They lit the Empire State building bright red on Thursday night to celebrate the sudden explosion into prominence of Rutgers football, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world to do. Never mind that Rutgers is not a part of the Empire State, or that no one within fifteen miles of midtown cared one whit this time last year about Rutgers football, nor had they for decades dating back time immemorial. I'm not from New York, and I don't root for New York sports teams, but after six years of living here I have become alarmingly cognizant of the devious methods of those who do. Including hockey, there are nine major professional sports franchises in the immediate area. Also college basketball: the St. Johns Redmen, the Manhattan Jaspers. There is Army football, there is minor league baseball. The MLS Metro Stars. There are local heroes of individual sports like boxing and tennis. Somewhere, someone is always winning. And that — whoever is winning — is what a great many of you New Yorkers elect to concentrate on and enjoy.
Contrast this to Washington, D.C. where I am from. It is often said of the D.C.-Metropolitan area that there are only four stories in local news: the Redskins, traffic, weather, and the Redskins. Try listening to sports talk radio there — if the Redskins play badly, the atmosphere is beyond funereal. Such existential loneliness never occurred in the grimmest writings of Sartre and Camus. There is no silver lining, no effort to mitigate the deep and pointless suffering at the hands of an unfeeling God. Certainly we don't start talking about whether the Wizards beat the Celtics. To the contrary, it is a steadfast and intractable intellectual honesty by which we abide. If the Redskins have a bad day, then we all have a bad day. If their entire season is terrible, then our year's become irredeemably terrible. And if, as has been the case, the Redskins are atrocious for fifteen straight years, then we go insane, build a stadium no one likes forty miles out of town, and allow the Federal government to be overrun by marginal crooks and bigots. That's how true sports fans operate when they don't have six million big ways to win big.
Let me tell you people something: what you're doing here is not right. You can't just decide to jump all over Rutgers football because they are suddenly good for the first time in their hundred-year history. It's perverse! And furthermore, you don't have any time for this. There are plenty of things for you to be completely depressed about. Have any of you stopped your giddy bandwagoneering long enough to take a close look at the horror show that is the New York Knicks? Is there any portion of your future this franchise will not mortgage for a selfish, shoot first point guard? Isn't there anything you can trade for Nick Van Exel? Perhaps ten first round draft picks and the 1970 and 1973 championship banners? I mean, I appreciate that Van Exel's retired, but who else are you going to find to take thirty shoots a game along with Marbury and Stevie Franchise? What other avenues of ruin might be ultimately explored by the crazy clown car of Isiah Thomas and company?
And the Yankees! Abominable. A soulless manifestation of all that is wrong with America — capricious spending which achieves no great end, only mediocrity and disappointment. No championships since 2000 for a team with a 200 million dollar payroll — this is mediocrity in its essence. The cavalier abuses visited upon you by the Red Sox and Detroit Tigers, they were lacerating, scarring. They should linger.
By any sensible standard you should be carrying yourselves with your heads slumped and lifeless, or perhaps simply wandering the streets indiscriminate and mad, holding a yo-yo and muttering the words "Big Papi" and “Kenny Rogers” to likewise befuddled hobos and transients. How famously did the good, weird people of Boston wring their hands over Bucky “F**king” Dent for twenty-five-plus years before finally exorcising the demons with a cathartic playoff rally in 2004? Nothing I have observed leads me to believe such demons torment you Yankees fans, that these outsized failures are burnished into your psyches any longer than is required to import the next big name free agent signing.
Much is made up here about the bitter internecine rivalries between local sports franchises. Mets fans love to bemoan the privileged place afforded the Yankees in local media circles, but from an outsider’s perspective this looks less like the proletariat/ruling class feud it is frequently portrayed as and more like a sissy slap fight at a beauty pageant. One highly lucrative franchise bejeweled with All Stars and future Hall of Famers pitted against another ludicrously profligate organization with a budget several hundred times the size of NASA doesn't exactly bring to mind the most inspiring moments of the French Resistance. Of the high profile teams in this city, there is but one whose fans and fortunes I can relate to, and that is the Jets. This subset of hearty unfortunates strikes me as agreeably cursed, and brinking ever closer to full-scale derangement. Having experienced only the vaguest proximity to real success since the renowned exploits of Joe Namath closing on forty years back, their thinking turns now conspiratorial and bizarre. One of my favorite sidelights of the Herm Edwards era was the ever-accumulating madness surrounding Edwards supposed weakness for “clock management.” This began as a sort of whisper — that the Jets coaching staff used their timeouts poorly and did not run or pass at the appropriate times — and eventually escalated into something resembling a community mathematics symposium. Bereaved callers phoned radio talk shows with pinched and hysterical voices: “How can Herm run the ball on 3rd and 3 with 3:43 left in the half? You have to save the clock in that situation! You have to save time!” By the end of Edward's tenure, I am quite sure it was not football we were discussing, but death itself. One generation of Jets fans had never seen the team win anything of significance, another was suspecting they would die before they ever saw it again. Protect the clock, Herm, please.
Now that I can get into. Fandom is not principally about exultation. It is much more about hurt, betrayal, loss, suffering and ultimately demise. It mirrors our existence in this way, with many promising leads coming to nothing, long periods of flat-line boredom and inaction, and triumphs that should not in any way be mistaken for a natural state or sustainable state. When the championships do arrive, if they ever do, many will note that the joy is suffused with a certain melancholy, or that the question begets another question: “Can we win again next year? Can we win every year?” Of course you can't. Now that the summit has been reached, in almost every case you are now in the process of cycling back down. Something about this notion disagrees with New York. So desirous is the city to bask in the reflected glow of a winner that it heedlessly, conveniently adopts the tangential or totally non-related as it's own. And so I decree: this Rutgers business has to stop. Army just gave up in 43 points in one half to Air Force! There's war going on! So light up the Empire State building yellow and black. Sometimes your true colors are better than the winning ones.