on Ball Four.  The Tiffany Network, so called because of its quality programming, revolutionized television in the 1970s.  M*A*S*H combined comedy and pathos in its tales of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.  Authored by a MASH surgeon named Richard Hornberger, whose pen name was Richard Hooker, the 1968 novel M*A*S*H was, in a sense, like Bouton’s Ball Four.  Readers learned a first-hand perspective of war’s horrors beyond anything digested before in books, films, or television shows.  A 1970 film followed, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall; the television series began in 1972, ran for 11 seasons, and racked up Emmy Award with the dependability of Cookie Monster devouring cookies.

All in the Family incorporated the Vietnam War, Watergate, and civil rights into dialogue that balanced humor, intelligence, and topicality.  Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, became a lovable bigot who saw his sure-fire patriotism threatened by the zeitgeist personified by his daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike Stivic.

Mary Tyler Moore, starring the actress famed for playing housewife Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show a decade prior, featured the comedic tales of Mary Richards, a single professional woman working as a television news producer in Minneapolis.  Before Mary showed she could “turn the world on with a smile,” as the show’s theme song indicated, it was rare to see a single woman as the central character of a television show.

Ball Four did not fall under the umbrella of groundbreaking television shows, despite its literary lineage.  Five episodes aired, starring Jim Bouton as Jim Barton of the Washington Americans, a fictional baseball team.  It was, to be sure, a thinly veiled portrayal.  To the dismay, worry, and scorn of his teammates, Barton takes notes for an upcoming series of articles in Sports Illustrated.  In her review of Ball Four for Sports Illustrated, Melissa Ludtke wrote, “The mediocrity of the opening show is particularly unfortunate because Bouton had hoped to give a true portrayal of his baseball experiences in the series.  Pill-popping, religion and women sports-writers in the locker room and homosexuality are some of the issues that he would like to cover.”

Bouton co-created the television series with Marvin Kitman and Vic Ziegel.  Harry Chapin performed the theme song, offering wistful lyrics with his trademark guitar playing as a soft complement.  Ben Davidson, a former professional football player who made Goliath seem like one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, played Rhino, the Americans’ catcher.  As a defensive end, Davidson tore through offenses in the AFL and the NFL from 1961 to 1971; he played with the Portland Storm of the WFL in 1974.

Hollywood became a second calling for Davidson, who became a household name in the infamous “Less Filling, Tastes Great” television commercials of the 1970s and the 1980s for Miller Lite.  Bob Uecker, Mickey Spillane, and John Madden were among the other sports personalities in these humorous commercials.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 8, 2016.

Letterman, Leno, and Late Night

Monday, May 25th, 2015

RemingtonTonight, the first full week without David Letterman in late night television begins.

(more…)

You’ve Gotta Be A Football Hero

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

In 1964, Brian Piccolo was the top college football rusher in the country.  His success capped a terrific college football career at Wake Forest.  Surprisingly, his credentials did not impress any NFL team during the draft.  Fourteen teams.  Twenty rounds.  No draft pick.  Ultimately, Chicago Bears owner George Halas signed Piccolo as a free agent.  Piccolo soon discovered that he had cancer, specifically, embryonal cell carcinoma; he died in 1970 at the age of 26.

(more…)

James Bond: Spoofs, Parodies, and Parallels

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then James Bond should be very flattered indeed.

(more…)

“Let Them Play!”

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Baseball is a beautiful game, largely because it has no clock determining its end.  An NFL team has 45 seconds to execute an offensive play.  An NBA team, 24 seconds.  But baseball has no time limit.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training illustrated this point with the help of an inspirational chant, a defiant kid, and Bob Watson.

(more…)