Overtime column: Fresh from the Fruitman
By Paul Fruitman
The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field Sunday was a sight for sore eyes of not just Packer fans, but any sports' purist.
As 70,000 faithful fought three hours of frigid cold with nothing more than the warmth of their devotion for their beloved football team and as Brett Favre rebounded from a dismal first half to lead Green Bay to its first Super Bowl appearance in three decades, the win for the Packers also signalled a victory for sport and gave yet one more testament to the NFL's claim as the pre-eminent sports league in the world. Or at least this part of it.
The Green Bay Packers are the NFL's most-storied franchise (especially since the Dallas Cowboys have all but forsaken football to become hardened criminals). The Packers also have the unique feature of being based in a home town that is roughly the size of its stadium capacity. In the late-'90s era of professional athletics, where the business of sports has become more of the former than the latter, the Green Bay Packers could not exist, let alone compete in any other major sports league in North America.
If the Packers were an NHL team, you could bet they would have been forced to relocate to a larger market like Dallas or Phoenix. The NHL is currently in the midst of selling its sporting soul, giving its small market teams to the deeper pockets, oblivious to the fact that many of those cities, like Minneapolis and Winnipeg, represent hockey's heartland.
The NHL is also following the precarious lead of the NBA. At present, the NBA is one of the most profitable leagues in all of sport. But the NBA has sold itself on its stars, which not only creates a game of selfish players, but presents a dangerous future for the NBA when its brightest and most charismatic star, Michael Jordan, retires.
But the boneheads running Major League Baseball still take the prize for ineptitude. Here is a league which fails to have a commissioner because the owners feel they can be greedier without one; a league which has perpetual work stoppages because both owners and players refuse to realize that the success of the game is the best thing for both parties. Baseball is America's pastime, yet no one in America seems to care.
The NFL, in contrast, has maintained an amazing level of popularity for its entire lifespan. And it is because the league sees itself as a whole rather than a set of co-operating parts. The players may bitch about the league's salary cap and Dallas owner Jerry Jones may be unhappy his team cannot become a free agent to advertisers, but these measures are taken for the good of the league.
Admittedly, the Browns were allowed to leave Cleveland, but only to put the team in a city which had its Colts sent to Indianapolis in the middle of the night. And though the NFL is wary of expansion diluting its talent pool, when the NFL does expand it does it right. Two of the final four teams in this year's playoffs were just toddlers. Compare that with the NBA which shackled Toronto and Vancouver with draft picks no higher than sixth in their first year.
The NFL remains at such a high level of success because it looks at things holistically. The players must give of themselves for the benefit of the team and the teams must give of themselves for the benefit of the league.
As the masses poured out onto the streets of Green Bay to celebrate the Super Bowl berth, Lambeau closed for the year. But it will open again in September and may host one or two more champions before the decade is up. The reason? Because the league knows what is good for it.