Bye, Bye, Barry - Amazon's take on why Sanders quit football

For many years I've used the same response whenever people around me are discussing professional football:

"I'm a Detroit Lions fan.  I don't watch professional football."

It never fails to get a chuckle because the Lions have been a terrible team for decades.

However, in the early 1990s, there was hope that things would turn around.  Detroit drafted Oklahoma State University running back Barry Sanders, and his arrival electrified the team.

Yet despite a promising start, the Lions regressed, and the only bright spot was Sanders' performance.  Devoid of playoff hopes the fan base instead focused on Sanders becoming the greatest running back in pro football history. 

It was not to be.  On the eve of what would have been his record-breaking season Sanders quit, faxing his retirement to a hometown newspaper before going on vacation in London.

Bye, Bye, Barry is a well-done documentary that outlines Sanders' career, the critical part his father played in his life, and why he quit the way he did.

The film is peppered with highlights demonstrating what a phenomenal athlete Sanders was.  Even now, having watched many of those games, my wife and I were amazed with his evasiveness and skill.  Trying to describe his feline grace and reflexes is all but impossible.

Perhaps even more remarkable is Sanders' personality.  He was - and is - a deeply humble man, the antithesis of a typical NFL superstar.  He famously did not show up in person to accept the Heisman Award, college football's greatest honor.  He refused to take extra carries when games were decided in order to boost his statistics because he had no interest in personal glory.

In an age when touchdown celebrations became obligatory, Sanders simply tossed the to the referee after crossing the goal line.  "Act like you've been there before," was how it was described, though Sanders apparently never said it.

When he quit, Detroit and the sports world in general was thrown into turmoil.  How could the preeminent athlete in America's most popular sport just quit?  If he must quit, could he not hold a press conference?

Bye, Bye Barry answers these questions and I took a bit of pleasure in reading the situation correctly.  At the time, I figured he was tired of losing, tired of the spotlight, and wanted to do something else.

And when he quit, so did I.  I haven't watched an NFL game since.

I greatly enjoyed the film, which evoked the time period and used Motown-style music to conjure up the Spirit of Detroit.

My eerily prescient take on the University of Michigan's football program

The University of Michigan's football program is making a lot of news these days, and none of it is good.  In October, an elaborate scheme for in-person scouting was revealed, and the school is under intense scrutiny both by the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference.  In addition, the FBI is already investigating other crimes which may or may not be related.

For those who don't follow sports, the core of the issue is that a yet unknown number of Michigan staff participated in a what was effectively a spying operation designed to capture the signals and plays of opposing teams.  The goal was to allow Michigan coaches to know exactly what plays were being called and have the perfect response ready at hand. 

Depending on who one asks, this is either only marginally useful, or decisive.  I'm in the latter camp.  From a military perspective, knowing exactly where, when and how an opponent is going to strike is a huge advantage.  Yes, one must still execute, but that's a lot easier if you know what is supposed to happen.

Sending individuals to observe or record these signals has been prohibited since 1994, and for good reason.  At that time, an arms race was breaking out across college football, and everyone was losing.  The wealthy programs chafed at the expense of paying people to go and obtain intelligence; the poor schools lamented their inability to compete, which compounded their competitive disadvantages.

As a result, the practice was banned, and all teams were provided with game film to review.  Some coaches continued to try to monitor play signals during the game, but this was far more difficult.

I mention this because three years ago I talked about All or Nothing, an Amazon documentary about the University of Michigan football program in 2017.   That year Michigan was expected to contend for the national title, but ended up losing to both rivals, and the sense of disappointment was crushing.  By 2020, the situation was even worse, with Head Coach Jim Harbaugh now winless against traditional rival Ohio State and having a losing record against arch-rival Michigan State.  Indeed, Harbaugh chose to hide behind Covid protocols to avoid a sixth consecutive defeat by the Buckeyes.

He was forced to take a major pay cut in order to keep his job.

What I did not know was that one of Harbaugh's responses was turn to a former Marine captain (and Annapolis graduate) for strategic insight - which included the illegal practice of scouting mentioned above.

As noted in the previous post, Harbaugh regularly spoke of "dark side energy," and using anger and aggression to get ahead.  This is clearly what happened, and the scandal is likely to bring long-term damage to both his reputation and that of the university.

There are also criminal implications.  Sports gambling is a billion-dollar industry, and vast sums change hands based on point spreads.  Over the past two and a half year, Michigan consistently defied this, leading to a considerable swing in who got what.  It is not unlikely that someone affiliated with the program knew and profited from this scheme, which stands next to the 1919 World Series in terms of corruption.

How it will play out is anyone's guess, but for those who paid attention, the roots of it were visible as far back as 2017.

Vampires of Michigan - the Roar of '84?

I'm once again binge-watching the early seasons of Miami Vice and I'm thinking it would be fun to set the next installment in the World Series Championship year of 1984.  It's an interesting year for a variety of reasons.  Obviously there is the George Orwell angle, but 1984 marked a rare moment of unity in American politics.  The notion of a a presidential candidate carrying 49 states is inconceivable today.

Whether looking at Cold War politics, cultural differences and of course the far superior music and entertainment, I think it would be fun.

As to the plot...well, that's yet to be determined.  I've got a couple of ideas and I'm sure some of the same characters will be represented. 

Of course, nothing may come of it, but that's the fun of being a novelist - not just the ideas that are completed, but the ones that are tossed around for fun.

Returning to the stadium

After a three-year hiatus, tomorrow I will join the remaining alumni and once more take the field in Spartan Stadium.

The reunion of 2019, so soon after my near-death experience, brought me profound spiritual healing.  I do not know how tomorrow will go, but I look forward to see the old sights and play the old songs once more.

Tradition is a powerful force in culture.  As Americans, we are less rooted than other societies, but we still feel its pull.  That is why we have our own unique rituals - largely secular, but mystical in their power to comfort us and create a sense of continuity.

The 2019 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan State Bands, and 900 seasoned musicians took the field in a major show of strength.  Tomorrow less than half of that will show up, no doubt in part because so many older people have succumbed to illness.

And yet the tradition continues, and another link is added to the chain because it was ever so.

Fall traditions in a time of turmoil

Last night Michigan State opened its football season to a packed house.  The "tradition" of a Friday night game before Labor Day weekend is a new one, only going back a decade or so.  It was not particularly popular, but it seems to be catching on.

East Lansing was hopping last night, and that's a good thing.

I took a few moments to wander outside and listen to the echoes of the game through my quiet neighborhood.  Traffic was light as everyone paused to see whether the Spartans could hold off a second-half rally by Western Michigan.  They did, and I'm sure the local lockup has plenty of overzealous revelers as a result.

If I could describe the mood it would be one of desperately wanted to get back to normal, to forget everything outside of having a good time.  For a few hours, politics fades away and the only question that divides people is what team they're rooting for - a tribalism of the best sort.

We need more of this, and while it's inevitable that election commercials will intrude upon my football watching today, I'll have a quick trigger on the remote to keep them at bay.

I'm also relieved that public schools are finally maskless and places of teenage drama rather than temples of fear and anxiety.  Kids can be resilient, but they need a break from constant warnings of doom for that to kick in. 

It's easy to overlook these things, but when we lost them, we learned how important they are.  Hopefully the lesson will stick around.

College football returns

I don't watch the NFL.  I'm a Lions fan.

I do, however, enjoy a bit of the college game.  In fact, I used to really enjoy it, watching 12 hours of games each Saturday.

In 2015, I had an unpaid gig as a guest writer on a Big Ten fan site called Off Tackle Empire.  I guess it's still around, but the parent company got downsized.

Anyway, the grind of doing a column each week (without remuneration!) burned me out.  I watched only a couple of games in 2016 before giving it up entirely.  Since MSU's team went into the tank, my timing was perfect.

As a result of that experience, I decided football was something best watched in limited quantities.  I cut the cable, canceled the dish and now I use a portable antenna which sits in a cabinet for most of the year.

I get only a few games, often ones I could care less about, but those are often more enjoyable to watch precisely because you don't get upset when your team loses because you have no team.

The fans seem happy, as do the announcers.  I notice there are a lot fewer commercial breaks, so the games are an hour shorter.  That was another reason I quit:  you'd get two plays and then break for commercial.  Going to a game in person was really obnoxious with all that idleness.

I'm sure viewership was suffering as was in-person attendance, which is where college sports really make their money.  Ticket prices vary by program, but if you get 50,000+ folks to pay to see something, you're bringing in millions of dollars.

I will probably attend the annual alumni gathering in a few weeks, so another fall ritual will be resumed.

The world is still going crazy, but it's nice to have a few touchstones remain in place.

The Foreshadowing of Amazon's "All or Nothing: Michigan Wolverines"

While I'm not the college football obsessive I used to be, I do find it a welcome respite from the increasingly dark news that surrounds us.

This week's news that the University of Michigan had fired one of its assistant coaches caused me to go back and watch Amazon Prime's documentary on the Wolverine football team from 2017.

Their All or Nothing series follows a sports team through the course of a season.   To date, the only college football team to be featured was U of M, though several professional football teams have been filmed.

While 2017 isn't that long ago, in the COVID era it already seems a lost world of packed stadiums and casual dining out.  I'm a Michigan State grad, so I disdain the Wolverines, but the images of fall football in the Good Old Days were painfully tantalizing.

In any event, I found it interesting and recommend it to anyone who watches the sport.  For those who know Michigan Football, the show provides a lot of context to the current controversy in Ann Arbor.  The astute viewer will note how many coaching assistants are no longer there, part of the chronic instability that has marked Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's tenure.

One of the major 'plot lines' of the season was the rotation among starting quarterbacks.  It's easy to look up, but I won't give any spoilers since even knowing how things turned out, I forgot the exact way things happened and found it gripping drama.

What I wish to emphasize is that beyond the disappointments of that fateful year, a series of other disappointments were waiting.  The show focuses on the then-current three quarterbacks, but in the background are others who will also in good time leave the program as well.  The season was not unique in that respect.

The University of Michigan demanded to have the final cut of the series, so the finished product is officially endorsed.  I find it fascinating to see how perceptions differ.  What one person thinks makes them look good may come across as completely obnoxious to everyone else.  That is certainly the case here.

Here are two examples of that.

The first is that during the games, the film crew was able to catch audio from featured players on the field.  This allows the audience to hear the taunts and bragging they hurled at opposing players.  I think this is supposed to humanize them, or make us enjoy their swagger, but I found that it made them less sympathetic.  Taunting a lesser opponent is cruel.  Taunting one who ultimately beats you is poetic justice.  Neither is a good look, but for whatever reason, Michigan Football wants people to see this.

The other item was the fundamental darkness of Jim Harbaugh's mind and his mentality.  He seems to be following the Darth Vader Dark Side school of motivation.  From his first pep talk in Episode 1, Harbaugh emphasizes using anger and rage to fuel excellence.  His white board diagrams and quotes are all about channeling hate.

One white board in the final episode has "addition by subtraction' prominently featured, which he's definitely followed in years since.

Coaches often resort to shouting and hyperbole to obtain motivation, but is "changing anxiety to aggression" really good life advice?

Having watched the show, I now have a better understanding of what's happening within Michigan's troubled football program.  It may come as a surprise to some, but I also developed sympathy for the players and fans.  Conversely, the show also confirmed that my dislike of both is not merely a rivalry, but rooted in their attitude and actions.