Don’t let pro sports happen to you

At wedding receptions, the plan is usually to seat guests who know each other at the same tables. My sister did this at her wedding, but instead of numbered tables, she gave each table a name based on the common element shared by each of the guests at the table. There were school-themed names, work-themed names, and names based on other bits and pieces from her life. There was a table called “Rooney,” named after her dog. I was placed at a table with my siblings and a few other family members. The name of that table was “Chargers,” the football team in the city we all came from. It was the perfect name.

I have six brothers and sisters, and as a group, we’ve never been especially close. We all love each other, but we don’t talk very often. It’s not that we want it that way, it’s just sort of how things worked out. With seven kids, there’s a pretty significant age difference; by the time the youngest of us arrived, the oldest had already moved out. Being spread across the country now, from Portland to Houston to Myrtle Beach, doesn’t help the situation. My parents were divorced when I was very young, so we don’t even have a common upbringing that we can all relate to. It’s just hard to come up with stuff to talk about when we don’t share much more than a last name, and two of us don’t even share that.

One thing we did share was a love of San Diego sports. We could always fall back on the Padres and Chargers, usually discussing how bad they were. That is the power of sports, what they can do at their best even when the teams are the worst. And make no mistake, the Chargers were at their worst more often than not, making the playoffs in only 17 of their 56 seasons in America’s Finest City. The Padres certainly haven’t been any better, but it didn’t matter. Even shared misery can bring a city together. Sports can create friends out of people who would otherwise never associate; like my family, they give people something to have in common with each other. They don’t just sell the product on the field; they sell civic pride.

And it’s all fake.

We all know this. At least, we should. Professional sports franchises don’t care about their cities beyond how they can use them to make a buck. Which, by the way, is fine. They’re businesses like any other, and making money is what business is for. If the Chargers can’t dupe the taxpayers of San Diego into financing a billion-dollar playhouse, then they have every right to pack up and move. The problem isn’t that they shouldn’t be able to leave if they want to; the problem is the false advertising. No, they don’t really fight for you.

As an adult, that’s obvious. But professional sports aren’t just for adults. They’re everything that the tobacco industry is accused of; gotta get ’em while they’re young. And boy, did they have me. Growing up, the Chargers were always part of my own personal identity. I was born in San Diego, but I moved to Virginia when I was only eight. Being a Chargers fan on the East Coast was how I carved my own little niche. When everyone else wore burgundy, I wore blue. They had Art Monk, I had Dan Fouts. It helped me to feel unique, which is an important thing for a child. It helped me to feel connected to my hometown. It was one little bit of consistency in a life that was spent moving every two or three years.

I shouldn’t care about this team, and maybe I don’t. When Dean Spanos hired former Los Angeles deputy mayor Mark Fabiani as his counsel back in 2002, everybody knew that the eventual endgame would be the Chargers leaving town. It started the erosion of my fandom, and I haven’t been an avid follower of the team for years. It’s not the team I care about losing as much as it is the connections– to my family, to my city, and to my past. Now I’m just a bitter old man writing a letter to nobody in particular as if expressing all of this matters one bit. It doesn’t, just like it didn’t matter when countless other fans wrote similar pieces when their cities lost a team. I am a cliche, and I feel stupid for ever caring at all.

Back when the CBS Sports Network was known as CSTV, they had an ad campaign that showed a father and son playing catch in their backyard. The kid showed some talent in his arm, and the father walked up to him and said (paraphrasing), “son, you’ve got a gift. So we’re going to sign with a great agent and get you the biggest contract we can!” The tagline at the end was, “Don’t let pro sports happen to you.”

How right they were.

All Good Things…

It’s so easy to be a Navy football fan today. Every game is on television, and the internet allows us to follow the program from all corners of the globe. The days of dialing into Teamline to listen to the radio broadcast over the phone are long gone, and coverage only increased as Navy started winning again in 2003.

It was boom times for the program back when I started this blog nine (!) years ago. Yet even though there was more access than ever to Navy football, I didn’t feel like people were any smarter about it. You know the feeling… Navy’s got a big game coming up. You tune into TV to see what the supposed experts have to say about it. Then you’re treated to a buffet of platitudes. Navy’s a plucky bunch of overachievers that will never quit, you see. They’ll play all four quarters. And that offense, it’s tricky, but I just don’t think they have the athletes to beat the defense’s speed.

At some point, you realize that you’re hearing the same things over and over again.

And that was my problem. The program was treated as a novelty. The offense was viewed as a gimmick. Nobody took either seriously. I remember Sonny Lubick, at halftime of the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl, saying that he was caught off guard by Navy’s speed. The comment caused Chris Fowler to remark, “If you’re impressed by service academy speed, then your team must have some thick ankles.” Reggie Campbell was running fast enough to travel back in time in that game, but not fast enough to escape the clichés. There was no shortage of news, but analysis and educated discussion that treated Navy with respect as a football program was in short supply.

That’s really all I had in mind when I started: to write the kind of stuff that I wanted to read.

By that measure, I’d say that The Birddog Blog has been a success, not that entertaining myself is the highest standard to meet. I think it’s accomplished a little more than just that, too. This has become a great community of die-hard Navy fans, and there has been more than one occasion when your comments were better than what I wrote in the post. Other outlets might have a bigger audience, but I doubt they have a better one. I’d never be able to prove it, but I firmly believe that some of the discussions we’ve had here have even had a small effect on how Navy is covered by more mainstream outlets, particularly with regard to the option offense. This blog has been a great learning tool for me, and a pretty significant part of my life.

That’s why it’s difficult for me to announce that this will be my last post here.

OK, so that’s a bit misleading. Yes, this is my last post here, but this doesn’t mean you guys will be rid of me. I’m turning out the lights on this site and moving to a new building. Today, I am launching The Mid Report, the new Navy site on the Rivals network.

This was a difficult decision for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the time commitment it takes to run a Rivals site. Here, I just write a couple thousand words whenever I have something to say, but with Rivals, I’ll have to churn out a lot more on a regular basis. That’s going to be a challenge, but it will also make me a better writer. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Still, it’s not a change I’m entirely comfortable making. As with all Rivals sites, there will be a subscription component to it, and I feel like it’s arrogant to think that anyone would pay to read what I write. Maybe nobody will, although apparently someone seems to think that it’s worth the risk. I’ve gone back and forth on whether I agreed ever since I was first presented with the possibility a little more than a year ago. Ultimately, I do, for a few reasons.

I’ve been approached with offers to write for other sites in the past, but Rivals is the first one I’ve felt comfortable with. With Rivals, the site is mine. I keep editorial control. I get to choose who contributes. I get to choose what I write about. I can essentially keep writing the things you’re used to seeing from The Birddog Blog, but with access to more resources that will allow me to provide even more content. There will be growing pains as I figure out the best way to utilize those resources, but over time they will make it possible to fulfill my vision for a hub of intelligent Navy discussion.

Besides, if I don’t do it, someone else will. Navy is coming off of its best football season in decades. They’ve joined a conference, which adds a whole new group of people who will want to follow the team. There is more interest in Navy football now than there has been in my lifetime, yet coverage of the program hasn’t grown along with it. With consolidation of different media outlets and newspaper budgets being slashed, the opposite is true. There is more demand for Navy coverage than is currently being met. Someone is going to fill that vacuum, and the way I see it, it’s better if it’s me. Otherwise, the moment that some other person writes something I disagree with, it’ll be my own fault for not seizing the opportunity when I had the chance.

In a small way, I think it will be good for the program. It’s one thing for me to pontificate from my little soapbox here, but it’s a whole different ballgame to do so as part of an established national network. Rivals gives me the chance to bring a Navy point of view– whether it’s with recruiting, conference realignment, or any other trending topic– to a much larger audience. The more people who understand Navy, the better. I also think it helps with overall perception; it simply looks good to have a presence on Rivals. Sometimes news will be good, sometimes news will be bad, but honest coverage leads to greater understanding and will be beneficial for everyone in the long run. Sure, it’s only a small impact, but it’s the impact I’m in a position to make.

So that’s that. Before I close up shop, though, I need to thank a few people who helped me out here and made this opportunity possible. (I’m not sure who wants to remain anonymous so I’ll keep it vague. You can out yourselves in the comments if you want!)

I am exceedingly grateful for the trust placed in me by several people at the Naval Academy, particularly the Sports Information staff. The fact that I was already credentialed made me an easy choice for Rivals once they decided the time was right to launch a Navy site. I also am thankful for members of the media that have treated me as a colleague and not some random internet dweeb. Both groups have extended me every courtesy even though I deserved none of it.

Finally, so many readers have pitched in behind the scenes to make my life easier. I’ve received countless notes of appreciation. When my DVD recorder broke, another one appeared on my doorstep a week later thanks to a reader that didn’t use his. When family duties required my attention, some of you even wrote blog posts to cover for me. When I wanted to design a logo for the blog, another reader actually paid for a graphic designer. Two blog readers with businesses even made Birddog-themed items for me. A few readers found recordings of old Navy games and were kind enough to send them to me. I have been the recipient of many beers and dinners. Some of you have acted as my proxies at the Sale of the Century. I know that whenever I go to Annapolis, I’ll have a place to stay and a tailgate waiting for me. I’m grateful for everything.

This is all sounding way more melodramatic than I wanted. The bottom line is that I think this is a good thing. I’m excited about the opportunity. Thank you all for reading this blog, and I hope you will join me at The Mid Report.

On Big 12 Expansion and Navy

When I left last week to go on vacation, Big 12 expansion was considered a dead topic. There would be no Big 12 television network, and there didn’t seem to be much of a reason to expand without one. It seemed like a safe time to head out to camp in the desert for a few days. Now that I’ve returned, I’m wondering if the heat might have made me hallucinate. Not only is expansion back on, but it’s imminent. And it could be as many as four schools! And Bill Wagner is campaigning for Navy!

That’s the last time I take a vacation.

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Army’s Retention Problems

Like any other school, graduation is the highlight of the year at the service academies. That isn’t the case for everybody, though. The end of the school year also means that some midshipmen and cadets with low grades will have their fate determined by the Superintendent and senior faculty at an academic board. Not everyone makes it through.

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DOD Gets it Wrong

When the news broke that Joe Cardona had reported to his ship after the Patriots’ season ended, I was optimistic that the Navy hadn’t lost its way. Playing football for a few months that would have otherwise been spent doing busy work was reasonable, and it wouldn’t interfere with a naval career. Even if Cardona was allowed to return to the team after two years, he’d at least have his SWO pin and a good story to tell. It wouldn’t be my preference, but if nothing else I could make an intellectually honest argument to justify it.

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