False Starts 

Out of the gate, '97 looks slow

Out of the gate, '97 looks slow

The Christmas decorations aren’t all back in the basement yet, people are still struggling to remember to write “97” instead of “96” on their checks. But we’ve already had time to acknowledge the emerging personality of this new year in sports: It sucks.

Sure, it’s early, but in just two weeks sportswatchers in Nashville have been treated to more losers than Montel’s studio audience. It’s hard to remember a sports year that began in such dispiriting, whopperdejawed fashion. Consider a few of the major busts so far:

The Super Bowl. Just as the image-obsessed NFL was bracing itself for a Super Bowl return by the coke-snorting, pistol-packing, Beamer-driving Dallas Cowboys, along came the just-out-of-diapers Carolina Panthers to dope-slap them out of the playoffs. Over in the Alternative Football Conference, just when it appeared that the Denver Broncos or the Buffalo Bills might uglify another Super Sunday, the young-Turk Jacksonville Jaguars put a hoodoo on both of them.

Suddenly, improbably, hopes glimmered that Our National Holiday might for once offer something genuinely exciting—an unprecedented Super Bowl between two second-year teams. The stunning but not fluky successes of the Panthers and Jaguars created a buzz around the NFL, where you could almost hear the sound of sphincters tightening among general managers at a loss to explain why their own more established teams hadn’t fared as well.

Reality reasserted itself last Sunday, and both of the upstarts were unceremoniously flushed from the system. Now we’re left with Green Bay and New England, who may be greeted with snores except in Green Bay and New England. Among the network moguls and marketing gurus, the demographically incorrect Pats-Packers matchup is as eagerly awaited as a barium enema.

True, no player deserves a title more than Green Bay’s Reggie White does, and the Pack’s amiably goofy cadre of wedge-wearing Cheeseheads always makes for appealing crowd shots. But a Super Bowl with two overachieving whippersnappers would have been a lot more interesting—and it would have spared us all the forthcoming sentimental slop about one of football’s most hypercompetitive gasbags, Vince Lombardi.

The Bowl Games. In their quest to preserve the ancien régime against the popular groundswell for a college football playoff, the Bowl Coalition boys thought they had rigged a contraption that would have taxed the ingenuity of Rube Goldberg. Even without the cooperation of the Rose Bowl, which has since pledged the fraternity, the Coalition’s inscrutable system was clearly concocted to produce a sure-fire consensus champeen.

Florida achieved that distinction this year, not because of the system. Instead, the nation’s media geniuses simply concluded that the Gators’ 32-point Sugar Bowl victory was all the evidence they needed; then they quickly adjourned to the nearest saloon.

Logic and equity, however, weren’t on the Coalition’s side, since four other teams besides Florida (Ohio State, Florida State, Arizona State, and BYU) finished with only one loss. The Gators may have been the NCAA’s finest team, but they never had to prove their case against all the other claimants.

For now, the Bowl weevils are giddy over their apparent success, but time is against them. Years after playoffs are entrenched we may regard 1997 as the bowl season that finally demonstrated that a tournament was fairer and more sensible (not to mention the fact that it was bazillions more lucrative).

The Media. You’d think that after the case of Richard Jewell, former bombing suspect and soon-to-be legal owner of the Atlanta Constitution, the media geniuses would have figured out that fitting the profile isn’t the same as doing the crime. But no-o-o.

As soon as an accusation of rape was leveled against the Cowboys’ Michael Irvin and Erik Williams, the media jumped on them like state legislators on free barbecue. With Irvin and Williams, who haven’t exactly lived like St. Francis, a rape at gunpoint wasn’t beyond plausibility, and the sheer volume of the news reports, while strictly accurate, created a presumption of guilt. Then, when the charge proved utterly fabricated, no one seemed more surprised than the press, who whined that the whole thing had been the fault of overzealous cops.

Agents. What Trainspotting did for Edinburgh tourism, Jerry McGuire promises to do for sports agents, who as a class are entirely as reptilian as the movie portrays them to be. Although Jerry and his client transform themselves into sympathetic characters, and despite professions of “having the kwan,” no one in the film—owners, players, agents—makes you doubt that professional sports is anything but a profession, and the world’s oldest one at that. Ultimately, Jerry McGuire will reinforce all those disillusioned fans who are repulsed by the whole sordid sports business, the essence of which is neatly encapsulated by the movie’s memorable mantra: “Show me the money.”

The NBA. If you can follow the switchbacks of one recent trade trail, you’ll be rewarded with a fine view of pro basketball—an asylum where the inmates truly are in command. After much fretting, the Mavericks unloaded their discontented franchise player, Jason Kidd, whose demands stopped just short of being permanently installed on a gilded throne.

The Suns, who snatched up Kidd, promptly cast off ex-Rocket Robert Horry, who made it through barely two months of the season before hurling a sweaty towel (along with a selection of profanities) in the face of his coach during a game.

In exchange for Horry, the Lakers gave up the even flakier Cedric Ceballos, who last year went AWOL to Lake Havasu City when the rigors of the schedule weighed too heavily on his fragile psyche.

Boxing in Nashville. It’s difficult to imagine a more revealing measure of Nashville’s desperation to join the municipal big leagues than its official embrace of Don King’s one-ring circus last weekend. King, who has a sharp eye for chumps and palookas, recognized a fertile opportunity here, and he sought to make the most of it by painting for google-eyed listeners sublime scenarios of Tyson bouts amid Vegas juice and glamour.

The actual event, which bore the Orwellian title “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” landed a little south of the target. Instead of Lenox Lewis and Oliver McCall, Nashville got two British plowhorses. One of the most compelling attractions, Christy Martin, was scratched—not because she was injured as King announced (she wasn’t), but because she didn’t devote enough time to the Don’s prefight medicine show.

In the end, though, Nashvillians may have proved less goobery than King reckoned. They didn’t exactly pack the arena for the event, and in spite of his free turkeys, free haircuts, and celebrity schmoozing, King suggested that this might have been the first place that didn’t make him feel welcome.

Hockey in Nashville. It’s hard to imagine yourself as a serious NHL town when your woebegone minor-league team skates against rivals like the Macon Whoopee, and games are postponed because no one seems able to drive a Zamboni without gouging crevasses in the ice. Yet here our city leaders were this week, with all the dogs and ponies they could round up, trying to convince the NHL Board of Governors that Nashville deserved a spot alongside the Canadiens, the Bruins, and the Rangers.

Music City may even land a team, thanks largely to the elephantine dowry it waved in front of the New Jersey Devils a while back. Still, the hockey commissars must wonder how a second-tier TV market that barely supports its IHL outfit will generate enough ticket sales to nurture a real team—or afford a real Zamboni driver.

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