/The Sports Scolds Are Winning

The Sports Scolds Are Winning

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Photo: Rogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock

One of my more embarrassing personal viewpoints: I like Joe Buck. Hey, I’m a Midwestern farm kid who grew up listening to Paul Harvey and frying my bologna: We all have our cultural blind spots, and I’ve got plenty.

But even I’ve never been able to defend the moment that people still hate Joe Buck the most for. It was the infamous occasion in 2005, when Vikings receiver Randy Moss caught a touchdown pass and pretended to moon the Lambeau Field crowd, which inexplicably made Buck apoplectic.

I’ve never entirely understood what Buck was thinking with that call. Did he believe Moss actually pulled his pants down, pads and all, and waggled his bare ass in the Wisconsin night? Was he trying to appeal to moralist Fox owners? Did he just have a stroke? Buck’s bizarre moral indignation has been cheerfully mocked for nearly 15 years now, not least by Moss himself, who is now Buck’s colleague at Fox Sports. If you hate Joe Buck, that’s where your hatred started, and Buck doesn’t help himself by continuing to defend the call today. He was a prig. We love sticking it to prigs.

But that tide may be changing. The prigs may be winning.

Thursday night, Mississippi and Mississippi State played in the 116th Egg Bowl, the charmingly non-sequitur name for the matchup between the two notorious in-state rivals. In a tight game, Mississippi scored a touchdown on a pass to talented wide receiver Elijah Moore to bring them within one point with four seconds left. Like most football players who must navigate 11 massive humans trying to kill them at maximum velocity to reach the end zone, Moore was  rather overjoyed by the positive end to his journey. He began celebrating. His routine was not a new one, and was in fact a callback to a Mississippi touchdown celebration of years past, as well as one from former Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. two years ago: He pretended he was a dog lifting his leg to pee. It’s not much more complicated than that.

The major problem with this celebration was that the referees considered it unsportsmanlike conduct, flagging Mississippi for 15 yards on the extra point. Perhaps because of those lost 15 yards, the extra point was missed, and Mississippi lost to their hated rivals by one point.

Now. There are three possible reactions to this turn of events.

1. Who cares about any of this? This is a dumb college football game on Thanksgiving night when you should have been enjoying the fleeting time we have left with our families because if you haven’t noticed there’s a madman in the White House and the entire world is on fire and how can you waste your time with something as frivolous as sports because it’s all falling apart? This is always a perfectly reasonable response to any sports story, and you should know that this sportswriter will never find fault with you for it.

2. This is a public embarrassment and a terrible example for the children and what about the children? This is the old Buck response. You can imagine an announcer parroting his “we’re sorry that went out on our airwaves” line.

3. Hahahahaha, he pretended to pee and it was hilarious and it ended up deciding a game that I otherwise wouldn’t have cared about and thus provided me a few moments of harmless, stress-free entertainment and diversion. 

I’ll never argue with anyone over Reaction No. 1,  But you can tell a lot about a person depending on whether they veer closer to Reaction No. 2 or Reaction No. 3. I think it might be the most fundamental divide among sports fans there is.

Reaction No. 2 people are the prigs. They believe that sports are not just games or diversions, but function as  a guide to life, a pathway to discipline and respect for some sort of higher sort of authority. Sports are moralist plays, with cosmic (or theological) justice meted out: Those who play The Right Way are rewarded and those who do not, who do not realize There Is No I In Team, are punished. It is my personal experience that these are the people who are most involved in youth sports, for better or (mostly) worse. No one takes sports more seriously than these people … often, including the actual professionals who play them.

Reason No. 3 people are the perspectivists. They understand that this really is all just entertainment, and that sports do not matter, not really. Whether Elijah Moore lifts his leg up and pretends to pee when he scores a touchdown or whether he stoically hands the ball to the referee and then kneels down to pray makes no difference in the world at all. Sports can be inspirational and uplifting and joyous and even indicative of and connected to larger societal issues, but that’s not their default state: Their default state is providing essentially live television dozens of times every night. When you provide that much live television, weird, goofy things happen from time to time — like a player pretending to dog pee and having that pretend dog pee cost his team a game. Life can be dull and monotonous, you know? The only moral lesson to be learned from sports is that if you take sports too seriously, you’re going to ruin everything about them.

I have to say: It was pretty depressing to see that the overarching reaction to Dog Pee Gate ’19 was No. 2 rather than No. 3. Whether it was Yahoo’s Pete Thamel saying, somehow with a straight face, that the play “will be remembered for generations as one of the dumbest plays in the history of sports. It was a combination of selfishness, fatality and viral mockery that’s unprecedented in modern college football” or the university releasing a grave statement of apology (a few hours before they fired their coach), it was difficult to find anyone who recognized this for the ridiculous, over-the-top, silly entertainment that we all come to sports for in the first place. SB Nation’s Banner Society was appropriately tongue-in-cheek about it, but almost everyone else was oddly straightforward: Terrible, selfish, unappreciative Mississippi player blows it for everybody by doing A Disgusting Act.

Over the last decade, sports coverage has veered away from Reaction No. 2 and toward Reaction No. 3 — with many citing the blowback from the Buck-Moss incident as the prime early example of this trend. Reaction No. 3 is the snide, reductionist (and often quite funny) voice of the internet, not just the Twitter scroll but of sites like Deadspin, which were in many ways invented as a response to the priggishness of people like Buck. A story like this is supposed to be made fun of. People who watched the game and responded with scolding frowns and “what is the world coming to?” are exactly what sports need less of.

If you’ll forgive me: I find myself missing Deadspin all over again. This Wednesday, it will have been one month since the site stopped publishing in the wake of the entire staff’s resignation after being told by management to “stick to sports,” and the reaction to the incident at the Egg Bowl provided the clearest example yet what we’re missing without them. The site, and those inspired by it, existed to take the piss out of those who take sports too seriously and lose perspective on what all this means, to call out bullshitters and Smarm wherever they saw it. And now it’s gone, and in its absence, the finger-waggers and head-shakers and faux moralists have all filled the void. It is a sad media world indeed when Unpaid College Athlete Performing In Billion Dollar Entertainment Enterprise Pretends To Be A Peeing Dog And Ends Up (Maybe) Costing His Team A Rivalry Game inspires a world full of Colin Cowherds and hand-wringers. This is supposed to be fun, people? If you can’t have enjoy this, why are you even watching sports in the first place? The prigs have made their comeback. It is a disgusting act. I’m just sorry you had to see it on this network.