NFL’s Oakland raid means Dons’ stigma goes on

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Pic courtesy of djfpaagman

I believe the excellent football magazine When Saturday Comes still maintains the traditional exclusion of MK Dons from its season preview.

All other Premier and Football League clubs are allocated a capsule covering their prospects but not the Buckinghamshire club, which was infamously formed in 2004, after businessmen decided that a football club is purely about assets, and not at all about location. As Wimbledon FC withered on the vine in south London, plans to relocate it to Dublin condensed into the not so evocative reality of a 70-mile move north to Milton Keynes. With the new home came a new name and colour scheme and Wimbledon’s alter ego was up and running.

If you’re American, this was business as usual for professional sport. If you’re English, on the other hand, it was unprecedented in living memory, alien to the tribalism that underpins our national game and, perhaps most significantly,  it opened a door on laterally-mobile franchises that many football people would rather was welded shut forever.

That was what assured MK Dons of a long and rocky road towards acceptance, as manifested by the When Saturday Comes boycott. It wasn’t a desire for revenge on the innocent football lovers of Milton Keynes, but a dread of normalising the intolerable, lest it become fashionable.

And as much as some Dons’ fans like to characterise grudging tolerance of their club as the last lingering rant of old men in end-of-world sandwich boards, the case against ‘Franchise FC’ and its lamentable origins were only given a fresh lick of paint by this week’s goings-on in the United States.

A vote by NFL owners last week means that Las Vegas will have a new American football team in 2019. Only it won’t.

That’s because Las Vegas is getting Oakland’s team. Not because fans of the Oakland Raiders have found that they have better things to do with their autumnal Sundays, but because the Californian city happens to have a mayor with a backbone.

When the Raiders attempted to execute the disgusting shakedown that passes for ‘best practice’ in American pro sports, namely, “Give us untold millions of taxpayers’ money towards a new stadium or we’ll jump town,” Mayor Libby Schaaf asked if they needed help with their packing.

Six hundred miles to the east, alas, civic leaders are made of less formidable stuff. Nevada’s state legislature will donate $750m from civic coffers towards the $1.9bn price tag of the Raiders’ new stadium in Sin City. Hopefully those same leaders will now field calls all day long from voters wanting to know how the state’s generosity squares with Las Vegas’s current schools crisis, caused by – you guessed it – lack of funding.

Two fine articles have been penned here and here, highlighting other economic holes that traditionally riddle these sweetheart deals, like the discrepancy often found between predicted local revenues to be generated by the incoming team and the numbers that actually emerge (the Raiders new stadium will host only eight regular-season games, after all) and the ‘reverse Robin Hood’ scenario that sees public money used to generate profit for private investors.

And all this is before we disregard the financial aspect altogether and consider the simple aesthetics of these city-swaps. It can be hard enough maintaining affinity to a professional football club in Britain when its players change wholesale from one season to the next, yet imagine a league in which clubs themselves become migrants.

By way of analogy, I’d invite those of you with happy marriages, to visualise them having been subject to one small change at the outset – the words “’til death do us part” being replaced with “’til I get a better offer.”

With the best will in the world, I suspect the relationship that followed would have struggled to reach quite the same heights.

So you’ll have to excuse us, MK Dons supporters. It really is nothing personal, but we will never rule a line under the way in which your club came into being. Because we don’t want people getting ideas.

As America shows us, you see, franchise relocation is like smoking: it’s habit-forming and it usually stinks.

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Superbowl mustn’t become bitter-sweet for Patriots

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Tom Brady (pic courtesy of Keith Allison)

I know only the bare facts of ‘Deflategate, and the sense of enduring injustice it has instilled in the New England Patriots and their nailed-on Hall of Fame Quarterback, Tom Brady.

On the other hand, I know only too well how quickly the moral high ground  can be abandoned, once people start acting like they own it, and I spy a potential eviction this evening, should a Patriots win in Superbowl LI open the floodgates on the grievance that has driven their season.

Has there ever been a Superbowl like this among the previous 50, I wonder, where the contest’s most talked about  head-to-head involves one man who won’t even be suiting up, never mind playing a down?

The sight of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – who banned Brady for the first four games of this season, for his alleged complicity in the affair – handing the championship trophy to the Patriots’ owners, while Brady and coach Bill Belichick smile the smiles of avenged men in the background, has acquired the status of the Promised Land in the eyes of many Patriots’ fans.

If Goodell though he would effectively torpedo New England’s season with that ban, goes the Patriots’ narrative, he will, at that moment, be forced to concede a humiliating defeat.

It’s a line I can understand but at the same time, I don’t get it. Assuming Goodell has merely followed due process in both investigating and passing sentence for the doctored footballs (although I suspect books could be written on that aspect alone) the fate of a team and its quarterback who have done their time shouldn’t bother him in the slightest. He’s there merely to apply the rules: what happens after that is down to the game itself.

No, others can worry for Goodell. It’s the Patriots I’m worried about. You only have to see how NFL players succumb to near-religious ecstasy after a mere sack or interception, to fear for how some Patriots might react if tonight’s game does indeed settle a festering score in a manner straight out of Hollywood.

In the heat of such a moment could lie the acid test of whether Brady and Belichick possess Hall of Fame character to go with their Hall of Fame numbers. There are too many nose-holding moments in professional sport. Another one this evening would be tinged with genuine sadness.

Just to be on the safe side, go Falcons.

Are you listening, politicians?

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Joe Flacco (pic courtesy of Keith Allison)

What a refreshing change from that tired old cop-out beloved of politicians beating a tactical retreat before the brown stuff hits the fan.

“…is leaving politics to spend more time with his family…”

Yeah, right.

Good on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, then, for keeping it real when explaining why he looks forward to the widely-perceived chore of the NFL’s de-camping to Wembley Stadium next year, as part of an expanded International Series.

It mightn’t do much for his New Man credentials, but you can’t fault his honesty.

“I have four kids now. That’s probably why I’m looking at it a bit more optimistically. It’ll be good to get away from them.”

‘Tis the season that makes football

 

11043538415_6ab3729c17_z-1Call it traitorous if you want: this is one Brit for whom mists, Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes night do not define autumn.

While I’m no longer as mesmerised by America as I was as a child, this may be the last context in which I stand wholly with Uncle Sam. Autumn is football.

Their football, that is, with its helmets and acts of seismic violence that somehow fall within the parameters of the rules. If there is one consolation for shortening days and disintegrating weather each year, it is for me the militaristic mayhem of the gridiron and the accompanying facets of a dying year. The brilliant sunshine and bright uniforms of September, easing into the russet colours of autumn, onwards to the early Christmas of Thanksgiving and, for those of us Over Here, the unique thrill of NFL action at tea time on a Thursday.

After this comes December and a non-stop pageant of bowl games with which the college football season takes its leave. There are so many of these showcase climaxes now that all but a handful of them seem meaningless, yet at a time of year when people play party games and drink drinks that they normally wouldn’t look at twice,  bowl games fit perfectly.

And then, because God saw that the weeks immediately after Christmas could be the most awful anti-climax, he bestowed one of his greatest blessings upon humanity – the NFL play-offs and the Superbowl. Any sport that makes even a foreigner go from loathing January to loving it has performed a great service.

And yet as I contemplate this glorious five-month parade, I realise that the experience is underpinned by a certain humility. American football knows its place – September to January – and in the main it sticks to it. Between each season, there is ample time to draw breath, savour what just happened and – most importantly of all – renew your hunger for the season to come.

Remind you of our football, over here? No, of course it doesn’t. British soccer doesn’t have seasons, it has years, all 12 months and 365 days of them. The NFL champions get six months to relish their achievement. The Premier League winners get six weeks.

With no other sport capable of picking up the slack in the interim, of course, a six month hiatus is out of the question over here but the other extreme is no less unsatisfying. Every time I watch them hoist that Premier League trophy aloft, the ageing cynic in me wonders what the big fuss can be, given such a whistle-stop timescale. So you or won or lost a title: big deal, there’ll be another one along in a minute.

The moment one of his cars won a Formula One Grand Prix, team owner Frank Williams once confided, all he cared about was the next race. I would never want to be that man – savouring triumph is part of living – and I resent the way soccer imposes that mentality upon me.

We are never free of it. One way or another, whether June has an international tournament going on or not, the game dogs us all year. For all that Sky Sports and its pet pastime have devoured the American way of packaging and presenting ‘the product’, the idea that the word ‘season’ needs to mean something seems doomed to be the one lesson they will never grasp.

And so two sports with the same name remind me of the Prodigal Son parable. There’s one son who’s out in the world for much of the year, making his way in life. When he shows up for family occasions, there’s a spring in the step of his parents as they rush to greet him.

The other son, meanwhile, is under their feet all day. Nice lad, not short of talent but just seems to drift a bit, you know?

As any parent will tell you, both sons are equally loved, but one of them arouses the emotion a little more readily than the other.

[Pic courtesy of Erik Drost]