Sunday, September 11, 2005

Forgive The Lions Fan Because He Does Not Know What He Does

(the following column can also be viewed at RetailDetroit.com, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to www.RetailDetroit.com and click on "Columnists")

Since 1957, when Dwight Eisenhower was president and one didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to fill up one’s gas tank, the Lions have had: one (1) playoff victory, and one (1) Pro Bowl quarterback.

So, naturally, the 2005 home opener against Green Bay was sold out, as will probably be every home game this season. Just think what would happen if Detroit ever saw a football winner.

I have seen this town go mad and get violent over a World Series victory, and jump on cars because of basketball championships and cry because of a Stanley Cup they never thought they’d see, but I can guarantee you that you won’t ever see anything like it when the Lions win a Super Bowl.

Detroit is still a baseball town at its heart, no matter what you say. It always has been and always will be. It just has gotten buried amidst all the stench the Tigers have spread over the last 12 seasons. But there have been two World Series flags won since the last Lions championship in 1957, and two more divisional titles, and though that’s not all that impressive in general terms, it is positively a boon when compared to the football achievements. And while baseball is #1 in Detroit, football is not all that far behind (sorry, Hockeytown folks). That’s why I believe a Super Bowl victory would set off a celebration here that would be New Year’s Eve in Times Square and Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland all rolled into one, and then some.

It’s fitting and proper to be bringing this up now because the Lions are about to embark on another NFL season of almost certain futility, yet the fans keep snapping up every available seat at Ford Field as if their team had a long tradition of winning. They even sell out those silly, meaningless preseason games, at full boat no less.

But at the end of this season it won’t really matter because the Lions will not be in the Super Bowl -- once again, they probably won’t be in the playoffs -- once again, and they may not even have a winning record -- once again.
The Cardinals, whether they were in Chicago or St. Louis or Arizona, have been just as unsuccessful as the Lions since ‘57, and they have played to their deserved share of sparse crowds. Other teams, when the going gets tough, see their fans get going -- the other way. But with very few exceptions, the Lions have enjoyed playing before capacity or near-capacity crowds, even when they played in the cavernous Silverdome, with its fire marshal-approved 80,000 seat limit.

So why does this town keep supporting such a consistent loser?

If you were to call in a team of psychiatrists and analysts and Dr. Phil, they’d have a field day with the average Lions fan, and with good reason. What they would find is a cocktail of hope, despair, anger, loyalty and resentment. I’m surprised professional journals haven’t been written on the subject. It surely would be a fascinating project for a bored shrink.

It’s not just limited to Lions fans, of course -- this preoccupation with a loser. Just ask a Cubs fan, for example, why he keeps the faith in a team that hasn’t won a World Series in almost 100 years. Before last season, you could do the same with a Red Sox backer.

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...there’s no question Mr. Ford wants to win; he just has gone about it very poorly at times.
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The Lions fan keeps coming back for more -- in droves -- because God has blessed the supporters of such drab teams with the ability to reset their brains back to zero after each successive losing season. Oh, they will still moan and complain about how long it’s been since football has really been fun around here, but as soon as the new season begins, it’s all about what needs to happen or who needs to do what in order to nudge the Lions into the playoffs. Some might call it undying loyalty; more likely it’s simply irrational behavior.

I attended a portion of the Lions’ Monday night exhibition against the Rams a couple weeks ago, and rarely had the team looked so pathetic. Quite a statement, I know, about a franchise that hasn’t won the Big One in nearly 50 years, but there you have it. Anyhow, boos rained down from the comfy seats of Ford Field, and the whole ghoulish display was on national TV, for all the nation to see. Even John Madden of ABC, who is paid seven figures a year to utter such things, remarked that it looked like the Rams were going up against "a bunch of Pop Warner kids."

So what happened the very next morning? Tickets went on sale for seats left over after the season ticket holders got their fair share of abuse, and don’t you know, those things got snatched up quicker than a plate of doughnuts at Refrigerator Perry’s house. And how much do you want to bet that many of those ticket buyers are also the ones moaning that owner Bill Ford isn’t committed to winning? First of all, would you be all that committed if your house was sold out regardless of the product in it? Second, there’s no question Mr. Ford wants to win; he just has gone about it very poorly at times. It says here the old man has finally gotten it right with Matt Millen, by the way. Soon the W’s will outnumber the L’s, in case you were wondering. But then again, I am also a Lions fan.

Author Robert Creamer had a wonderful take on the loyalty and faith of Red Sox fans and their inevitable disappointments when he said, "There is something about being a Red Sox fan that doesn’t just equate itself to losing, but losing in the most dramatic, heartbreaking fashion." Well, the Lions haven’t necessarily lost in dramatic, heartbreaking fashion over the years; they have just lost, period. And yet the fans keep coming back for more. So what must the lust for winning be if the craving for losing football appears to be so insatiable?

Dr. Phil, are you reading?

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