I can tell you exactly when I began hating the Arizona Cardinals, and it wasn’t when they came to Foxborough in December, took one look at the falling snow, and decided they would commit public consumer fraud for the balance of the afternoon. No, it was sometime midway through the BCS national championship game between Oklahoma and Florida. For those of you who missed it, Fox television announcer Thom Brennaman treated Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in a fashion that I am absolutely sure violates the anti-stalking statutes in at least five states. At one point, Brennaman said, “If you’re fortunate enough to spend five minutes or 20 minutes around Tim Tebow, your life is better for it.” And then he said, after Tebow got nailed for a taunting penalty, “That might be the first thing he’s ever done wrong.”This is the kind of stuff for which the Eternal Word Television Network was, ah, created, and Thom Brennaman made Mother Angelica look like Kathy Griffin. *
This happens a lot in football. The game is afflicted by announcers who spend an awful lot of time wrapping football in the Great American Family Values comforter. They festoon it with jingoistic baubles and cheap patriotic gewgaws. And all of this is to place the game’s fundamental destruction and brutality on some higher plane than that occupied by people who simply beat the crap out of one another in bars on a Friday night. This is how we end up with Thom Brennaman treating the national collegiate football championship game as though he were the Chad and Jeremy correspondent for Tiger Beat back in the day. This is also how we are going to be inundated with mendacious swill over the next two weeks on the subject of what a great story the Arizona Cardinals are.
(Before we go any further, you, there, Larry Fitzgerald? You can leave the room now, because none of what follows applies to you. You’re having the most significant postseason any nonquarterback has had in about 20 years.)
We’re going to hear about how they magically transformed themselves at the end of the season. We’re going to hear about the remarkable comeback of Kurt Warner. We’re going to hear about how marvelous it is for the National Football League that a Super Bowl championship is within the grasp of a team so thickly dripping with obvious mediocrity that it’s a wonder Charlie Sheen isn’t playing left guard. We are going to hear all of this because the NFL and its broadcast partners operate on the very simple premise that everybody who reports—or follows—their sport on television is a paste-eating moron.
This simple fact is that the very presence of the Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl is at best a fluke and, at worst, a disgrace. They played in a landfill of a division. They won their two playoff games because Jake Delhomme of Carolina turned the ball over six times and because the Philadelphia Eagles all looked at the newspapers last Sunday and discovered they were in the NFC championship game again. The Cardinals are a glorified Arena Football League team with a soft defense and a running game unworthy of the name. They are in the position that they’re in because the NFL rigs its season worse than any carny rigs his wheel. For all the macho posturing of its principal propagandists, between the jiggering of the schedule and the conniving of the draft and the socialistic revenue schemes, and the desperate grab for any mechanism that will flatten out the differences between really good teams and really bad ones, the NFL is the league that comes closest to the biddy soccer league philosophy of making sure that everyone gets a trophy.
That’s what the Arizona Cardinals are: the National Participation Ribbon.
The only proof anyone should need came in the 15th game of the season, when Arizona visited New England. It already was clear this year that the Cardinals were even money to finish in the middle of the pack of any league that played in the upper latitudes, with the possible exception of the Ivies. Send them north out of the pleasure dome that the Bidwills blackjacked out of the state of Arizona, and the team did things like give up 56 points to the New York Jets, playing such shoddy defense that Brett Favre threw for six touchdowns. This, of course, ignited another outbreak of hot and steamy Favre love from the easily smitten television press corps, so we have the Cardinals to blame even for that. In Foxborough, however, in December, they simply quit.
The Patriots scored on nine of their first 10 possessions. The score was 31-0 at halftime. There was no compelling empirical evidence that the Arizona defense ever had left the desert. Jack Molinas went to jail for going into the water less obviously than the Cardinals did that day. It was every bit as phony an outcome as any pro wrestling show’s, and the essential moral difference between that game and a game in which a team actually was shaving points was negligible at best.
Bear in mind over the next week that this game will be cited as the “pivotal” moment in the Cardinals’ miracle run to the Super Bowl. Ken Whisenhunt—who sat most of his offensive weapons in that game—and his staff will be the subject of gooey encomiums for cracking the whip after the loss to New England. There will be loose talk about professionalism, and about how pride was appealed to at a critical moment. And since snow is a long shot in Tampa, they might even win the game, and then there will be more of it. And it will all be nonsense. Not even Tim Tebow could save this team’s soul.
Correction, Jan. 28, 2009: This piece originally referred to the Eternal Word Television Network’s “late Mother Angelica.” While she no longer makes live appearances on the air due to her ill health, Mother Angelica is still living. (Return to the corrected sentence.)