The joy of watching the Detroit Lions lose on Thanksgiving
In a fascinating study published in 1983, Jan Bremmer describes the fate of scapegoating victims in Ancient Greece: "They will be fed with figs, barley cake, and cheese. Then, in inclement weather, they will be hit on the genitals with the squill and with twigs of the wild fig tree and other wild plants."
We know that Hipponas of Kolophon, the 6th-century poet from whom this knowledge is derived, must have been exaggerating slightly: The actual rituals in question took place during early summer. What a relief it must have been for those chosen to atone for the crimes of an entire society to know that they would only be force-fed and beaten with sticks when the weather was nice!
Pace some of her gloomiest defenders, the classical tradition is not entirely dead. She has simply evolved, like any other body of knowledge. Two and a half millenniums after the death of Hipponas, we are still thrashing the pharmakoi, but now we feed them turkey and mashed potatoes instead of light shepherds' fare and we generally wait until there is at least some snow on the ground.
I am talking, of course, about fans of the Detroit Lions, whose ritual humiliation on Thanksgiving is arguably the single most venerable tradition associated with this holiday. Lots of things have changed since 1934, when the then-young Detroit franchise first sold out their stadium on a late November afternoon for a contest against the Chicago Bears. The Lions would go on to lose 19-16 thanks a last-second touchdown pass by Bronko Nagurski. In addition to the 26,000 people in attendance, Detroit's defeat was experienced by hundreds of thousands of other Americans via a radio broadcast carried by more than 90 stations throughout the country. Except during World War II the game has been repeated annually ever since, often with the same opponent — and the same miserable result.
I was surprised to learn recently that the Lions' all-time Thanksgiving record is only slightly below 50 percent (37-40-2). I would have ventured a figure much lower. This is what happens when you see a team blow eight in a row, as the Lions did from 2004 to 2012. Things were somewhat better when I was a child, but as any Pittsburgh fan will tell you, our best victory of that era was only possible because an apparently deaf referee did not hear Jerome Bettis call "tails" at the coin-flip. More representative is the Lions' loss to Tennessee in 2008, the capstone to our infamous perfect season, in which we were outgained on the ground 222 to 23 and outscored 47 to 10, or the one in 2006, when the awe-inspiringly bad former Lions quarterback Joey Harrington had the game of his life leading the Dolphins back from a 10-point deficit to an eventual three-score blowout. Lots of football teams are bad, but only one has the ability to make fans of every other franchise in the country feel superior year in and year out, bringing them feelings of warmth and comfort that should last at least until Candlemas.
I am not for a moment suggesting that I do not myself wish to see the Lions win on Thursday. Nothing would make me happier (except for a Michigan win against the Buckeyes on Saturday, of course). But I am not a fideist. I believe that many of the truths of religion can be known by reason alone, unaided by divine revelation. And one of the many things that nature herself reveals to us is the fact that the Lions are not meant to be a good football team. What other conclusion can you draw from a team that has had, during my lifetime alone, arguably the two greatest players in history at their respective skill positions and never managed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs? When Barry Sanders (who was once held to only 22 yards in a Thanksgiving victory) and Calvin Johnson left Detroit it was not for the greener pastures of Dallas or New England — it was for quiet, more or less football-free retirements. We didn't just waste their talent. We destroyed their love of the game. This is not reckless coaching or front-office dysfunction. It is the will of the divine.
I will think of this with stoical satisfaction as I sit down on Thursday to watch an undrafted free agent third-string quarterback get shredded by one of the best defenses in the country.
You're welcome, America.