It seems so long ago I was standing on the porch looking over a snow-blanketed street knowing how the game would end. Unlike past years, the fourth quarter drive ended with an underthrown ball falling to the turf and taking the stairway to seven with it. My housemates had mercifully turned off the game when I came back into the house, pretending the last three hours - the last eight months - had never happened. It seems so long ago.
Normally, the offseason has a full platter of Steelers-worshiping. Like many devote fans, by the time draft time rolls around I have read the draft analysis and am hanging on every trade, every prospect that drops, and constantly wonder who the Steelers will bring into the family. But this year it was different. This year, football is not a game: it is a business. It just doesn't feel the same.
Football, like many other sport sports, hangs somewhere between the fantasy we want it to be and the brutal reality it is. Professional football is work. For the players, it's how they earn a paycheck. We don't see the hours of weight training and film study. We don't see the 70-hour workweeks the coaches put in to prepare for the game we love. When we purchase a jersey, ticket, or TV package, we are paying their paychecks. Yet, this process doesn't feel like normal purchasing decisions. When people receive their season tickets or purchase their next jersey or terrible towel, it doesn't feel like we are paying the players - it feels like we are joining the team. After the lockout, however, this feeling is fading.
For a moment, I couldn't tell you whom we drafted in the first round, and to be perfectly honest, can't tell you whom we drafted in the second through seventh round. Last year I was planning a trip to training camp; this year I'm wondering if it has started. What happened?
Becoming a fan is more than just following a team, its becoming part of an identity. Each team has their rituals - from Steeley McBeam to the Psycho Ward - that reinforce the fantasy surrounding sports. It allows us the fans to go back to a time when we were not a step too slow or an inch too short to step on the field. In some ways, its rooting for our team to fulfill the dreams we had to give up on long before the mortgage payments were due or we had to worry about college loans. And just like we did way back then, we would want to play for the love of the game and to bring that championship back to the hometown team. Back then, sports were our release from day-to-day life. As fans, we get to go back there by gathering in stadiums or in friends homes to watch our team on the weekends. What makes wins so gratifying and losses so devastating is that we are not just hopeful bystanders but - for one day a week - part of the team.
Football hangs in the balance between a game and a business, and labor disputes expose the cold reality of sports: they are business. Big business at that. The way most fans relate to sports - the fantasy that their team is something more than a group of workers playing for a paycheck - is exposed by the lockout. The very important, but seldom covered, business of revenue sharing and TV deals becomes front-page news while camp battles are pushed to the bottom of the hour. The legal battles of the authenticity of the bargaining unit supersede the yearly return of Brett Favre. Normally we have the choice to filter out the business side of football by focusing on training camp news.
This emotional connection let's us believe the players are doing something more than going to the office on Sunday. Without the useful distractions of draft news, free agent signings, and contract extensions, the only news was a stream of legal fights and negotiation talking points. The workers were bargaining for better working conditions, the owners wanted a greater share of the profit. It was just like every other part of life. During this window, Football became the part of life we escape on weekends: work.
Back when baseball went on strike in 1994-1995, the following year saw a 20% decline in attendance. As a baseball fan, it's pretty easy to sum up what happened the following year: it just didn't feel the same.