By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) A miserable loss, with echoes of last season’s most desperate time. No blocking, nobody open, nowhere to run, and a quarterback trying to stay just conscious enough to yell at his position coach.
Serious injuries to important players. Patchwork personnel groupings looking helpless and hapless. New questions about the Bears, with answers we may not want to confront.
And it could have been worse.
I was steeling myself for an afternoon of mawkish sentimentality, with FOX Sports presenting a football game through the prism of death – cameras tracking Brian Urlacher all afternoon, announcers consumed with his feelings after he buried his mother just the day before.
I imagined it would start with a coach doing what so many have done – succumbing to the temptation of exploiting a player’s loss, with the opportunity for a cheap motivational ploy trumping class, brains and plain human sense. And it would snowball, predictably, from there.
Thanks to the tone set by Urlacher himself and reflected by Lovie Smith, however, it turned out I was wrong.
The easy grab for the heartstrings never materialized. Urlacher reportedly requested that Smith not mention anything about him in any pregame comments to the team, and Smith obliged. Classy, grown-up moves by both men.
The pre-production meetings for the television broadcast must have been fascinating to hear, since the restraint shown by FOX was so uncharacteristic. Major stories about star players almost always become the themes of the day, and in this case you’d think especially so — an all-time great, future Hall-of-Famer dealing with the death of his primary parent by returning so quickly to the field, and on the heels of one of his best recent performances.
And thankfully, it remained underplayed.
For a specific comparison, see how Brett Favre was covered in the game just after the passing of his father. Actually, don’t. You’ll throw up.
Would it have been different had the Bears acquitted themselves better, or if Urlacher himself had excelled as he had a week before? Probably.
The syrupy stuff goes down easier in victory, for all involved. An audience’s tolerance for such things is higher when it can be presented as somehow causal, either through some kind of inspirational power or outright supernatural activity, and that’s why I always wince when the usual emotional playbook is employed.
On one hand, the “somebody was looking down on us today” stuff is insulting and creepy. Even if one believes in afterlives, spirits, heaven, hell, or guardian angels, invoking any of that in regard to the outcome of a football game is only for the dimmest bulbs, or the weirdest freaks. Or some combination of both.
(Again, for reference, I give you the 1999 “Walter Payton’s Ghost” game in which the Bears’ Bryan Robinson blocked a late Green Bay field-goal attempt, supposedly carried skyward by invisible, helping hands.)
More importantly, it’s unfair to professional athletes to expect that they will try harder just to be part of some uplifting story. They are paid to do their absolute best every week, regardless whether or not a teammate has suffered a tragedy.
So I credit Brian Urlacher for handling himself carefully and maturely in what must be an indescribably difficult time. I credit Lovie Smith for not trivializing something so important, respecting all his players enough to expect that they can motivate themselves without schmaltzy rallying-cries.
And kudos to FOX for retaining their dignity, too. On the heels of their surprisingly-stately handling of the 9-11 anniversary, it may cause me to question some long-held assumptions.
For Bears fans, that was one awful football game, but at least it was a football game.
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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