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Why Nashville needs better than bland, play-it-safe sports teams

The Tyranny of the Tepid


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In the pre-Super Bowl media morass, several outlets pricked up their ears when Randy Moss said he was "blackballed" during his time in Nashville in two-tone blue. But among those who watched the Tennessee Titans' disastrous collapse back in 2010, the news didn't come as a surprise.

Nobody in Nashville clutched their pearls or dove for the fainting couch when Moss — the self-proclaimed greatest receiver of all time — said his former team had showed no interest in his once-in-a-generation skill set.

For his last eight games with the team, fans could only watch as the once-acrobatic master of the improbable reception was gelded. As a Titan, Moss devolved into a skinny, speedy offensive tackle. He became essentially a lighthouse in Kansas — a tremendous structure rendered useless by his location.

None of this was Moss' fault. By all accounts, he was a good teammate and a hard worker who did what was asked of him in his exile on Woodland Street. It wasn't his fault the Titans sank slowly into the muck like Venice in the rainy season.

Moss was truly mishandled. And he's hardly alone in Nashville's brief history of big-time pro sports.

In sports, as in music, Nashville pats itself on the back for all the stars it has created. Unmentioned are the stars it has neutered.

There was Moss. There was Alexander Radulov, a nearly limitless hockey talent, who manifests his verve on the ice in every game and delivers dizzying goals with the insouciance of a preternatural scorer. But all too often, off the ice, he had trouble submitting to the strictures of Barry Trotz's methods.

Nashville's sports teams follow the same industrial tool-and-die methods as its music industry. At their best, the Titans and Predators — like the wonderworkers on the Row — take marginal talent and submit it to the forge, smoothing away the rough edges and mass-producing useful if unspectacular clones. The unobtrusive, unoffensive steady role players they grind out at Fifth & Broad and on the East Bank are the equivalent of whichever Auto-Tuned single peaks this week at No. 19.

There's method to this mundanity. It's a tactic from the Eli Whitney playbook — interchangeable parts make maintenance a snap. Impulsive, erratic, exciting genius is as hard to reproduce as it is to find. But injured receivers and underperforming forwards can be replaced by duplicates, just as one white hat-wearing twangster can sing as ably about his pick-up as another.

Culturally, that principle works too. We are used to this conveyor-belt star system in the Music City — and not just because of our most famous industry.

Nashville is still an immature professional sports town. Much of our fandom derives from following college sport, where one player replaces another down the line — an endless succession that reaches back the way ecclesiastics do to St. Peter. College sports are an education in loving the logo on the front and not the name on the back, because those nameplates turn over infinitely like the wake of barges lapping the shore. In a town learning what it's like to be a world-class city, safe sells.

Thus we get the Titans, with their tradition of riskless offense, and the Predators with their endless supply of hardworking third-liners — teams that decided early they'd appeal to the fattest part of the bell curve. Even the rare superstars — McNair, George, Weber, Rinne — are carefully constructed not to anger, upset, offend or otherwise increase the blood pressure in any substantial way.

Consider it another lesson learned from Music Row. Country music sells, in part, because it appeals to the many Americans who relate to tales of heads-down hard work, modern American pastorals in warm colors. And if God made a farmer, Barry Trotz made a grinder.

Nashville is starting to mature, however. We're starting to recognize that reaping the reward of sublime talent often means tolerating — perhaps even one day embracing — the bombast and bluster of a substantial ego.

With just a little swagger and a little snarl — think Johnny Cash letting fly the digitus impudicus at Folsom and at the Music City machine — the Titans and Predators can grow out of being alternately adorable and awkward. And the teams will evolve from occasional good-enoughs into full-grown self-assured brawling badasses.

And maybe we'll grow up with them.



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