Arena Football Must Remain A Sanctuary From The NFL

By this time tomorrow, Punxsutawney Phil will have told us when spring will arrive. Groundhog Day is always a top-five day on my calendar, but not so much for the prognostication. Even if Phil sees his shadow there’s only six more weeks of winter, and that’s not hard to take. No, Groundhog Day is about anticipation.

Phil gets me thinking about what lies ahead – one of those out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mentalities. The new, of course, is the coming arena football season. Regardless of the whereabouts of a groundhog’s shadow tomorrow morning, the IFL will nevertheless kick off three weeks from tonight, and this is as timely an occasion as any to launch another season of Fifty Yarder.

But Groundhog Day is also a time to pick up the dirty laundry the NFL has strewn about during another interminable fortnight leading up to the Super Bowl. This past two weeks featured all the trimmings of Pro Bowlers in hoodies snapping on-field selfies, clownish media speculation over who’s going to retire after the game, and of course, endless debate on why Maroon 5 would perform at an event sponsored by an organization that doesn’t care to wash Colin Kaepernick’s testicles.

And this doesn’t take into account the bitchfest that often surrounds one or both participants heading into the final game. In the last four years, the Colts, Cowboys, Lions, and Ravens have all cried foul after being presented their red rose. Last year the Jaguars joined the fracus, insisting they, too, were robbed of a Super Bowl appearance. This year, it’s the Saints. New Orleans fans want to sue the NFL, Terrell Owens is lobbying for Drew Brees to get a mulligan, and the general consensus of the self-appointed intelligentsia is that the Rams don’t deserve to be here. Then there’s the ever-present implication that the Patriots must have cheated their way in, so they shouldn’t be here either.

As far as I’m concerned, they can’t pull that rodent out of his richly-appointed burrow in Punxsutawney fast enough tomorrow morning.

For a league that epitomizes strength, fortitude, and grit, the NFL has infested itself with a legion of players, ex-players, staffs, and fan bases who lack either the strength, fortitude, or grit to accept defeat. It’s always someone else’s fault. This two-week path to reach the far side of the NFL season has become a corridor traversing the rings of Hell, and it’s lined with the wretch of the hypersensitive and the butt-hurt whose wailing and gnashing of teeth make for a worse audio experience than listening to Willie Nelson on Quaaludes. And invariably, it passes through New England.

It seems unimaginable that we’re still talking about two innocuous events that the dregs of football – predominantly ESPN – have immortalized by tagging each with a “gate” suffix. Spygate was less some covert operation to break the enemy’s code than it was a very overt and ill-advised positioning of a camera at an “unauthorized location” recording what even 80,000 people in Giants Stadium could see from their seats. Deflategate may or may not have involved the deflation of footballs that a sloppy officiating crew may or may not have overinflated in the first place as they’d been prone to do, but this was less about the Ideal Gas Law than about Roger Goodell’s ego all along.

Each year, these “gates” take on a more diabolical legend. On Monday, a Pittsburgh CBS affiliate labeled Tom Brady a “known cheater,” which could have elicited a dismissive chuckle had it not originated in the very city whose head coach deliberately interfered with an opposing player in live game action a few short years ago. But, hey, Steeler Fan needs something to explain why arguably the most talented team in the NFL becomes a couch potato every January.

Each year, we also have to hear from a host of ex-St. Louis Rams players who bit on a fake news story and nevertheless grow more convinced they were cheated out of a ring by Belichick & Co. because that’s easier than looking at themselves in the mirror and manning up. It’s become an unexpected source of pride that Panthers fans didn’t stoop to these levels three years later, even as Patriots blaming became the Get Out Of Jail Card for the rest of the league.

Each year, we find more ways to point to the Patriots for our failures and call them undeserving. And each year, they play on the first Sunday of February.

Maybe this year we can learn from our childish behavior, lest we endure the fate of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character Phil Connors, the TV weatherman who spent most of the movie in self-pity mode and lashing out at others while missing the beauty right in front of him. He was forced to repeat everything until he finally changed, and that’s what the Patriots are doing to us. They’re a fifty-year storm that, by definition, you won’t see again for a long time. Embrace the beauty of a dynasty if you will, but respect the Patriots you must. Denying them their various greatest-of-all-time superlatives because of frivolities is like denying that Abe Lincoln was the greatest American of all time because he overcharged that poor woman back at old Mr. Offutt’s store.

Fifty Yarder was started ten months ago to celebrate the indoor game as a means of holding us over until outdoor football resumes. This year, more than ever, we’ll celebrate it as a sanctuary from the petty jealousies of an NFL that grows far too soft on the outside, as tough as it may still be within.

Excepting the sensitivities of the occasional semi-pro up north and the overweight ascribed to NAL referees in determining games played in Columbus, what ails the upper echelons of football has not yet seeped into our arenas, and we need to keep it that way. So tomorrow morning, once the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club conducts their annual passage of winter and packs Phil away for another year, let’s do the same with our pettiness and enjoy the upcoming indoor season.

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