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If you repeat this to anyone, I'll deny it, but last weekend I did something I'm not proud of. I watched preseason football. O.K., I didn't just watch it, I binged on it. I don't mean just the first series or two, when the starters tried not to break anything but a sweat. I'm talking about deep into the fourth quarter of games, when the undrafted rookies out of East Oblivion A&M were on the field. I think I saw my UPS guy playing free safety for the Raiders.
I thought I was stronger than this. For years I turned up my nose at exhibition games like a wine snob presented with a $5 Cabernet. They're rip-offs, I said. Glorified scrimmages. A few weeks ago, as the NFL owners and players closed in on a new labor agreement, I told people it was a good thing the lockout would end in time to allow us to ignore the preseason. Are you ready for some (utterly inconsequential) football? I was so smug. Now I'm so desperate for pro football, I can't even hold out for the good stuff.
When the NFL's month of meaningless games began last Thursday night, I was there in front of the flat screen, feeling a rush of excitement—and hating myself for it. I knew it was illogical to feel so much anticipation. The work stoppage had forced the cancellation of exactly one exhibition game, the Hall of Fame matchup on Aug. 7, which is normally as thrilling as watching Bill Belichick try on hoodies. The start of the regular season never came close to being affected, so essentially I'd had nothing taken away. Yet it still felt as if I was getting something back.
That's why I was there, watching as the Seattle (Soon-to-be-cut) Seahawks battled the San Diego (Temporary) Chargers. Even the mere possibility of going without pro football had increased my appetite for it, which is not the way it's supposed to work. Every time a league has a work stoppage, there's speculation over how much it will alienate the public. Will we find we can live without the sport? Will we come back? We take to the Internet and sports talk shows, sputtering that this time we're really fed up. But the truth is: Not only do we return, but we also come back more hooked than before.
As I sat there watching the Chiefs' Tyler Palko complete a pass to Terrance Copper (or was it Terrance Palko to Tyler Copper?), I wondered if the players and owners all secretly count on this. Maybe they know that work stoppages, especially when strategically timed, can actually be good for business. It would be a diabolical marketing tool: Leagues could include an annual opt-out clause in their collective bargaining agreements, every year creating the specter of a lost season, then avoiding doomsday just in time. Actually scrubbing a season, as the NHL did in 2004--05, would be going too far, but fans can't really be angry if they haven't missed anything important.
If anything, we're more appreciative of something we've almost lost. After all, I wasn't the only one glued to the tube last weekend. The Eagles' game with Baltimore drew an 18.5 rating in Philadelphia, well up from the 12.5 for last year's exhibition opener against Jacksonville and more than double the average local rating for the first-place Phillies. Granted, some of those Eagles viewers were watching because of Philly's splashy free-agent signings, but I'm betting a lot of them just wanted to see something NFL-related that wasn't offensive linemen wearing suits and talking about unfair labor practices.
It's hard to admit that pro sports have that kind of power over us, which is why my lost weekend is causing me serious self-esteem issues. It's worse than picking up the phone when the girl who dumped you calls. It's answering on the first ring. Pathetic.
I didn't mean for it to turn out that way. At first I told myself I just wanted a brief taste of football, even the exhibition kind. I can quit anytime, I thought. On Thursday, I decided to watch the Patriots play the Jaguars just until Tom Brady came out of the game. Then I discovered that someone named Brian Hoyer was starting at quarterback for the Pats while Brady stayed on the sideline, apparently doing some male modeling. Well, I figured, I might as well see what this Hoyer kid's got.
Before I knew it Thursday had turned into Friday, which turned into Saturday and Sunday. The Pats-Jags became the Chiefs-Bucs, which became the Bills-Bears. The NFL Network whipped me around from game to irrelevant game, showing me not Peyton Manning but Curtis Painter, not much of Aaron Rodgers but plenty of Matt Flynn, and I went along for the ride. Somewhere around the time I watched Shaky Smithson return a kick for the Packers, I felt the last of my self-respect drain away. There was bright California sunshine outside my window all weekend, and I ignored it so I could listen to broadcasters tell me about 47 rookies who had made a good impression in camp, 53 veterans who had stayed in shape during the lockout and 15 quarterback-receiver pairings that hadn't gotten their timing down.
Now that the first weekend of games has passed, I'm back to boycotting the preseason—right after the Bears-Giants game next Monday. Chicago's second-string defense looked awfully strong against Buffalo reserve quarterbacks Levi Brown and Tyler Thigpen last week, but I think we're all wondering whether they can contain Giants backup Sage Rosenfels. We are all wondering that, aren't we? Aren't we? Wait, why are you taking my remote control?