Here’s a fun little parlor trick. Tap open your phone and cruise to an established NFL news site. SB Nation perhaps. Or maybe The Ringer. How about ESPN.com. Now see how long you have to swipe before coming across a Dallas Cowboys story. Go ahead. We’ll wait.
Not too long, right? Even though “dem Cowboys!” have won only three playoff games since the 1995-96 season, when they were victorious in Super Bowl XXX over my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers –– thanks, Neil O’Donnell (jagoff) –– silver and blue owner Jerry Jones and company have continued to remain newsworthy. Miraculously.
If it’s a game day, click on your TV. Despite any purported teeth gnashing to the contrary, we all now probably simply surrender to the sight of that blue and oddly soporific silver when getting couch-locked in front of the flat screen in the fall. In each of the NFL’s 16-game seasons between 2009 and 2014, an average of nine Cowboys games were piped into the living rooms of every Nielsen market in the country. That’s nearly twice as many as the second most televised team, the New York Giants. (One second. I don’t understand how anyone can be a fan of a team that isn’t even from anywhere. They’re called the “New York” Giants, but their home games are in nearby New Jersey. Plus, there’s another “New York” team, the Jets, who home-fields at the same stadium. And I’ve lived in “New York” –– specifically in Morningside Heights, Bay Ridge, and Upper Montclair, N.J. –– and, let me tell you, the G-Men and J-E-T-S could not have been further from the minds of the hundreds of people I knew. This was probably because –– get this –– most of them weren’t even from “New York”! This Big Blue love is baffling.)
The reason the Dallas Cowboys appear to be everywhere all the time is that they’re the Dallas Cowboys. Which is just another way of saying: The Dallas Cowboys are the most Dallas Cowboys-like team in the world. Much in the same way that Kim Kardashian is the most Kim Kardashian-like and Donald Trump the most Donald Trump-ian.
Duncan J. Watts would agree. In his 2014 book, Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us, the sociologist and physicist conducted a study to untangle why some music is popular while some isn’t. To summarize: Popularity (real or imagined) breeds more popularity.
“When people had information about what other people downloaded,” he wrote, “they were indeed influenced by it the way that cumulative advantage theory,” a.k.a. the “rich get richer” effect, “would predict.”
Social influence, he continued, “didn’t eliminate quality altogether: It was still the case that, on average, ‘good’ songs … did better than ‘bad’ ones.”
So. As long as the Dallas Cowboys stay out of the cellar –– and while they bombed last season, going a frowny-face 4-12, they almost always do no worse than around .500 –– they will remain popular.
Along with the NFL’s second class of popular teams –– the New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, the Giants (incredibly), and my Steelers –– the Cowboys aren’t translating into good ratings for ESPN and the NFL this year. Numbers for both media/entertainment organizations are down by double digits, despite the unexpected success the Cowboys have been experiencing under the quiet leadership and efficient play of rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. And while no one is surprised that the Deflate-riots are winning or that the Bears are struggling, the Eagles show a lot of promise under Carson Wentz, another hot rookie quarterback. The Packers, Broncos, and Giants all have winning records. The Steelers are 4-4 after losing three straight.
Maybe the reason viewers have been tuning out was that Jerry Springer-esque U.S. presidential election. Maybe it’s the national anthem protests festering on the sidelines. Maybe it’s the ubiquity of emerging entertainment media.
Or maybe we’re all just sick of the Dallas Cowboys.
I’m biased. So what. Like every other kid born and/or raised in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, I was indoctrinated into the cult of the black and the gold that’s actually yellow (the Pirates, Penguins, and “Stillers”), and for us, there loomed no larger enemy not named the U.S.S.R. –– in terms of both sports and civic/national pride –– than *gag* “America’s Team.”
The mainstream media apparatus had done quite a job on us naïve souls by whipping up major drama where there truly was only little. Pittsburgh, the talking heads informed us, had built the bombs and planes that won World War II but was in the midst of a deep recession (cue: sad music), brought on in part by U.S. imports of cheap overseas steel. Dallas was riding high on oil. Big hair, big houses, and big billfolds for everyone! The Steelers’ locker room was full of grunts, many from schools no one had ever heard of. (Louisiana Tech? Kent State? North Texas? Southern University and A&M College? University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff?!) The Cowboys had Roger Staubach, an All-American from Annapolis who led a dazzling aerial attack beneath which most defenses withered like sand castles in the rain. Dallas also had a linebacker nicknamed “Hollywood” –– the Steelers’ “Frenchy” Fuqua seemed downright nouveau riche by comparison.
And Pittsburgh’s answer to the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders? Old ladies in orthopedic shoes and babushkas waving Terrible Towels in the stands of Three Rivers Stadium, a.k.a. the World’s Largest Ashtray.
Super Bowls X and XIII weren’t just games. They were battles between good and evil, between all that was right about America (hard work, humility, commitment, devotion, community) and all that was going terribly wrong (glitz, glamour, fashion, easy money, fast living). I prayed the rosary before every Steelers game but meditatively fondled that sucker every night in the long two weeks leading up to Super Bowl XIII, when in the third quarter Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith dropped a sure touchdown that would have tied the game at 21. You’re welcome, Steeler Nation.
Now an adult (semi-adult) and a 14-year resident of North Texas, I have watched my hatred for the Cowboys wane, have witnessed it transform by no influence of my own into a species of pity. In the time span that the Cowboys have only threatened the playoffs, my beloved Steelers have won two Super Bowls and appeared in a third. There’s no concrete reason why I should continue harboring hatred for an organization whose owner is a micromanager, to be charitable, and also, to be more charitable, a borderline lunatic. In 2008, Jerry Jones traded a couple of conditional draft picks for Adam “Pacman” Jones (no relation), a defensive back suspended for the entire 2007 season following a violent altercation at a Las Vegas strip club. Last season, Jones (Jerry) signed Greg Hardy, a defensive end who had been arrested and charged with assaulting his ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. (The case was settled out of court.) And in Jones’ first public move as owner, way back in 1989, he fired Tom Landry. One of the best respected and most beloved coaches in all of sports and a Texas legend died a New York Giants fan. (Is this where Giants fans come from? Deep-rooted hatred? Are different blocs of viewers simply rooting against whomever the G-Men are playing every week?)
During football season, the pity simmers in my heart all day, every day. Just a slow, even boil spiked with only a soupçon of vitriol.
And then I turn on the TV or tap open my phone.
Are all of the NFL-affiliated networks on the planet, and all of the sports blogs and sections that I scan, simply meeting demand by providing wall-to-wall coverage of the most popular and valuable team of any kind on Earth, or is their Cowboys fixation what has made the silver and blue so popular and lucrative?
Some folks, self included, would probably argue that the same mainstream media apparatus that in the 1970s served up the delectable narrative of poor, hardscrabble, homely Pittsburgh versus flashy, sexy Dallas is now behind the Cowboys’ estimated overall value of $4 billion, a number that puts them above Manchester United, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and a bunch of other representatives of “the world’s game.” A lot of that moolah, of course, comes from merchandise sales. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with moving product. McDonald’s sells a lot of pink slime in cheeseburger form. Affliction sells a lot of t-shirts that immediately up the Billy Badass quotient of whoever wears them. Florida Georgia Line sells a lot of aural assaults on humanity. God bless capitalism. (When asked about Dallas’ lofty financial ranking, Jones quipped, “I would say that I would trade it for some first downs.” Right.)
The mainstream media apparatus also gave us perhaps sports’ most disturbing sobriquet, one that is now an uncontrollable monster.
Bob Ryan, now vice-president and editor-in-chief of NFL Films, told the Cowboys’ publicity department last year (as in “2015”) that he “wanted to come up with a different twist” on their highlight film in 1978.
“I noticed then, and had noticed earlier,” he continued, “that wherever the Cowboys played, you saw people in the stands with Cowboys jerseys and hats and pennants. Plus, they were always the national game on television.”
What Ryan doesn’t say is that “America’s Team” was first offered to another franchise.
Uh, not so well, Dan. The Steelers are only the 29th most valuable sports franchise in existence, according to Forbes magazine, behind the New England Cheatriots (No. 6), Washington Racial Epithets (8), those Giants (9) (why?!), the San Francisco 49ers (10), those Jets (13), Houston Texans (14), Chicago Bears (16), Philadelphia Eagles (17), Green Bay Packers (25), Denver Broncos (26), and the Baltimore Ravens (27).
And oh, yeah. That other NFL team that also doesn’t have six Lombardi trophies.
At least not yet.
All of this is a long way of saying: The Cowboys will be No. 1 for the rest of our NFL-watching lives.
Is there anything we unabashed haters can do? Some smart guy once said that for us average plebes, our only voice is that of a consumer. Clearly, we have been voting with our remote controls, also insulating us from the reach of ESPN’s and the NFL’s advertisers. What makes pressing that OFF button on game day so much more joyful now is that the Cowboys are actually good, actually playoff caliber-looking. Now that they’re playing quality ball, ESPN may talk of nothing else. Now that the ’boys look like they’re ready for a deep January run, our TVs will ooze with nothing but blue and that annoying “silver.” OFF, OFF, OFF. Besides, there are Pynchon novels to tackle, and sci-fi shows to obsess over, and Facebook pics to thumbs-up, and cold slices of pizza to finish over the breakfast sink, and there’s always parenting to screw up royally.
There also are my teams to follow. I have to say that in addition to this page, and this one and this, I will always keep coming back to my North Texas sports talk radio shows. Listening to the violent handwringing that occurs after every Dallas-team meltdown gives me a pleasure that only a Steelers/Penguins/Pirates victory can provide. And only that.
Kickoff between the Cowboys and Steelers is 3:25 p.m. CT Sunday at Heinz Field.
Prediction: Cowboys 42, Steelers 10.