Do new ads work the United Way?
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.

On the air
United Way NFL public service announcements (airing throughout the NFL season)

Jake Plummer
Jake Plummer tries to teach some kids about cardinals.
Back in the 1970s, the United Way, a fine charitable organization just trying to help the kids and bring a little love and money to America's communities, launched a series of PSAs in partnership with the NFL. You remember these spots: Burly NFL lineman with big hair, dressed in plaid pants and an ochre or lime-green polyester sport coat with lapels you could surf on, visits a hospital, plays with kids at a community center, helps feed the hungry, etc. They were warm-hearted, earnest little pitches at your heartstrings and purse strings. You choked up a little, felt good about living in a world where people -- even big-time athletes -- helped each other out, and you made a call.

The campaign worked for years, as the United Way's fundraising totals (according to their website) climbed from $800 million in 1974 to more than $3.7 billion today. During the last couple of years (2000-02), though, the PSAs have been different. They look pretty much the same (although players' wardrobes have, mercifully, evolved toward something more casual and stylish over the years), and have the same earnest, straight-forward delivery: "This is Jake Plummer of the Arizona Cardinals. He helps United Way build stronger communities by supporting educational outings." But these days, they're played for laughs.

In one of the new ones, Jake tells a bunch of kids at the zoo that Cardinals are the fiercest birds in the wilderness. A little girl in the group is dubious.

"Cardinals? What about eagles?" she says.

"Cardinals eat eagles," he tells her.

"What about falcons?"

"They eat them, too."

"He doesn't look so tough."

"Well, he just is," Jake tells her. "The little fella's got a big heart. Listen ... bump-bump, bump-bump, bump-bump."

You may have seen others: Charles Woodson gets shown up by children unimpressed with his bench-press numbers; Pats' wideout Troy Brown plays to win in games of shuffleboard and horseshoes with senior citizens; Shaun Alexander dresses up like the sun, while kindergartners dance all around him and their teacher sings. If you haven't seen them, or even if you have, check out the United Way archives.

Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson gets pumped up for the United Way.
The spots are cool, understated and ironic. Like a good SportsCenter ad, they're smart, funny, self-referential and irreverent. They feel perfectly pitched to their time, and they brand-build like nobody's business. The United Way comes off looking witty and hip, the players look clever and humble. Great television -- stop-what-you're-doing-and-ask-your-buddy-if-he's-seen-this-one-yet television. Concept, production values, star power -- it's all dead-on. I love the clips.

There's just one thing nagging at me: This flowering of irony in the world of charity, it's not evidence that the average postmodern citizen is carrying around a shriveled, ungiving heart, is it? The United Way doesn't have to go tongue-in-cheek, wink-and-nod on us, just to get folks to pony up, do they? I mean, it's great that they do -- entertaining as all get out -- but if it came down to it, if they went straight on us again, if they just made an open, old-fashioned, homely lapels-and-goofy-hairdos appeal to our better angels again, we'd give, right?

On the rack
A quick note on Major League Baseball's recent announcement that they are going to crack down on baggy jerseys and oversized pants next year

What little I know about sports and fashion I learned from a kid named Deangelo in the seventh grade. He came out every day for P.E. in loose, long nylon shorts, thin white socks pulled up to his knees Michael Cooper-style, low-top shoes barely tied, and a T-shirt two sizes too big and stretched way out and down at the neck.

His look was a revelation to a buttoned-down, stock-issue kid like me. I pretty much wore what I was told. Deangelo wore what he felt good in. I used to watch him move. I remember thinking he had this thing, this magical, liquid quality that I wanted. He had flow. Flow wasn't just the way his clothes swished and swayed around his body (though it was that, too), it was an entire smooth, never-flustered, ain't-no-stopping-us-now-we're-on-the-move thing; it was the sort of comfort and confidence you couldn't help but envy, and it came from, or came through, his "uniform." Deangelo wasn't the best athlete in class, and he was a big, heavy kid. To look at him, you wouldn't expect much. But when he moved, when his flow kicked in, he was capable of some sweet, crazy stuff that was great to watch.

I don't know why guys in the Bigs are into sporting baggy stuff these days. I have ideas, but I can't be sure. The thing is, if the feel, cut and shape of their unis makes them feel just a little bit more in the flow, makes them a little more capable of the sweet, crazy stuff I like to watch, I don't care, and I don't care to see anyone crack down on it.

RIP, Bob Hayes
Bob Hayes
Bob Hayes had 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns in his rookie season with the Cowboys in 1965.
Bullet Bob Hayes. The World's Fastest Human. Hayes was a superhero, a comet, a myth. He was an out-of-focus photograph on my bedroom wall. He was film clips I couldn't believe were real. I thought of Bob Hayes the way I thought of speed itself ... as a rare, untouchable thing.

On the small screen
"Go Tigers" on DVD (New Video Group, released Sept. 24)

Contrary to what you may have heard, football is not a diversion, it is not an entertainment, it is not an option. Football is a pathology. It flows in your blood, manifests in your body and spreads throughout your brain. For both good and bad, football is a part of you -- the company you keep, the way you walk, the things you want and value, these are all laced with football.

You are a citizen of Massilon, Ohio. You have the disease, the same disease your mother and father had before you. You are sick with football, and you feel fine.

Wilco lyric redux
A couple weeks back I asked readers to help me decode the following maybe semi-sports-related lyric from Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, which appears in "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" off their latest album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot":

    I wanna hold you in the Bible-black pre-dawn
    You're quite a quiet domino, bury me now
    Take off your band-aid 'cause I don't believe in touchdowns
    What was I thinking when we said hello?

Big thanks to everyone who wrote in. Here's some of the best of what I got:

  • "Uh, dude, it's about sex."
    -- Christopher


  • "Tweedy is singing from the point of view of an alcoholic who loses time and time again. He is at the state of his life where he cares neither for past or present, and has given up on redemption and hope. (Note the confusion -- he doesn't know what he was thinking when he said hello, goodbye or welcome back.) In this state, he believes neither in healing (band-aids) or victory (touchdowns), just the moment, just the pain and the temporary and burning salve of alcohol."
    -- Brian

  • "This one's easy. The line should be taken literally. Tweedy's a Chicago boy and no doubt a Bears fan. He doesn't believe in touchdowns because he's never actually seen one. He's heard about them -- some kind of 49er West Coast offense thing. He believes only in between-the-tackles, 12-9 football. Go Bears."
    -- Andy

  • "Simple, really: the song is from the perspective of a jilted and presumably intoxicated ex-lover, trying to assert strength and dignity and doing exactly the opposite. What does come through is the pain and anguish prompted by the rejection, and the retrospective fatalism of an insecure person who knew all along that his beloved was too good to hold onto, too good to last. It's incoherent, but it's earnest."
    -- Nathan

  • "He's drunk."
    -- Gage

  • "The singer, after running into his old flame late at night (bible black pre-dawn), says their relationship was a game (dominos) which he always loses if he plays with her (bury me now). He tells her to let down her guard, those necessary to cover the wounds he has left behind (band-aids) because he is no longer the same person he used to be and doesn't believe in winning by stirring up things to hurt her (scoring touchdowns against her) anymore."
    -- Michael

  • "I want it to be about playing fair and free, not forced and fixed. I want it to be about breaking the plane, not breaking the rules. I want it to be about flying high, catching one-handed and landing fair. I want it to be in-bounds, shy of the sideline by baby inches and high stepping, not instant replays, marginal calls or spiking the ball to stick it in some ones face. But it's not. It's about love, and the things people do in the dark, alone together, and the possible results. It's about joining unhindered, not wearing band-aids, but because the decision has already been made that there will be no end-runs, no touchdowns, no showers."
    -- Dr Moist

    Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at



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