Michael Vick and The Knucklehead, Or A Football Interlude

Note: I write this in the midst of the 2013 World Series, as my beloved Red Sox are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals at one game each. Though I tell myself and my friends that my team has already surpassed my hopes and expectations for them after a disastrous 2012 season, that I am proud to support a group of players that actually seem to be committed to playing baseball, I am a wreck. Because I am a Red Sox fan, I am never truly at peace except in the ashes of catastrophe. Even now, I’m not entirely sure the Yankees can’t somehow rob us of this. So in an attempt to get my mind off the agony of a great season, culminating in a legitimate challenge to the National League’s finest, I’m going to write what’s likely to be my only post about American football.
     The Knucklehead is 14.
     I’m a casual football fan, in the way that your average Somali refugee is a casual Sandra Bullock fan.  It’s not that I have anything terribly against American football, I just have other things on my mind. On any given post-World Series Sunday, I’ll tune into whatever game is on the “pretty channel” (my term for one of the few HD channels our cable package allots us), but it’ll be with the sound off, the iPod on shuffle, and one of the Sunday crosswords on my lap.* The Knucklehead shows slightly more interest and knowledge than me, so for him, I’ll sometimes turn the sound on. If he wants. We all have our teams; The Knucklehead his Colts, my Bride her Steelers, and me my Eagles, though you’d have to search the house fairly thoroughly for physical evidence of this. I say all this in the interest of full disclosure: neither my heart nor my wallet are especially invested in an NFL team. I must admit that the Heresy which follows was a lot easier for me than it would be for most other American dudes.
     Weeks earlier, the news broke that the Philadelphia Eagles had signed Michael Vick. To me, this was intolerable. To be fair, I might have been more forgiving if I’d been a lifetime Eagles fan, steeped in the team’s history and tradition, and accepting this as a mere blip in the story of the franchise. But maybe not. After all, thanks to my Bride, I’m the co-owner of a beautiful, loving, and noble Pit Bull, and as our dear Libby is as much a part of our pack as either I, my Bride, or The Knucklehead, my loyalties are much more with her than an NFL corporation. So I couldn’t, in good conscience, continue to root for a team that hired a man who’d essentially overseen the torture of defenseless animals. (And I don’t want to hear that Vick’s “paid his debt”; being paid millions to play a game isn’t a right, it’s a privilege; Vick can earn a living working like the rest of us. And while the Eagles are certainly entitled to employ him or anyone else, there’s no law, moral or otherwise, that requires me to cheer for him or his team.) So I was left without a favorite football team, which left me a little bit adrift.
     Like I said, I’m not the most football-knowledgeable guy on the planet, but I like to watch the occasional game, and it’s a lot more fun if you have somebody to cheer for. Besides, living in the country, life’s a lot simpler, if you’re a guy, to have a ready answer to “Who’s your team?” So I was in the unusual position, as a grown-up adult, of having to choose a new favorite team.
     Now think about that for a minute. We don’t choose our favorite sports teams, they end up recruiting us, and usually at a pretty young age. You’re a Flyers fan because you grew up in Philly. Or you’re a Lakers fan, because your dad was. Or you love the Cardinals because that obnoxious kid in 3rd grade was a Cubs fan. You never weighed the evidence and made a rational decision to whom you’d lend your loyalty. Now, that doesn’t make your allegiance any less strong. It’s love; maybe the heart’s supposed to take control. But if, as an adult, you’re suddenly faced with the prospect of making a new choice, shouldn’t Reason take the wheel?
     I thought it should. And given the whole Vick situation, along with all the thuggery in the NFL, I wanted to choose a team that wouldn’t embarrass me as a moral human being. I wanted to choose a team by the criteria that really mattered to me. But I also wanted to be sure about my choice. I wanted to try to find some objective way of weighing all the evidence, to make sure that I could logically defend my team. So I needed to quantify my values. I needed to crunch the numbers.
     So I turned to math. And this is where The Knucklehead comes in.
     The Knucklehead is a math whiz. It’s baseball’s fault; at some point you approach the line between fandom and fanaticism, and it’s then that you have to decide whether to embrace the statistical demands, or to retreat back into a normal life. The Knucklehead didn’t hesitate in slogging through the numerical morass; he didn’t even ask for waders. When he grows up, he wants to be Jonah Hill in Moneyball. Not only did he help me out with the research (many’s the night he’d bring a recently unearthed nugget of trivia to the dinner table), but it was he, with his mad algebra skills, who was crucial in wrangling the numbers into something manageable. We figured, we’re baseball fans; we hang a number on every aspect of our game, so football should be a cinch.
     But none of the things I wanted to measure had anything to do with performance on the field. I don’t really care if my team wins a lot of games (in fact, the eventual Superbowl title is all the sweeter if you have to wait for it). Honestly, given the parity in football, even the teams that are losers now still will have a chance down the road. So I came up with a list of what I was looking for in a favorite team. The Knucklehead and I found a way to quantify the items on that list, and we eventually came up with The Formula.
     Ready? It’s (((1 + M) x 1,000) / (A + 10L) x C x St x Wc = Ft
     Here’s how it breaks down. One of the things we wanted in a team was a sense that it gave back to the community, but we didn’t want to penalize the poorer market teams. So we decided on a ratio of the team’s community contributions to their payroll. The payroll numbers are as of the 2008-09 season; not perfect, but it gave us a basis for comparison, which is all we were really looking for. The community contributions were much more difficult to come up with. Each NFL team lists community programs on their websites, but none will give you any kind of dollar amount. Finally a friend tipped us off to GuideStar, a website that posts IRS 990 returns from charitable groups. We typed in each team’s name and added up revenues for each organization. There was no way to tell how much money was donated by the team, as opposed to raised by the team from others, but, again, all we were looking for was a basis for comparison. Several teams had no information available, even after going back to their websites and entering any community programs they listed. We decided to assign them a value of $1. I’m sure that’s a gross underestimation, but screw ’em; if they were really serious about community involvement, they’d make that info easier to find. So eventually, we came up with “M”; 990 revenues, divided by 10% of payroll. The Knucklehead came up with the idea of adding 1 to make the final number more manageable, then multiplying by 1,000 to give us a decent numerator.
     In the denominator, we have “A” and “10L”. “A” is the number of arrests/citations of team players since 2000 (this I found on the San Diego Tribune website). I’m tired of the gangster mentality in the NFL, and this seemed like as good a way as any to quantify which teams fostered a criminal mentality. “L” is the number of locations a team has played in. We figured a team that moved away from its fan base wasn’t showing much in the way of reciprocal loyalty, and decided that one franchise move = 10 arrests. Finally, we have “C”, “St”, and “Wc” (Ft = favorite Team quotient, if you haven’t figured that out already). These were all factors designed to nudge teams one way or the other away from a basic number. The first two were relatively minor considerations, but useful as tiebreakers. The “Wc” factor, which we’ll get to, was designed as kind of a kitchen sink to weigh in factors that we couldn’t figure out how to quantify elsewhere.
     “C” is for team colors. Sue me, if I’m going to lay out $100 or more for a team jersey, it’s not going to be for something as hideous as Carolina’s or as drab as Cleveland’s. Since this wasn’t a dealbreaker, I assigned 8 teams with values of 0.9, 5 teams with really cool jerseys/colors of 1.1, and the rest a value of 1.0. “St” is for Stadium name. If you sold the naming rights of your stadium to the highest bidder, you got points off. If the stadium was named after a human being, or local concern, you got points added. If it was named after the team, it’s a wash with a value of 1.0 (this was actually tougher than we originally thought it would be. We ended up giving Ford Field and Heinz Field 1.1 each, because even though their stadia were named after businesses, they were important local ones.). Points ranged from 0.5 to 1.5 (Soldier Field).
     “Wc” stands for “Wild Card”, and though it’s the least scientific, it was necessary for all those extra factors we couldn’t put elsewhere. Everyone starts with a 1.0, then gets points added or subtracted. You got points for being the first team to field a black quarterback, or a minority head coach, or a woman CEO. You lost points for particularly obnoxious players (Vick, Owens), coaches or ownership (Dallas), and fans (most of the NFC East). Seattle got 1.1 for not selling Coke or Pepsi in their stadium (Jones Soda – who knew?). New England got 0.5 because an ex-girlfriend was a particularly obnoxious Patriots fan. Baltimore got 1.2 because their team is named after a literary figure. Houston got 0.9 because of that stupid “Houston Oilers” song they used to play back in the 80’s. In the end, Green Bay won because they were awarded 3.0 for community ownership; something I haven’t seen anywhere else in all of sport and deeply respect.
     So in crunching the numbers, the Green Bay Packers won with a score of 206.14; far ahead of the field. So they became my favorite team. I know this will sound clinical and heartless to a lot of people. But our system offers two advantages over having a team thrust upon you. First of all, you can see how by manipulating the variables, even the most diehard football fan can figure out which team really does matter to him or her. Love wide receivers? Then change the variables to allow for passing yards, or number of Pro Bowl wide receivers. Want to go with a winner? Plug in winning percentage, or number of Super Bowl wins, or number of winning seasons. Like defense? Quantify yards given up, or how many players go on injured reserve after they’ve played your team. The Formula takes the subjectivity out of choosing a team. No matter what your football values are, having a formula offers a way to make sure you’re rooting for the right team.
     Finally, you know who your favorite team is, and probably which team you hate the most. But do you know who your 18th favorite NFL team is? I do. It’s Minnesota, with a score of 26.43. So any given week, in any given game, I know exactly who I’m rooting for. There’s no guesswork. If it’s Week 10, and the Monday night game is Jacksonville vs San Diego, all I have to do is go down my list, find the Jaguars at #24 with 17.03 points, and the Chargers at #29 with 13.18 points, pop open a beer and cheer JAX on to victory (I hope), secure in the knowledge that my team posted charitable revenues of $2,349,101.00 as opposed to their opponent’s paltry number of $609,277.00.
     The Knucklehead, having had no moral quandary thrown upon him by the good people of Indianapolis, remains to this day a Colts fan, though he’d be hard pressed to tell you their record at any given moment. I admit that I must remind myself at times that I am a Green Bay fan, and can report at this writing that I can name up to two current players on the Packers roster: Aaron Rodgers and The Guy With the Hair. We did have that ones year where the Colts went deep into the season without a win, as the Packers were undefeated, so we’d tell people that statistically, out football teams were average. At some point, The Knucklehead gave me a Green Bay T-shirt for Christmas, so at least I wouldn’t be wearing a Red Sox jersey to Superbowl parties.
     But it did turn out to be a fascinating experiment in quantifying ethical values. It also prompted a lot of discussion about where loyalty to a sports team fell among all the other moral values we carry with us. Whether an athlete (or actor, artist, or anyone else, for that matter) should have his professional performance judged separately from his personal life. Can you cheer for your hero in one area of her life when she lets you down in another? I was never much of a football fan, so cutting the Eagles wasn’t that much of a sacrifice. But what would it take to throw out hundreds of dollars in Red Sox paraphernalia? My team was the last to integrate (though the current management has stepped up to apologize for that). Is it OK for me to wear a Red Sox hoodie while walking the dogs because of that? The lesson, for both of us, I think, was to admire our heroes for what we found admirable in them, and no more.
     Or, in the words of a Zen proverb: “If you have a hero, look again. You have diminished yourself in some way.”
*The Superbowl is another matter: it is here that I am likely to get my first glimpse of the most ‘splosiony of the upcoming summer’s movies.
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5 Responses to Michael Vick and The Knucklehead, Or A Football Interlude

  1. Barth Keck says:

    I came upon my current NFL team with a formula, too. But — not surprisingly — mine included no math whatsoever. In fact, my formula is all about passion. (Sorry, Pete, but as you already know, I’m not very enamored with the hyper-emphasis of statistics in sports.) I grew up in suburban Baltimore and, consequently, a BALTIMORE Colts fan. (To understand the illogical, emotional attachment of football fans to their teams, this is an excellent read: http://www.amazon.com/When-Colts-Belonged-Baltimore-Paperback/dp/0801853796. You might also want to check out native Baltimorean Barry Levinson’s documentary of the BALTIMORE Colts marching band:http://espn.go.com/30for30/film?page=band-that-wouldnt-die.) Unfortunately, Colts owner Robert Irsay held the city of Baltimore hostage as he negotiated with other cities interested in obtaining an NFL franchise. The “good people of Indianapolis” were the lucky winners of those sweepstakes. So on a cold, snowy March pre-dawn morning, the Mayflower moving fans left the Colts headquarters in Maryland, filled with every last piece of football gear, and headed west to Indy.

    I was heartbroken. So was every BALTIMORE Colts fan. No way in hell would I ever root for the INDIANAPOLIS Colts. I mean, just the thought of the team using the same colors and same horseshoe-decorated helmet was heresy. But I was still a football fan. I needed a team. At that time, I was living in New England. The head coach of the New England Patriots at that time was Raymond Berry, a former NFL receiver for the BALTIMORE Colts and the favorite target of Colts Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas. My formula, therefore, was simple: Current Geography + Affiliation with Original Favorite Team = New Favorite Team. I have been a New England Patriots fan ever since. No math required. Just a lot of emotion. Fans, after all, are literally fanatics, no?!

    • Your point about passion is well taken, Barth. For me, choosing a new NFL team was mostly an intellectual exercise; kind of a game The Knucklehead and I played together. It would be like handing you a list of central Idaho high schools and asking you to pick a favorite tennis team. I wasn’t emotionally invested, so it was much easier to turn the decision over to the brain, and say, “Here, have fun with this.” And since my interest in football was so casual, it became impossible for me to cheer for their QB’s success with my beautiful dogs in the room with me.
      But what if I had to drop the Red Sox? What if the Steinbrenner family bought the team to begin using as a major-league farm team for the Yankees (check out Jeff Katz’s “The Kansas City A’s & the Wrong Half of the Yankees” to find out how this actually happened in the 1950’s)? Absolutely, my heart would want to make the pick of a new favorite team. But my heart would also be using a formula, just as the brain does. It just wouldn’t spell the formula out, or ask for any help in defining the terms. And that’s where I like to give the heart as much help as possible.
      Example: when doing research for The Formula, I fully expected the Oakland Raiders to fall to the bottom of the list. After all, I was trying to weed out the worst of the “thuggery” and Oakland’s fans have made it clear that they do not consider thuggery to be a liability. So imagine my surprise when Oakland turned out to be my 12th “favorite” team. I was sure that I had gotten something wrong, or more likely, that this pointed to a defect in “The Formula.” But in checking the numbers, I found that Oakland fell right in the middle of the NFL in team arrests. Furthermore, they led the NFL for breaking ground for positions for women in their front office, and non-white men in starting positions. What did that tell me? That my heart needed my brain’s help. Otherwise, the bad press (or maybe “good press” from the Oakland fan base’s point of view) would have clouded the reality. That Oakland really was closer to what my heart wanted than I knew.
      Irsay made your decision easy. Your heart didn’t need help from your head, and if it had asked, your head probably would have screamed, “Hell, no, you can’t root for something called the INDIANAPOLIS Colts.” My highly unscientific and half-in-jest experiment here did have a foot in my own values. In my experience, the heart can be a hot-head. There are times when we need it to be. But it never hurts to get a little fact-checking in, and this was my attempt to do that. Remember: this didn’t start with math, or statistics, or the brain. It started with my heart saying, “Here’s are the values that are important to me. Help me get this right.”
      As always, thanks for your thoughtful commentary. Your comments make this a better blog than I can manage on my own!

      • Donna Martin says:

        Your reason for this “half-in-jest experiment” was sound–for the most [part. I need to know, however, whether your A values for arrests were weighted by the severity of the cause of the arrest/citation. Given that Vick gets an insurmountable A value, did you thereafter equalize all violations or did you differentiate double parking from murder? If so, I don’t think you want to push your formula too hard on others. After all, “Science is not all about truth given to us by authority.”
        My suggestion? Just root for the Steelers because your wife does. And she makes fantastic choices.

      • Thanks, Donna. Your point about differentiating between arrests is well taken; I didn’t go that route because attempting to quantify “quality” of arrests would have opened a huge can of worms, much more than I was willing to get into in something as flippant as choosing a new favorite NFL team. As I said, we weren’t looking for something definitive, just something that might steer us in the right direction. And it’s certainly not my intention to “push my formula on others.” All I hope to do, both with that post and with this blog, is tell stories about what one man did to try to keep his child thinking ethically. My stories can ultimately only apply to my son and me. It’s not my desire that anyone reading this blog copy what I did. That would be a terrible idea. It would please me to no end if a parent, reading about something I did, got an idea for approaching something with her Knucklehead. Or niece, spouse, buddy, or coworker.

  2. Donna Martin says:

    You take me too seriously. I need to work on my tongue-in-cheek style.

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