Question: When is football not football?
Answer: When it is not publicized. When you have not been hyped into thinking you are looking at something larger than itself.
Q: Are you saying there's no difference, really, between Yale-Harvard and Oklahoma-Nebraska?
A: No, I am saying it is all relative. When the guys on either side of the line of scrimmage are all of equal ability, a game is a game.
The movie business used to have a saying: "A tree is a tree, a rock is a rock. Shoot it in Griffith Park." Well, a fumble is a fumble, a blocked kick is a blocked kick. Play it in the Yale Bowl. A game is a game.
Q: Sounds as if you're saying that what passes for NFL football on our television screens is as good as the original.
A. No, I'm not. I'm not saying Yale is as good as Nebraska, either. I'm saying Yale-Harvard can be as entertaining as Nebraska-Oklahoma. There's a difference.
Q: So, how come crowds are so poor for this brand of football we're seeing.
A: Simple. American people don't like to cross picket lines.
Q: But the football is just as good once they do?
A: Well, look at it this way: We are a nation of 250 million people. Approximately 1,300 of them get jobs in the National Football League. Do you think for one minute there aren't another 1,300 out there of relatively equal ability? Gimme a break!
Q: You're nuts. These guys have combed and re-combed the country, looked at films, held tryouts to get the absolute best the republic had to offer.
A: Oh, sure! Let me refresh your recollection. It wasn't so long ago that an entire new league was formed right alongside the existing NFL. The AFL. Everybody laughed at it. They said they played those silly zone defenses, they had dumb offenses like moving pockets and they were forced to use second-rate players. And we all believed it.
Only trouble was, when the leagues merged, this funny little league eventually clobbered the grandfather league in Super Bowl after Super Bowl. They were not only comparable, they were a damn sight better.
Q: But they were able to draft right alongside the NFL.
A. Maybe so, but they filled their clubs with players rejected by the NFL. Lenny Dawson had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers. George Blanda had been cut loose.
Listen! The NFL has a history of rejecting great players. Have you forgotten that the Baltimore Colts found John Unitas running a clam shovel in Pittsburgh? He had played football at the University of Louisville for four years.
He turned out to be probably the greatest quarterback in NFL history and he's digging foundations for shopping malls! What's so smart about pro scouts?
Q: Are you saying this present cast of characters have a chance to become the Monsters of the Midway, the Pack, the Fearsome Foursome, the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters of tomorrow?
A: My guess would be one of them could even become America's Team if they could play together for two to three years, get experience and, more importantly, get publicity. But that's not going to happen.
Q: Why not?
A: Because it isn't a different league, a rival league. It's not good old American free enterprise. It's union-busting. It's insupportable. It's an American tragedy.
Q: Isn't that a little overblown? It's just a game.
A: It's a drama with all victims. A whole bunch of guys locked in a strike they don't want and can't win, and a bunch of owners bucking for a Simon Legree image in a contest they think they can win but can't, either.
Q: But the players want free agency!
A: You don't have to strike for free agency. It comes with the Constitution. Any storefront lawyer can get it for you if he puts his mind to it. The Magna Charta made us free agents. The players bargained away their free agency themselves five year ago. Now they have to strike to get it back?
Q: So, how do you view it?
A: As unrelieved depression. A strike is as sad a story as a mine cave-in at best. You can feel sorry for Todd Christensen and Marcus Allen and the others who are giving up tens of thousands in unrecoverable dollars.
On the other hand, although you can't feel sorry for the non-union players who are just in it for the money, you can feel for the guys who believe in their hearts that they are just as good as those guys on the field and this is their only chance to prove it.
In my view, a lot of them have. Even with sub-standard coverages, some of these guys do belong in the NFL. It's a terrible thing to walk around knowing you're as good as the guy getting star treatment and not getting a chance to prove it.
The trouble is, these guys are probably only getting a brief moment in the limelight. Unlike Unitas, they'll be back on the clam shovel by Christmas.
Q: So, it's wall-to-wall gloom?
A: Not at all. We can all go back to Yale-Harvard. And all that cheering in Greek and Latin. Raccoon-coat football is just as much fun as Sun-Belt Super Bowls any day. And no one ever had strikes. The football hero just got the girl.