By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Down in Bourbonnais, Training Camp isn’t quite what it used to be.
But I’m still glad that the Chicago Bears are down there amongst their fans, rather than hidden away from the masses on their Halas Hall compound. And here’s to hoping that things stay that way for many summers to come.
On Thursday, the Bears strolled off the fields at Olivet Nazarene University after wrapping up their final public training camp practice of the year. In 2013, the team will be back in Bourbonnais, which also happens to be my hometown. According to reports, talks between the Bears and ONU are already underway to extend their camp contract to 2014 – and beyond.
“Hopefully that is the plan,” said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who called ONU “great hosts” and spilled so much praise about everything at camp being “good” and “excellent” you would have thought he was talking about Brian Urlacher’s knee recovery.
Despite those accolades, however, my friend Scott cast some doubts this week on whether the Bears will indeed keep on camping in Bourbonnais in future seasons. His reasoning was that due to the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, which now forbids teams from having two-a-day practices at training camp, the Bears might decide that they’re better off simply staying at home to train in Lake Forest.
According to the CBA, teams are still allowed to have a session in the morning and a practice in the afternoon, but the morning sessions can be nothing more than a walk-through. That means players show up in shorts and T-shirts and can’t put on equipment, not even helmets.
To some, that sounds more like a Zumba class than football and has led some to call training camp “watered down.” In turn, those criticisms led Scott to surmise that because of the CBA changes it might no longer make sense for the Bears to trek 90 miles from their Lake Forest HQ to train at ONU if they’re not going to, you know, train really hard.
But to me, it makes all the sense in the world for the Bears to train at Olivet – no matter if training camp is a walk in the park, or if it’s as intense as if Bear Bryant was running it. That’s because, to me, NFL training camps really aren’t about the players, anyway. They’re about the fans.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the practices and football drills during camp are indeed about the players. But the idea of “camp” itself is not. I argued the same last summer when Chicago Tribune NFL writer Dan Pompei also floated the idea of the Bears relocating camp to Halas Hall.
“Nothing against Bourbonnais …” Pompei wrote about the Bears, “but the best place for this team this August is Lake Forest. In fact, the best place for every NFL team during training camp is at home, assuming their team facility can accommodate them.”
NFL team facilities certainly can accommodate their team’s practices – after all, isn’t that the entire point of why they exist? – but that hardly means they’re also the best place to hold a training camp.
And, again, that’s because training camps aren’t just about accommodating a team (or members of the media). Just as importantly – and I’d argue even more so – they’re also about accommodating a team’s fan base, and unselfishly offering a unique experience back to the people who pour out their money, time and passion to make the NFL as popular as it is in the first place.
If the Bears were to pull training camp back to Halas Hall it would, at best, greatly reduce fans’ opportunities to see the team practice. At worst, it would eliminate those opportunities completely, as Halas Hall is not at all set up for big crowds.
And that’s what training camp is about: the crowds.
Or, at least, it should be.
So, even if camp is “watered-down” for the Bears’ players these days, that doesn’t mean that the Bears’ fans should get washed out, as well.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.