Thursday, May 26, 2016

Change It.

Baylor Univeristy head football coach Art Briles was fired on Thursday, amid a scandal whose details are becoming more horrifying than they already were as further information becomes public. The recently-released key findings pdf of the Pepper Hamilton report details an institutional culture that repeatedly ignored, marginalized, and/or directly threatened victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence while shielding and covering up for those responsible, many of them football players.  According to reports from a variety of outlets including ESPN, Deadspin, and SBNation, this behavior extended to every conceivable level, from Briles to AD Ian McCaw to Baylor President Kenneth Starr to the Waco Police Department.  (McCaw and Starr have been penalized but not dismissed from the university at the time of this writing.)  All of this, sadly, sounds very familiar in the context of sports, sexual and domestic violence, and misogyny at large. 

Purely talking about college football in recent memory, we have similar cases involving Jameis Winston at FSU and (still-waiting-for-the-other-shoe) Peyton Manning and other athletes at Tennessee.  As for pro athletes, we need look no further than Ben Rothlisberger, Aroldis Chapman, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Kobe Bryant.

A few words on the latter two: We just watched Kobe play a farewell-tour season in which he was showered in accolades and boatloads of florid prose were heaped upon his accomplishments on the court.  Scant mention was ever made during all this of what happened in Eagle, Colorado.  When Hardy was released by the Panthers, pundits speculating on where he might resume his career talked in terms of "bad optics" or "a public relations problem", ignoring entirely the fact that the real problem was a man who more or less skated on his inability to behave like a human being.

All of these people, from Baylor to Bryant, have a few salient things in common. 1. They're men.  2. They were accused of sexual assault or domestic violence against women. 3. Their status as notable athletes allowed them, through varying channels and to varying degrees, to circumvent the consequences of their alleged actions. 

Young women were subjected to awful, tragic, life-altering events.  They were then systematically shamed and ignored by the various academic and league institutions and law enforcement agencies ostensibly designed to protect them.  These are the most visceral examples, but far from the only ones.  This is the worst of it, but far from the totality of heinousness that women endure in sports. 

Consider the recent ESPNW PSA in which men read aloud and on camera some of the truly despicable invective hurled at female sports media personalities on Twitter.  Or you could look to Seattle, Washington, where a recent city council vote led to a similar rash of garbage aimed at the councilwomen who voted against the building of a new arena designed to lure an NBA or NHL team to the city.

Look, too, at the US Women's Soccer Team having to boycott matches because they were not afforded safe, decent playing surfaces.  Look at them having to wage a legal battle for an equal pay scale. 

The names and specifics change, but it's always the same dismal cycle, time and time again.  Male athletes do unspeakable things to the women around them and go scot-free because they are staggering revenue generators for their schools, teams, leagues, etc.  Female athletes and female sports journalists are harassed, threatened, demeaned, marginalized and belittled; denied equal respect, remuneration, and acclaim, constantly in a 24/7 churn of institutional prejudice and misogynistic social-media bile.

All of this, the assaults and violence, the harassment and marginalization, stems from a single abomination in our society: the ethos that says "women are less."  Less capable.  Less deserving of our admiration and respect.  Less knowledgeable.  Less than human.  Obviously, this is sickeningly pervasive in all aspects of our lives, but nowhere does this fundamental problem scream more loudly than in sports. 

This is all clearly utter fucking crap, so here are a few things I would like to see happen:

1. If you're a lawyer or government official reading this: I know there's a whole mess of Constitutional and legal wrangling here, but: we need the Laws of the Land amended in such a way that violent crimes committed by men against women can be prosecuted as hate crimes.  Because often, that's exactly what they are.  We also need a legal system that functions as intended and doesn't NOT slap cuffs on someone just because he had 100 rushing yards or tossed up a triple double last week.

2. If you're a male reading this: police your friends.  Derisive comments, jokes, et al aimed at women are symptomatic of the deeper issue here, and we can start changing that mentality only if we speak up.  So please, explain to those around you who say those kinds of things, who think and feel that way, why they're wrong.  Tell them, in no uncertain terms, to knock that shit off.  If they can alter their behavior and perceptions, that's a start.  If they won't listen, they are garbage excuses for human beings and you should punt them into the sun at your earliest convenience.   

3. If you're a parent reading this: parent your sons.  Teach them why damn near everything they are being told to think and feel regarding women by the media and society is, to varying degrees, completely wrong.  Teach them to be not only respectful, but active in supporting and encouraging the girls and women in their lives.  Teach them to value everyone equally, and to never do anything that would lessen that value. 

4. If you're reading this: engage positively with women in sports.  Check out a WNBA or women's college hoops game, and I promise you'll enjoy the experience.  The NCAA Women's College World Series is starting soon, and if your alma mater isn't in the field, there are a bunch of really enjoyable teams out there, so pick a bandwagon and hop on.  Follow the NWSL, or get into women's hockey.  Read female sports columnists and listen to their podcasts and commentary in other outlets.  If you agree with their positions and takes and think they're doing good work, let them know.  There is a wealth of fantastic stuff out there in the sports world revolving around women, and you should seek it out, partly because it's a proactive way to help, but mostly because it's really excellent shit and if you're not getting in on it then you're missing out.  

5. Most of all, just stop.  Stop and think about how awful, how pervasive and persistent all of this is. 

Then, do your best, as much and as often as you can, to change it. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Braves Go To Art Class

When I was a little kid, art class was definitely the highlight of my school day.  This was mostly because I spent a lot of time in my own head growing up, and it was the one opportunity throughout the grind of elementary school where you weren't required to focus on anyone or anything other than your own task.  Sure, occasionally you had to work with other students on a project, but it was mostly everyone making their own Thingy Of The Day.  No listening to the teachers, no interacting with the other horrible little shits that many 1st-5th graders so often are.  It was a blissful, brief period of isolation, and I loved it.

 I was, roughly speaking, a little above average at art.  My clay pots were admittedly just as lumpy and misshapen as the next kid's, but I was really good at drawing and painting, and better than most at building stuff with wood and/or metal.  But oh, I had a nemesis in the art room, a tool whose very existence seemed to mock me every time we were compelled to utilize it.  That's right: your garden-variety, crappy art class pair of scissors.  This was partly due to the era in which I grew up.  I'm a lefty, and our other-handed needs just weren't seen as important back then, so every pair of scissors was a battle from jump with their inherent righty prejudice.  The other thing is that the motor skills necessary to wield scissors with precision and effectiveness are simply not in my DNA.  (Feel free to verify this with anyone who's ever opened a gift from me and seen the sad, jagged tatters of wrapping paper on the bottom of the box.)  As a result, every project that involved cutting shapes out of construction paper or making picture collages came out as pretty much a complete disaster.  Sure, if you squinted hard, you could make out a vague resemblance to what the thing was SUPPOSED to be, but it was mostly just a mess.

The Atlanta Braves' front office is second-grade me with a pair of scissors.

Just look at this heap of garbage:

That's our Opening Day roster for the 2016 season.  Much like my scissors-based art output, it sorta-kinda resembles the thing it's supposed to be (i.e. a major league roster), but is mostly a poorly-constructed, nonsensical approximation thereof.  There is no logic or forethought, no skill or smarts or vision,  evident anywhere in that list. 

The Braves went to art class.  They snipped and snipped away the soul of the team, took the mangled remains, pasted some other raggedy cutouts on a moldy piece of poster board they found in the very back of the supply cabinet, and now we all have to live with the result.  Sigh.  Happy almost-Opening Day, y'all.  Don't let me near the scissors.  I've been drinking.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Backdoor Cut

Just before the trade deadline, there was talk of starting a rebuild.  The Hawks were having a middling season, nestled in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race and playing largely uninspired basketball.  Rumors had longtime franchise cornerstones Jeff Teague and Al Horford on the block.  Moving either or both would have altered the immediate trajectory of the team and the season for the worse, but the thinking was understandable.  It was easy to feel that this current iteration had reached its ceiling.  It was also reasonable to look at the Cavs and Raptors (possibly even the Celtics) and see too-long odds going forward.  Maybe it was time to take a step back and retool.

Or maybe not.  Other than a negligible move that sent Shelvin Mack to Utah and brought Kirk Hinrich back to Atlanta, the Hawks ultimately chose to stand pat.  They stumbled through the end of February, going 2-3 after the deadline, and looked pretty much resigned to a .500-ish end of the season.  Then, quietly, something started happening on a west-coast road trip.  It began with a loss.

For a team that was one of the NBA's surprise darlings just last year, scant mention has been of Atlanta this season.  The focus has, quite understandably, been on the Cavs in the East and the Spurs and Warriors in the West.  As you may have heard, neither of the latter two have lost at home yet this year, and it's an easy narrative to fit the Hawks' loss to Golden State on March 1st into that framework.  But I believe that defeat galvanized the team.  They walked into the impregnable fortress that Oracle Arena has been for the Dubs, traded punches with a juggernaut of literally historical proportions, and juuuust came out on the wrong end of a measly four-point margin in overtime, 109-105.  Granted, Steph Curry was in street clothes nursing an injured ankle, but it was still an affirmation that Atlanta could contend with the best team in the league.  The script has flipped for the Hawks ever since.

They've won eight of their last nine games, including four against playoff teams (Clips, Griz, Rockets and Pacers) and two more against squads that could easily make the postseason (Utah and Detroit, both sitting just out of the 8-seeds in their respective conferences.)  Last night's win over Houston, their 5th in a row, gave them the third best record in the East.

Over that 5-game win streak, Al Horford and Paul Millsap have combined to average 34 points and 16 rebounds per game.  Kyle Korver, who has struggled at times to regain his torrid marksmanship from last year, has shot 53.8% from deep.  Jeff Teague has put up 13 points and 8 assists a night, and backup point guard Dennis Schroder has notched 10 and 4 in just under 17 minutes per game.  Recent acquisition Kris Humphries has made solid contributions off the bench and given the team some interior depth.  And hoo boy, let's talk about Tim Hardaway Jr.  The much-maligned Draft Day maneuver that brought Hardaway to Atlanta is finally paying some dividends, and he's been absolutely blistering in his last two games: 59.05 FG%, 60.7(!!!) 3FG%, 93.75 FT%, and 20.5 PPG.  Good gawd.

As a team over that five-game stretch, the Hawks have outscored opponents 108-93 on average.  They're +10 in turnover margin, and playing the same hellacious defense that's had them ranked second only to the Spurs in Defensive Efficiency for most of the season.  They're still atrocious on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (dead last in the league in ORR with a paltry 19.4), but otherwise they're playing superb all-around basketball and cohering at precisely the right moment.  Which raises an interesting question: what of the Hawks' postseason chances?

Look, just hear me out on this for a second.  Last year was lightning in a bottle.  60 wins, the top seed in the East, four All Star selections, a COY for Bud, and the team's first ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Then LeBron and the Cavs decimated us in a clean sweep, and everyone remembered that all that sublime team basketball doesn't usually pay off without at least one elite-caliber player to take on the onus come playoff time.  But there was so, so much pressure and scrutiny on that team.  They had the weight of unfair expectations pressing down on them, and they folded.  This year, no one is talking about Atlanta.  The pressure is elsewhere, on the Warriors chasing 73 and the Cavs' myriad chemistry issues both on and off the court.  The Hawks are in a position they're much more accustomed to: flying under the radar.  Barring a massive shakeup in the standings, they'll likely face either the Hornets or Celtics in Round 1, both very winnable series with a home court advantage.  If they can survive a second-round matchup with someone (Miami? Indy?) and get back to the ECF, what then?

Everyone's been saying for months now that the Raptors are the sole legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East, but the way they're playing right now, couldn't Atlanta beat either of those teams?  They're deeper than Toronto, and have none of the dysfunction that's been threatening to implode the Cavs all season.  They've also been through the crucible of a Conference Finals now, a year older and wiser and more battle-tested than they were.  Could they ride hot shooting and lockdown defense through seven games with the Raps?  Could they beat a Cavs team whose internal struggles may overwhelm or at least hamper LeBron's individual brilliance?  You wanna bet Mike Budenholzer can't outcoach the bejesus out of Ty Lue in that series?  We'll get a decent preview of both possible matchups before the end of the season, as the Hawks have two games apiece left against Toronto and Cleveland, one home and one away for each.  If they can show up strong in those four contests, I'll be ready to believe.  For now, Atlanta can continue to play carefree basketball, oblivious to the noise of the league, knowing exactly how dangerous they are and how few people are acknowledging that fact.  Sometimes it's better to be sneaky good; to let the league keep their collective eyes on the titans holding the ball while you make a backdoor cut. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.9 and 1.10

The end of the season did not go well for our beloved Heels.  After topping BC on the road and Virginia Tech at home, we dropped the final five games to finish the year at 14-17, going 4-12 in conference play.  Ags and I caught the final two home contests, last Sunday against NC State, and this afternoon against Duke.  Here's the postmortem. 

1.9 - NC State, Feb 21.  We watched an incredibly janky video feed of Carolina "at" State a few weeks ago.  (While they renovate Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack are playing their home games in a Raleigh high school gym, and the tape looked exactly like a junior AV club production of a sporting event.)  In retrospect, it was just as well the contrast was fuzzy and the camera didn't always track correctly.  State crushed the Heels 78-49, completely dismantling them in the second half.  We were hopeful a rematch at home might turn the tables, but despite Steph cranking out 30 points and 13 rebounds and Des and Jamie each scoring 13, the Wolfpack overwhelmed Carolina again.  They out-shot us 43.8% to 32.1% from the field and killed us on the glass at both ends.  Besides Steph's bonkers outing, the one other flashing moment of brightness in the gloom came from 'Dea, who made one of the most freakishly athletic plays I've seen all season.  She went airborne to block a shot in the paint, came down for a fraction of an instant, and then somehow sprang right back up again to block a second attempt.  I mean, she didn't even need to bend her knees on the second block, she just pinged off the floor like it was a trampoline.  It was incredible.  That lady is a goddess, y'all. 

1.10 - Duke, February 28.  It was Senior Day today, and the reality of not watching 'Dea and Erika next season hit me hard during the pregame ceremony.  (It got a little dusty in Carmichael for a second, is all I'm saying.)  It was also Sylvia Hatchell's 64th birthday, and it pains me to say she did not have a happy one.  I don't even really want to write about it.  Duke has had a fairly mediocre season, but they are huge and athletic and they shot the holy hell out of the ball today.  The first half, and particularly the second quarter, was nearly flawless for the Blue Devils.  They moved the ball, forced turnovers, essentially doubled the Heels' FG%, and went 7-14 from deep.  By contrast, Carolina couldn't buy a bucket or a stop all afternoon.  The game was over at halftime and the indignity only worsened as the margin blew out down the stretch.  The game, and the season, came to an end 93-57.  It was a rough year. 

There's still the ACC Tournament, and a chance to maybe tilt the scales of that aforementioned 4-12 conference record back to a more favorable ratio.  We'll be watching.  Go Heels.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.7 And 1.8

Guh.  On January 7th, we watched the Heels play a whirlwind game against Syracuse, capping a six-game win streak with a phenomenal second half performance.  In retrospect, that moment resembled nothing so much as Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff into open space and continuing to sprint on thin air.  He can make it, the silly creature, if he just keeps pumping those scrawny cartoon legs and remains blissfully ignorant to the reality of the situation.

Everything that's happened to Carolina since has been the moment where he looks down.  A forlorn glance at the camera, a poink poink eye blink, and he vanishes from the frame.  Cut to an overhead shot of him, all four limbs splayed out, sound-tracked by a cheesy "bombs away" slide whistle as he recedes at terminal velocity toward the canyon floor.  There is a puff of smoke on impact.  Then he's clawing his way out of a crater that is a perfect silhouette of his person, walking all scrunched up and mangled while accordion music plays.  His brow is comically furrowed as he slinks off screen.  The shot fades out.

That Syracuse game, almost a month ago, is the most recent victory the Heels have notched this season.  They've now lost seven straight, all except one (Georgia Tech) by double digits.  Sylvia Hatchell earned a two-game suspension, and Xylina McDaniel is out for the season with yet another soul-crushing injury in a career that's already seen far too many.  I've seen two of those bleak outings in person. 

1.7: Miami, January 17th.  Aggie's parents were in town, so we traded our usual season tickets for a four-pack one section over and went to the game with them.  I've been ranting all year about our short bench being the eventual death of us, and losing Xylina really was the nail in the coffin.  The first time Sylvia subbed in Erika Johnson, I looked at Ags' father and said "well, you've just seen the entire bench rotation."  (This is not entirely the coaches' fault.  Four of the kiddos on that bench are either injured or sitting out a season because of transfers.  I just think they should be giving the ones that can play more burn, partly to get them some in-game run, but mostly to give the starters a break.  The cumulative effect of that many minutes can linger, and I worry about what happens down the road.)  Anyway, the Miami was not a good showing.  Steph had 9 boards and a team-high 19 points, but she did so on an inefficient 8-23 from the floor.  Both 'Dea and Hill tossed up double-doubles, but for naught.  Corlina hung close in the first half and clawed back to several ties, but never led again after a 14-13 edge late in the opening quarter.  Miami didn't blow us off the floor, they just outplayed us consistently all game long.  When the buzzer sounded, it felt like a much worse loss than the 76-61 final would indicate.

1.8: Louisville, February 4.  Tonight's game was rough viewing.  We started by spotting the Cardinals two points before opening tip on a pregame administrative technical foul which, whatever. The refs were garbage all night and I continue to believe that ACC officials are the most incompetent humans walking the earth.  Once again, the ladies came out strong and played an excellent first half.  Then, as in every game since 'Cuse, the second half went dismal as our legs went out from under us.  The 10-point lead the Heels had with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter evaporated in a wash of bricks and turnovers and overall haphazard play.  They never recovered because recovery can't happen without rest, and their is none to give with our current rotational dearth.  Carolina gamely plugged away, but all of 'Dea's heart and truly astounding athleticism, all of Des and Steph's dynamism, couldn't do it at half-speed.  Their legs are gone, and they won't be back this season.  And Jamie, poor Jamie Cherry.  Pumpkin looks exhausted.  Leading the team, playing damn near nonstop every game because there simply is no one else.  She has the weight of the world on her right now, and it's taking a toll.

The starters (plus Erika) can hang with anyone in the country.  I really believe that.  South Carolina, UConn, anyone.  They're that good.  Jamie is turning into a superb floor general.  'Dea is a goddess of the hybrid wing/post.  Des is a freaking offensive wizard.  Steph can do everything, including ridiculous chase-down blocks like the one she had tonight.  Hill throws up double-doubles with ease.  Erika is the perfect sixth player off the bench.  But right now every contest is a crash site somewhere in the third quarter because they have literally zero help.  That's unsustainable no matter how great the talent, how exacting and refined the fitness and conditioning regimen.  Dead legs can't win games, and this is a team full of them right now.

And you know what?  They don't care.  They will fight and scrap and be brilliant even unto the point of exhaustion.  Given the totality of the variables stacked against them, this was maybe always going to be a lost season, but they damn sure aren't going to quit.  And we will love them for it and be there for the whole glorious experience.   

Go Heels.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Warriors Remake A Beloved Childhood Movie.

About four minutes into the first quarter of last night's biggest game, I looked at Ags and said: "I think Golden State's gonna lose this one."  Given the season so far, I was aware of how impetuous and incredibly stupid that sounded, but just hear me out.  The Warriors were on the second night of a road back-to-back, fresh off a game that should never have required a Harrison Barnes buzzer beater to win it.  On Saturday night they had Philadelphia, running joke of the NBA for the past few seasons, smoked by 24 points midway through the 3rd quarter.  The starters were sitting down, waiting as they've done so often this season to watch the bench mop up a fourth quarter composed entirely of garbage time.  Then the Sixers started doing stuff. 

And while they were doing that stuff, Golden State couldn't buy a bucket, couldn't play much defense either, and coughed up a genuinely perplexing array of turnovers.  Philly went on the kind of scoring spree no one is supposed to have against the Dubs, first winnowing the deficit back under twenty, then down to ten.  At some point during this insane run of David sling-shotting pebbles at Goliath and connecting on most of them, Steve Kerr realized they couldn't just ride it out.  Back on the floor went the starters, having to uncoil their muscles and psyches from the relaxation of watching a blowout from the bench and extend themselves again.  (Draymond Green admitted in a post-game interview that he felt responsible for chasing a triple double at the expense of the team.  This was a commendably honest attempt to shoulder the onus for the Warriors' second-half problems, but let's be real: the whole team had a messy hand in that skid.)  

Somehow Philly managed to tie the game up at 105-105 with 22 seconds to play.  Then, for the first time in a completely listless quarter-and-a-half of basketball, Golden State remembered who they are and what they do for one crucial, final posession.  Steph Curry dribbled to the right side of the arc and whipped a pass to inside to Draymond Green just below the free throw line while Harrison Barnes stood in the right corner.  Sixers forward Jerami Grant left Barnes to help on Green, I mean ... just collapsed to the inside and left a dude shooting nearly 40% from deep this season very, very wide open.  Green immediately pinged it to Barnes before Philly could even start to recover.  He canned the trey and walked off for a 108-105 victory.  It was a beautiful play; precisely the sort of whirring, pick-your-poison ball movement that makes the Warriors so dangerous.  It absolutely should not have been necessary, except the Warriors looked and played like tired, fallible humans for once, so it was. 

Anyway, that's why I stupidly thought last night would be a loss for Golden State.  They'd been forced to lurch out of their accustomed easy confidence and push themselves to a win against a vastly inferior team they thought they'd already beaten.  They had looked despondent for most of Saturday's second half, and they were now traveling directly into the maw of Madison Square Garden, no days off, no recovery.  The Garden atmosphere was, predictably, that of a denser and infinitely louder Wagnerian opera for the biggest game of the season. (Barring a playoff appearance that is still very much a possibility.) 

The first quarter looked like my intuition might be worth something.  The Warriors once again couldn't hit shots, played poor defense, and turned the ball over too much.  Steph had a sub-pedestrian game overall, going 5-17 from the field for just 13 points with 4 dimes and 4 boards.  Fortunately for Golden State, Draymond tossed up a 20-10-10, Klay Thompson poured in 34 points, and Shaun Livingston kicked in 11 off the bench.  Conversely for the Kincks, Aaron Afflalo, Langston Galloway, and Derrick Williams pretty much shot their own team out of the game, combining for an abysmal 9-37 from the floor. 

The Warriors were up six at the half, opened the 3rd quarter with a blitzkrieg, and ended up winning 116-95.  Even with that cruddy opening frame and Curry playing fairly atrocious basketball by his standards, they made sort, brutal work of the Knicks once they shook that tired doofishness out of their collective game.

Look, I figured they were due is all.  Golden State won't lose very many games this season, but last night seemed like it had a decent chance to be one of those anomalies.  I swear, at the time, it really did.  I doubted them, but I've learned my lesson.  Right now, I am Buttercup having just tumbled down that hill in the Princess Bride, and the Warriors are Wesley.  This without the True Love overtones, of course.  My heart already belongs to another.  (Go Hawks.)  But still, I know how she felt.  "I will never doubt again." 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conflicted: Rooting For Carolina In The Superbowl.

Everyone always talks about Cleveland as Exhibit A in tortured sports history.  Earnest Byner, The Drive, 10-Cent Beer Night, The Decision, etc.  It's a long list and it's all very sad and I sometimes have to fight the urge to give a consoling hug to any stranger I see wearing a Cleveland team's regalia out in public.  Growing up an Atlanta sports fan hasn't been quite that bad, but it's been damned close. 

Yes, yes, I know.  Because of the Braves in 1995, we can't profess to have that same totality of anguish.  Also, I am grateful to have been born somewhere that doesn't have that peculiar Midwestern Rust Belt thing where you take a perverse sort of pride in all that suffering and futility.  We deal with the misery, we don't celebrate it.  We do occasionally wish Cleveland would quit bitching about it, though, because we have a different and more insidious sports problem that we don't talk about much.  Let's call it The Curse of the Divisional Younger Sibling.  To wit:

The Braves came to Atlanta in 1966, and have only that aforementioned '95 World Series.  The Marlins entered the NL East in 1993 and have since won two championships. 

The Hawks migrated south from St. Louis in 1968.  They made their first ever Eastern Conference Finals last season, and promptly got swept by the Cavs in disastrous fashion.  The Miami Heat came into the Southeast Division in 1988 and have three banners in the rafters of the Triple-A. 

This is the life of Atlanta sports fans: watching expansion franchises with a fraction of our history and heritage outstrip our teams' greatest accomplishments in exceedingly short order.  And even within that staggeringly dreary context, the Falcons have somehow distinguished themselves as our most wretched team. 

They played their first NFL season in 1966, the same season as the first Super Bowl.  It took them 33 tortured, dog-ass years to finally make it to one of their own.  Two notable occurrences in the interim:

1. The Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals.  This is one of my clearest childhood memories, watching two absolute gods trade buckets on the hardwood, with my guy and my team coming up just short.

2. Here's how starved for any measure of success Atlanta sports fans were and mostly still are: The worst-to-first Braves lost a heartbreaking pitcher's duel because Bobby Cox stupidly wouldn't trust John Smoltz for one more inning in the final game of the 1991 World Series.  When they came home, we threw them a parade.  That's how grateful Atlanta was for any brief flash of hope; we feted the losing team like kings just for getting that far. 

(You could make a plausible argument that Bird/Nique was the greatest NBA game ever played and that the '91 World Series was the best of all time.  This is another hallmark of Atlanta sports: coming out on the wrong end of historically transcendent moments.) 

Back to the Falcons and their lone Super Bowl appearance.  We started the season 9-0 and finished 14-2, birthing the Dirty Bird and its accompanying ethos along the way.  'Nique, Deion and (later) Mike Vick notwithstanding, swagger is not something Atlanta is accustomed to with its sports teams, but the 1998 Falcons had it in spades.  The whole city was turnt to a preposterous degree.  When Morton Anderson put one through the uprights in overtime to win the NFC Championship game, it was difficult not to feel that our perpetually beleaguered football team was destined to bring the whole thing off.

You know what happened next.  First there was the ill omen of Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson getting popped for solicitation by an undercover vice cop on the eve of the game.  Everything that followed was of a piece with that ignominious beginning, and was pretty much what you'd expect if your team has Chris Chandler under center and the opposition has John Elway.  Denver obliterated us wholesale.  By the way, in the most Atlanta-sports-y moment ever, a power outage caused a swath of residents north of town to miss the halftime show and opening minutes of the third quarter.  When this happened, the group of friends I was watching with pulled out our boxy late-90s cell phones and started calling until we found someone whose lights were still on.  Then we piled into cars and hauled ass over there well in excess of the speed limit.  In retrospect, we'd have been better off just sitting in the dark. 

That game took place fourteen years ago, and still stands as the historical apex of Falcons football.  In the meanwhile, expansion and divisional realignment have created the NFC South, and the fates of the four teams therein include Super Bowl wins for the Bucs (2002) and Saints (2009) and two Super Bowl appearances for the Panthers (2003 and, obviously, about a week from now.)  The Falcons are the oldest extant team in the division; the Panthers are by far the youngest.  Yet, having played football since only 1995, Carolina already has one more Super Bowl appearance than us.  If they win next weekend, not only will they be another wee-baby expansion team throwing egg on Atlanta's face, they'll make the Falcons, who hold seniority by varying degrees over their brethren, the only ring-less team in the division.  So, you know, I should be rooting with every fiber of my being for the Panthers to face plant on February 7th.  I should be rooting for Peyton Manning to hang up his cleats after another championship, because he's been spectacular his entire career and probably should retire with more than one ring in a just world.  I should want those things.  And yet.

Cam Newton in 2015 is the most fun I've had watching NFL football in forever.  There has never been a quarterback like him at this level, and what he's done this season has been breathtaking to witness.  He's Steve Young on four cans of Red Bull with Michael Jackson-caliber entertainment value.  The man literally broke his back a year ago and has hardly lost a game since.  That's some Batman-level shit right there.  He's slotting throws into microscopic windows when his receivers are even marginally open and running over everything in his path if they're covered.  Denver's front seven is terrifying, and I still think he's going to render them mostly irrelevant next weekend.  Watching how that plays out is going to be tremendous. 

Also this: I want Cam to shut every "play the game the right way" rhetoric-spewing pundit right the hell up.  I want every idiot who somehow finds his exuberance to be morally objectionable silenced by something like four TDs and 305 yards through the air with an ungodly completion percentage and 80 rushing yards and another score thrown in just because he can.  There are a small handful of truly reprehensible humans playing professional football, and every other sport at every other level, and many more who are not playing sports at all, everywhere.  Cam Newton is not one of those people.  By all accounts, he's a really good dude who cares deeply about his community and the fans and also just so happens to very much enjoy what he does for a living and likes to let us know about it with some dabbing or a cheesy sideline team picture a few times a game.  God bless him for it. 

What I'm saying is I despise stuck-up haters infinitely more than I loathe the division-rival Panthers.  If we were talking about the Saints, this would be a very different post.  I love watching greatness reach its pinnacle more than I cherish whatever shred of the Falcons' dignity might be salvaged by a Carolina loss.  And let's be real: there's not much left there to save.

Lastly, selfishly, stupidly, absurdly, totally nonsensically, a Carolina victory would be a sort of bleak, hazy validation for the Falcons and all their tortured history.  Not only would it flip that painful script from January 31, 1999, the first time an old-man legendary Broncos QB rode of into the sunset after beating an NFC South team, but as the only ones who beat the Panthers this year, it would  also transitively hand us a share of the Lombardi Trophy, sorta-kinda-not-really-but-still ... right?  Atlanta sports: where the smallest, most elaborately fabricated moral victories are all you have to cling to sometimes.  

Happy Super Bowl week, y'all.  Go Panthers.