Dustin Parkes

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The offensive coordinator appears complacent. It’s a rare sight. He’s smiling. Peacock postured, and certain. His pride is so pronounced that even the defensive coordinator – whose affinity for humanity seldom prompts insight – is able to immediately understand that something good has happened to his colleague.

“You’re in a good mood.”

The offensive coordinator doesn’t hear him.

“I said, ‘You’re in a good mood.’”

“What’s that? Sorry.”

“You look like you’re feelin’ good. What’s goin’ on?”

“Oh, yeah. I think I did it.”

“Did what?”

“I invented the perfect play.”

The seeming lunacy of the statement doesn’t escape the defensive coordinator. He doesn’t know how to respond. He respects his colleague, but his claim is ridiculous.

“Oh yeah? Let me see it.”

Still dreamy, as though something mesmerizing is occurring in the distance, the offensive coordinator hands over his playbook. The defensive coordinator takes it, looks at the page, rests his finger on his mouth, twice stops himself from speaking and proceeds to not do anything for several seconds. The offensive coordinator continues his gaze toward the horizon.

“This is incredible.” The defensive coordinator can hardly believe what he’s seeing. “We have to run it. All the time.”

The two coaches call their players together. They line up. Even though the defensive coordinator knows exactly what the play will be, he can’t stop it. The offense scores a touchdown. It’s perfect.

“We have to try this again.”

They do, but a funny thing happens. As the ball is hiked, the right tackle slips and the defensive tackle is able to break through his block and sack the quarterback.

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roughriders_fans-2I drove across Canada once. Along the Trans Canada Highway, I stopped to refuel with gasoline and energy drinks in a rural Saskatchewan town. When I went to pay, I was told by the cashier that I better get home soon. She had no idea I was more than 2,500 kilometers away from there.

I must have looked as though she was speaking a foreign language. So, she tried to fill in the knowledge gap, “You know. For the game.”

Buzzed from the tiny vibrations you feel from driving for five straight hours, I still had no clue what she was talking about. She, somewhat frustrated at my obliviousness, mentioned that kickoff was in ten minutes. Then, it was like a light bulb went on over her head. Her countenance completely changed. “You’re not from around here, are you?”

I said I was just passing through, and she informed me that it was usually dead around this time because everyone was home watching the Roughriders play.

The Canadian Football League is barely an afterthought for me, but here was an entire community of people so interested in the outcome of their local team’s games, that the whole town seemingly stopped what it was doing to observe and cheer.

There’s this strange urge within many of us from Canada’s larger cities – where professional sports and alternative entertainment options are more abundant – to mock the CFL as something for those simple, salt of the earth types in the flyover provinces enjoy. It’s all very condescending and hints at a lack of self-awareness.

We all have simple pleasures and differing motivations for seeking out things that make us happy. For sports fans of any sort to project their preference as superior to another’s is ridiculous. It’s sports. Sports are as meaningful as you want to make it. There’s no easily understood reasoning for why we care about it, and there’s no way of explaining why one thing within sports should be more appealing than another. So, congratulations if your preference for the NFL doesn’t allow you time to keep up with the CFL. That’s great for you. It’s great for me, too.

However, for a whole bunch of people in Saskatchewan tonight, the CFL is very meaningful. The 101st Grey Cup is being held in Regina, Saskatchewan, between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the same Saskatchewan Roughriders who prompt their supporters in rural towns across the province to stay in, and not frequent little gas stations just off the highway. I hope nothing but the best for them.

When we speak about the beauty of sports, we’re typically referring to a precision pass, a wonderful goal or the perfect throw. We mostly use the term to describe a vicarious experience in which something spectacular has occurred. We see it, and our imaginations allow us to experience it. This is why we enjoy sports.

However, that’s not all it offers. Occasionally, sports can give us something more. It can encourage us. It can protect us. And it can prompt us to do good things. Most importantly, it can include those who have otherwise been excluded.

This was the case for Danny Keefe, a kindergartner from Mitchell Elementary School in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, who suffered a brain hemorrhage at birth that caused childhood speech apraxia. In addition to his difficulty speaking, the studious-looking 6-year-old insists on wearing a suit and tie to school every day. He also dresses this way when he’s fulfilling his duties as the official water coach for the Bridgewater Badgers Div. 5 Peewee Football Team.

When Tommy Cooney, the team’s quarterback, learned that Danny was being picked on at school due to his personal style and speech apraxia, he decided to create a “Danny Appreciation Day.” According to WCVB in Boston, the entire team got behind the idea and all wore suits to school just like their waterboy, Danny.

That’s what sports can do.

I remember reading a profile of Warren Beatty in a Rolling Stone anthology from several years ago. The writer constantly referred to how Beatty would pause for a long period of time before answering any question. Even though his cautious approach was described in a derisive manner, it impressed me.

I liked the idea of being calculated with responses. The interviewer was asking something of him, and instead of jumping to respond and play along with this public relations game, Beatty took his time and was mindful of the potential outcomes of his answers in terms of other people’s perception. That seemed intelligent to me at the time.

Over the past week, I’ve felt an urge to write about Damon Bruce – the KNBR sports talk radio host who went on prejudiced rant against women in sports – but I’ve also felt a corresponding measure of hesitancy.

So, I paused like Beatty might. And now, I think I’m ready to write.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Miami Dolphins

In grade four, my baseball cap was stolen from me and my basketball was heaved on top of the roof of a nearby school. I was shoved against a wall, and a kid two or three years older grabbed the collar of my t-shirt, made a fist with it and punched me. Tears welled up in my eyes.

It hurt, but the pain wasn’t physical. I’d been hit harder or at least suffered more sting while roughhousing with my friends. The salty water in my eyes was the result of feeling violated, of feeling the brunt of someone else’s unnecessary cruelty. Thankfully, this wasn’t something that I had to endure over an extended period of time. It was a one off, but it remains a part of memory, more accessible than a thousand nicer things that happened to me at the same age.

Looking back now, I recall being big for my age. I know the bully’s undefended punch didn’t render me unconscious. It didn’t even cause much pain. I probably could have defended myself, and I might have kept my Blue Jays hat for a little bit longer. But that didn’t seem like an option at the time. It felt like a theatrical play in which the roles in the unread script were inherently understood. He was the bully and I was the victim. It didn’t even cross my mind to attempt to overthrow that hierarchy.

I thought of this again after Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left his team’s training facility last week amid reports of a mental breakdown. The details were murky, but it almost seemed formulaic: prank in the cafeteria plus razzing from teammates equals a food tray smashed and a man in need of emotional counselling.

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USPW_753146 2Supporters of the St. Louis Cardinals are referred to as the best fans in baseball. The term is more often used ironically than genuinely, but even if it wasn’t, it’s not the type of moniker that should give rise to anger in anyone who possesses a healthy perspective on life.

There are far worse exaggerations over which one might be more justified in getting upset. For instance, Budweiser is not the King of Beers. Obviously, ales, lagers and stouts would never subject themselves to a sovereign monarch. Energizer batteries don’t keep going and going and going. Eventually, they’ll wear out, and that moment is most likely to occur when you’re a quarter of the way through shaving your face with an electric razor.

We all know this. That’s why “the best fans in baseball” is so often used in a derisive manner. It’s a joke.

Nonetheless, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Pittsburgh Pirates to gain entry into the National League Championship Series – which is big news – and because sports writers are typically of the unimaginative breed, there are several articles about St. Louis Cardinals fans being earnestly written and published.

Cardinals fans suck.

Cardinals fans are the best.

It reminds me of the time I went to a White Snake and Scorpions concert. In line for a beer, a fight erupted between two drunks over which was the better band. White Snake fan won the fight by TKO when Scorpions super fan missed with a punch, fell to the ground and puked all over himself.

The arguments over how great/terrible of a fan base there is in St. Louis is actually worse. At least the two metal fans didn’t have a large platform from which they could spew vomit on all of us.

No fan base is better than another. “Oh, but we don’t chant racist slurs like those soccer supporters in Italy.” Congratulations, the best that you can say about a group that you belong to is that you’re not as racist as another group. You must really be so proud.

Any sample of sports fans is nothing more than a cross-section of humanity. Some good. Some bad. But mostly grotesque specimens searching for something to belong to that’s bigger than themselves.

A football helmet's health warning sticker is pictured between a U.S. flag and the number 55, in memory of former student and NFL player Junior Seau, as the Oceanside Pirates high school football team prepares for their Friday night game in Oceanside

League of Denial is as much a documentary about warning signs as it is about concussions in the National Football League. The two-hour Frontline investigative report premiered Tuesday night on PBS, and like any significant study, it brought forth as many questions as it answered.

Given the lead up to the airing of the documentary – most notably ESPN’s opting out of its original partnership with PBS publicly due to a lack of editorial control, but reportedly due to pressure from its already existing partnerships with the NFL – the content wasn’t surprising. It presented a convincing mix of anecdotes and research to build a case against the league for what appears at first to be a simple ignorance to the dangers of head trauma in football, but ultimately transforms into willful negligence. Somehow, the tone of the documentary is rarely accusatory, and almost always educational. The feature program leads viewers to ask their own questions rather than overwhelming them with its own conclusions.

While the format created an engaging program, it also created something about which it’s difficult to write. I don’t want to merely summarize what led to Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster’s death in 2002 or create a bastardized version of a white paper on how chronic traumatic encephalopathy affects the brain. A compacted amalgamation of the documentary would trivialize the issue more than add anything.

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