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      Do the Collapse

      October 3, 2011
      From the column 'The Mercy Rule'

      sox2
      We have only so many hours on Earth, and only so many reasons to spend some of those watching sports. None of these reasons are wrong, exactly. If recent or cumulative drug/alcohol intake, comically extreme obesity, crippling ennui, or an inexplicable quasi-erotic fascination with vexed-walrus/Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid have consigned you to your couch, that is both fine and awesome. Enjoy your drugs/high-cholesterol snacks/ennui/Reid-induced-half-boner, and enjoy your sports. But if there's a deeper reason for watching sports than all of the above, it boils down to (to quote Kirk Van Houten) borrowing a feeling—cadging a little second-hand uplift from the immense quantities thrown off by the games we watch. But we're consuming something significantly stranger than uplift when we watch a team experience a slow-but-total failure, as the Boston Red Sox did down the stretch and as your beloved Andy Reid's (seriously, that is weird of you) Eagles are so far in the NFL season.

      The easy answer is that we're feeling some shade of schadenfreude. This makes sense, given the pyrotechnic loutishness of the two fan bases in question. Boston fans have spent their last wildly successful decade making mournful documentaries about how they suffered back in the sucky old days and crying great aggro Narragansett-scented tears of delight or dismay about some championship or near-championship or other. Philadelphia fans, for their part, have stuck to their core competencies of being spectacularly angry about things that no one will remember in six hours and staging targeted vomit-assaults on preteens.

      But there's more to the vicarious experience of a full-spectrum collapse than the simple satisfaction of knowing that it really annoyed some jerks. Try to read Dan Shaughnessy's ultra-dramatic, intermittently coherent analysis of Manager Terry Francona's last days in Boston, and you'll notice a couple of things. The first of these is that Shaughnessy has a very difficult time with metaphors. The other is that, even by the standards of a weepy/surly corned beef—which is more or less the emotional and intellectual level at which his columns are pitched—Shaughnessy is utterly baffled as to how to fix a team that was arguably the best in baseball for four months before losing 20 of 27 games in September to blow a sure-thing postseason spot. The same goes for the preemptive rip-jobs on the embalmed-looking Eagles, a preseason dream team that has lost three of its first four games.

      There are explanations, some of them convincing. The Red Sox, for all their well-compensated talent, had some serious not-giving-a-shit issues, as evidenced by players drilling brews in the clubhouse during games and much moonfaced lollygagging up the first base line. The Eagles plugged high-priced names into high-profile positions, neglected the football equivalent of basic infrastructure, and could now allow 125 rushing yards to Oliver Platt on any given Sunday.

      That is the factual stuff, and it's boring. What adds that weirdly gripping element to these collapses is how easily these insignificant jock-powered collapses can be projected onto less-insignificant national issues. The one metaphor that Dan Shaughnessy won't reach for—how the Red Sox's collapse was powered by the same sour smallness, lard-assed lackadaiscality, and broader lack of purpose that birthed America's current state of fucked-and-bloaty inertia—is the one that makes the most sense. Which makes watching these microcosmic empire collapses an edgier, stranger type of emotional experience than sports usually provide. This is probably not an emotion you'd choose to borrow, but those of us on the couch can finally only take the type of thrill that the guys on the television are giving. And while it may be different for you because of your Reid fetish—talk to someone about that, please—the particular thrill the TV’s been dishing out lately is the complicated, queasy, if not entirely unfun species of bad vibe that comes from watching something great fail greatly.

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