In the second installment of our debate, I decided to bring out the big guns, challenging Ben to defend the Bengals in light of the players’ continued trouble with the law. The whole thing spun into a larger discussion of the role of morality in professional sports. Yet again, Ben emerges as the clear winner.
Ten wins? If you believe that, I have some Reds playoff tickets to sell you. Even optimistically, I think you’re about seven wins too high. Let’s review, though I probably should have realized by now that logic won’t do me much good in an argument with you. Last year, the Bengals went 4-12; since then, the team has lost its franchise quarterback, its top two receivers, its leading tackler (bowtie aficionado Dhani Jones), and one of its two shutdown corners. The team is filling those holes with rookies (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green), unproven veterans (receiver Jerome Simpson), and really, really old veterans (ancient corner Nate Clements). The new linebackers, Thomas Howard and Manny Lawson, seem solid, but they aren’t exactly the sort of impact free agents hauled in by the Eagles and Jets.
And then there’s the inconvenient fact that in two preseason games, the Bengals have been outscored 61-10. In Sunday’s 27-7 loss to the Jets, Dalton went 8-for-19 with two picks, and the team could muster only 50 rushing yards on 24 carries. I know it’s just the preseason, but when a team looks as bad on paper as the Bengals do, it’s hard not to see two exhibition blowouts as supporting indications of a disappointing season. I’ll grant you that the Bengals schedule looks soft. A whopping 10 of their 16 games are against teams that had a losing record last year. But in a league that’s as tough top to bottom as the NFL, playing losing teams is no guarantee of winning, especially when you’re terrible yourself.
But hey, you don’t care about any of that. For you, it’s all about dedication and hope against hope and irrational belief. You have a religious confidence in the Bengals, and I can’t argue with faith. There is just something magical about cheering for the inspiring and lovable underdog. It’s why I occasionally find myself in the uncomfortable position of cheering for an athlete who has overcome adversity in an underprivileged country to beat Americans in the Olympics. Still, the Bengals seem like an odd object for such underdog affection because they are so utterly unlikable. I’m curious, how do you justify your love of the team in light of the players’ criminal history? As you know, the one statistic in which the Bengals consistently lead the league is total arrests. In July, three Bengals—Cedric Benson, Marvin White, and Pacman Jones—were arrested in a span of ten days. It wasn’t Pacman’s first (or second or third or fourth) scrape with the law. You surely remember his infamous “making it rain” incident at a Las Vegas strip club a few years ago. And back in 2006 and 2007, there was an even larger wave of Bengals crime, when nine players were arrested in a span of nine months on charges such as possession of marijuana, driving while intoxicated, resisting arrest, spousal abuse, and burglary. These are the guys you desperately want to see in the playoffs? That doesn’t weigh on your conscience?
You’re right about the tough spot you’re in: pitching reason against faith is bound to make you feel like you are pounding your head against the wall (a feeling, of course, familiar to many Bengal fans). I know that, upon reading my 10-6 prediction, most people would assume I had some sort of numerical dyslexia. That said, I’m not swayed by your off-season arguments. OK, the Eagles enjoyed free agency to an unprecedented degree, but the Jets? Come on. If that had been the Bengals you’d be telling me how they lost their best receiver (Braylon Edwards) and replaced him with an aging ex-con, and how their most exciting playmakers (Smith, Ellis) were splitting for divisional rivals, no less. And whilst preseason games have been something of a wash so far, nobody takes the results seriously—in the past eight years the Colts have lost more pre-season games than regular season!
And yes, I’m even going to disagree with you on likeability; you’re right, there is a definite romance to rooting for the underdog, and I agree about the Olympics (believe me, no-one has Youtubed Eric The Eel more than I. Barely a childhood birthday party went by in which I wouldn’t insist on watching Cool Runnings. That or The Mighty Ducks). But the idea that the Bengals’ record of criminality should weigh on my conscience seems somewhat incompatible with a continued interest in the NFL at all. Who would you have me watch in our division? The Browns, whose star player three years ago got drunk and killed a father of three? The Steelers, whose QB has been twice accused of rape in two years? Or the Ravens, whose poster-boy (heck, the NFL’s poster-boy) was arrested for murder? Sort of puts 5-foot-10, 180 pound Adam Jones throwing a punch in a bar into perspective, doesn’t it? In fact, this summer alone, various Steelers have been arrested for DUI, tweeted defenses of the world’s most wanted man, and been found 100 percent guilty of being James Harrison.
No, rather focus on this—who else in recent NFL years has fielded a bow-tie entrepreneur? A media-mogul practical joker who buys up unsold tickets to ensure all his fans can see the game? A D-lineman who actually, physically looks like the animal his team his named for? With the cool zig-zag tiger stripes, what other team commits to their uniforms the way the Bengals do? (I’ll concede that I’m not sure what it would do for the Lions’ popularity to play in furry helmets).
I think anyone has to disassociate their recreational heroes from the morality of their personal lives (to a degree)—I’ll still root for the Bengals in spite of the occasional arrest, the way I still feel joyful when I hear I’ve Just Seen A Face even though John Lennon hit his first wife. And the Bengals, without a playoff win in twenty years, are the definitive NFL underdog. If this were the Olympics they could be a swimmer from Equitoreal Guineau who’s never been in a pool, or possibly a Jamaican bobsled team. Of course, you have to draw a line—to continue my music analogy, hearing I’m The Leader Of The Gang blaring out at sporting events still makes me feel queasy—but for me, the line falls between the Bengals…and everyone else.