Remember, It’s Just a Game

By Mark Yost

When I sat down to write this piece, I was going to make the bold suggestion that the NFL ban alcohol at all games. Colleges, too.

I’d just been to a pre-season NFL game in Nashville. The Green Bay Packers and the Tennessee Titans. In essence, a game that meant absolutely nothing.

TitansIt was a miserable night. A torrential downpour started about a half hour before kickoff and didn’t let up until almost halftime. When I sat down in my seat five rows behind the end zone, it was raining so hard that the water puddling at the bottom of the concourse covered the first row of seats. But this being August in Tennessee, and it being the start of another NFL season, more than a few fans were happy to stand in the deluge in the $8 ponchos (made in China for 3 cents) that the Titans shop was selling by the pallet that night.

Like most games, fans stood for the national anthem, the kickoff, and the first few plays of the opening drive by the Packers. But after a few plays that moved the action further downfield, most everyone sat down.

Except for that guy.

You know who he is. He shows up at every sporting event, in almost every section. The fan in the jersey and cap who initially seems a bit rabid but sane, and then proceeds to makes it clear that he hasn’t come here so much to have a good time and enjoy the game, but to make sure that everyone else’s experience is as miserable as possible. Add in generous amounts of alcohol, a common ingredient at both NFL and college games, and this guy’s really fun to be around.

He was there on that Saturday night in Nashville. Along with three college-age girls who were equally annoying. They were sitting in front of most everyone else in our section. Or, I should say, standing a few rows in front of all of us. Despite scattered calls for “down in front,” they didn’t budge the entire first half, their defiant postures the full-body equivalent of giving the middle finger to the rest of us.

When the rain let up briefly in the second quarter and a 30something guy sat down with his young son, he politely asked the girls to please sit down so that his son could see the game. Their response can’t be printed in this newspaper. 

The NFL (and other major sports) has long had a problem with fan behavior. I wrote a famous piece for The Wall Street Journal in October 2007 about the crowd at a Monday night game in Buffalo that made the Roman coliseum look like a Sunday afternoon church social. A few years before that, I wrote a piece for the Journal about the coarsening culture at college games titled “Dis, Boom, Bah.”

The Buffalo piece created a bit of a groundswell. Local papers (including this one) followed up with stories of their own fans’ outlandish behavior. Bryant Gumble did an HBO “Real Sports” segment on the subject. It all led to the NFL instituting its first-ever, league-wide Fan Behavior Policy. But as my experience in Tennessee demonstrated, the league – and its fans – still has a long way to go. And frankly, I’m not sure what they can do about it.

Again, my kneejerk reaction was to write a piece suggesting that we ban alcohol at all college and pro games. Then I thought it through. How are you going to police the tailgate and other pre-game drinking? How drunk is too drunk? Eventually, I realized that alcohol isn’t the problem. Common courtesy is.

I know it’s a quaint notion in the age of Twitter and the Kardashians, but when did it become OK to be a jerk? More importantly, when did the outcome of a sporting event become so personal and all-important?

Think about it: Whether your team wins or loses, it will have absolutely no impact on your job, your marriage, your kids, or anything else in your life that should matter more than the final score of some meaningless game. Yet, far too many people act like it does. What I experienced in Nashville is not an isolated incident. Ugly confrontations, some of which lead to fist fights and even death, will no doubt unfold more times than we care to contemplate over the next four months.

So as we begin another football season, let’s try and remember one simple thing: It’s just a game, folks.

Mr. Yost is the author of “Varsity Green: A Behind the Scenes Look at Culture and Corruption in College Athletics.”

The Two Tony Stewarts

Here’s an op-ed I wrote for the New York Post:

Regardless of whatever’s decided in a courtroom in Ontario County or the court of public opinion, any verdict on the Tony Stewart incident will be a mixed one. And that’s because of Stewart himself.

He’s one of racing’s most mercurial drivers. Like his longtime idol, A.J. Foyt, who once punched an Indy 500 security guard for simply asking to see his credentials, Stewart has been known to be a bit of a hothead.

His fans love to tune to his radio frequency during races to hear his four-worded tirades against his crew when they don’t get the car just right.

The Angry Tony Stewart.

The Angry Tony Stewart.

Ironically, Stewart is not only famous for his angry outbursts, he’s also guilty of getting out of his car in the middle of a race and letting a fellow drive know exactly how he feels, just as young Upstate New York driver Kevin Ward did on that fateful Saturday night. Stewart’s been known to throw both his helmet and his fists in anger.

Still, much of this behavior occurred when he was much younger. People close to him say anger-management counseling has made a huge difference.

These days, according to his inner circle, you’re more likely to encounter a magnanimous Tony Stewart than the monster Tony Stewart.

Indeed, many people know him to be one of the kindest, most generous people on the planet. For instance, when he won the Nascar Sprint Cup Championship in 2011, Stewart made good on a promise to take his entire 160-member race team — everyone from mechanics to fan club envelope-stuffers — to Las Vegas for the awards banquet.

I’ve had my own run-ins with Stewart’s Jekyll and Hyde personality. I’ve been at press conferences where he’s told reporters, “That’s a stupid question.” (In his defense, it was.) I’ve also seen the kinder, gentler Stewart away from the glare of the Nascar spotlight.

The Happy Tony Stewart.

The Happy Tony Stewart.

Stewart now owns tiny Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, one of the grand cathedrals of sprint-car racing. He took over the track when it was on the verge of closing, pumped a bunch of his own money into it and preserved one of the great events of the sport, the King’s Royal.

When I interviewed him at Eldora for a July 2009 Wall Street Journal feature, he couldn’t have been nicer. Away from the Nascar pressure cooker, where his day is regimented minute by minute for more than 40 weeks a year, Stewart clearly becomes a different man.

This, of course, makes the incident in Canandaigua all the more unfathomable. It’s easy to imagine Stewart losing his temper at Martinsville or Bristol, two of the half-mile bullrings where Nascar still races. But a little-known short track on a Saturday night racing sprint cars? I can tell you — and he would, too — that there is nowhere in the world that he is happier.

There are also some questions for Nascar in all of this. Since the early 1990s, when it started to shuck its good ’ol boy image for a more corporate look and feel, Nascar has tried to keep a short leash on drivers like Stewart. In turn, many fans will tell you that Nascar took away much of the character(s) of the sport.

I was at North Wilkesboro, one of the short tracks that wasn’t glamorous enough to make it in the new Nascar, in the early ’90s when a fight broke out in the garage between two drivers. It was just a short tussle — a few punches thrown, words exchanged. I don’t even recall who was involved.

Buddy Baker

Buddy Baker

But I do clearly remember Buddy Baker, an old-time Nascar driver-turned-broadcaster, turning to the crowd shortly after the fight broke up and loudly proclaiming, “Hot damn, boys, this is the way we used to settle things.”

He had a point. Maybe if Nascar allowed a few more minor dustups in the garage, if everyone who deviated from the corporate script wasn’t called on the carpet for the slightest transgression, drivers would work these things out among themselves.

Sure, a few punches might get thrown, a few uniforms ripped. But if Nascar gave these drivers a little more latitude, let them be themselves, maybe it would not only spice up a sport that has become staler than a month old loaf of Wonder bread, it might just prevent explosive outbursts far worse than the minor shoving match I saw in the North Wilkesboro garage.

As for which Tony Stewart was on that track in Canandaigua, only he knows for sure. And he’ll have to live with it.

Mark Yost is a former reporter for National Speed Sport News and author of “The 200 MPH Billboard: The Inside Story of How Big Money Changed Nascar.”


Dark Enough to be Interesting

That’s the latest review of my new detective mystery, “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

It’s the 18th 5-star review the book has gotten since coming out in June. 

The reviewer also said the book was, “A good throwback to the classic detective story.”

If you haven’t read Cooper’s Daughter, pick up a copy today. Here’s the jacket copy to whet your whistle.

When his daughter is found dead in a Binghamton rail yard and the police treat it like a cold case, Bill Cooper hires the one man who can figure out what happened – Rick Crane. But as the Upstate New York private eye digs into the case, everyone tells him to “let it go.” Crane doesn’t, and soon discovers that the death of COOPER’S DAUGHTER was about much more than the murder of one wild young woman.


Rick Crane: A Classic Noir Hero

That’s according to the latest review of “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir,” my new top-10 noir mystery.  

A classic noir with flawed but honorable hero who is willing to face real danger to make sure that justice is done. Good pace with all the details you need to get sucked in and lose several hours.

Here’s what others had to say about the book featuring a hardboiled private eye in Upstate New York: 

— A good throwback to the classic detective story. Dark enough to be interesting.

— Rick Crane has serious personal problems and an “Iffy” moral code that allows him to move through the underworld on his way to morning Mass with little concern.

— Looking for a good fast moving PI story? Well, stop right here. Great characters, good plot, and well written.


Cooper’s Daughter: Telling It Like It Is

That’s the latest 5-star review of my new noir thriller, “Cooper’s Daughter” on Amazon.

Ray, one of Kindle’s regular reviewers, wrote: 

Very good to excellent book. The author is pretty close to telling it like it is. Looking forward to reading more of his work.

Hang on, Ray. You won’t have to wait long. I’m almost done with Jimmy’s Nephew, the second bookin the Rick Crane Noir series, due out this fall. 

Grabs You By the Collar

I have so many books on my kindle that I haven’t read past the first chapter. This book grabbed me right away and thrust me into a world I did not know. 

That’s just one of the five-star reviews for “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

Here’s what others had to say:

— Rick Crane has serious personal problems and an “Iffy” moral code that allows him to move through the underworld on his way to morning Mass with little concern. I look forward to his future exploits.

— A quick read, but packed with great characters,and an intriguing plot.

— Looking for a good fast moving PI story? Well, stop right here. Great characters, good plot, and well written. 

Available on Amazon.

Book 2 in the Rick Crane Series due out this fall.