Seattle either dignified or indifferent

Sunday, February 5, 2006

SEATTLE -- In view from the window of Mayor Greg Nickels' office is one of two flags bearing the number "12," flown in tribute to the city's Super Bowl-bound team.

It doesn't make too much of a fuss. It blends in. It's Seattle.

Not exactly a city awash in team colors, or a place possessed by football mania, Seattle has embraced its first Super Bowl with what some would call controlled dignity, and others would describe as charming indifference.

"Seattle is a pretty laid-back city, and I think we're enjoying the season in the same spirit we enjoy life in general here," said Nickels, the city's two-term mayor. Years ago, while a member of the King County Council, he opposed using taxes to fund the construction of the team's stadium, Qwest Field.

He, like others, has come around, brought in by the tide of the Seattle Seahawks' team-record 15 victories, a run not even 27 consecutive days of rain could dampen. And as mayor he is obliged to be cheerful about the team's success. He has made and collected on bets of chili dogs and fried chicken with the mayors of Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, N.C. But within even the heart of the proud and amiable mayor, there is recognition that Seattle is perhaps not quite as caught up in the hoopla as one might expect.

"We had 5- to 10,000 people at Qwest Field the other day just to get a 10-minute look at the players," Nickels said. "For us, at least, it's a fever pitch. We don't have anything to compare it to. Every city has got its own character and temperament. We have our own way to demonstrate our excitement."

The mayor's spokesman Marty McOmber offered another explanation for the apparent restraint, one rooted in a healthy respect for or suspicion of good fortune.

"You don't want to jinx it," McOmber said.

One flag flies on a flagpole atop the landmark Space Needle north of downtown, and another near city hall, atop the 522-foot Smith Tower, the fourth tallest in the world when it was built in 1914.

The flag is a reference to the Seahawks' devoted fans, the 12th man, whose history goes back to the team's days in the cavernous Kingdome. Fan noise, then and now, has been credited with preventing opposing players from hearing plays. It has become the theme of the Seahawks' surprising season and its sudden turn from mediocrity.

The team, only 30 years old, has endured more 7-9, 8-8, and 9-7 seasons than just about any other team in the league, a curse in itself. League rules make it easier for bad teams to get better. Teams with the worst records draft first and play the weakest schedules. But teams stuck in the middle are challenged to improve their lot. They often neither get better nor fall back.

"There's an ennui that sets in with those middle-of-the-road teams," said Art Thiel, longtime sports columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He referred to an acronym long associated with the team: "SOS," or Same Old Seahawks.

"The NFL is full of teams that go from 5-11 to 11-5, and those stories are more familiar to most sports fans."

The Seahawk story is less familiar and seems to have caught some off guard and not entirely sure how to react. Thiel has a number of theories to explain the city's perceived lack of emotional follow-through:

-- Many of the team's stars are new to the team. Fans have yet to develop an emotional attachment to them. Throw in the fact that football is not the most intimate of sports, with so many helmeted, padded, faceless players.

-- Professional sports came relatively late to Seattle, whose first love was the University of Washington football team (the Huskies, whose history began in 1889, won a share of a national championship in 1991).

"A team becomes part of the cultural fabric over the dinner table," Thiel said. Parents talk to their children, who then talk to their children about a team and its history.

-- Seattle's love of sports is more about doing than watching. Ringed by water and mountains, the city's culture "is not rooted in spectator sports but in outdoors and recreational sports," said Thiel, who keeps three kayaks in his own basement.

-- Seattle is a city of sports migrants, former Yankee fans and Browns fans and the like, whose loyalties have yet to atrophy.

That said, the Super Bowl represents an evolutionary step in the city's sports culture. And it has shined a certain kind of spotlight on a city already accustomed to it.

"We've been the nation's so-called hottest city for 15 or so years now," said columnist Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times. "What we're not accustomed to is winning. We are the city of navel-gazing self-doubt. We're much more comfortable discussing our problems than solving them. Preferably with the help of a blue-ribbon citizens' commission. So when our football team suddenly got all smash-mouth and not only beat the other team, but annihilated them, it was a level of decisiveness that we don't see out here in the mist very often."

"Navel-gazing" is something of a pastime in Seattle, a place of conflicted identity, nice and polite but cold and sanctimonious, incredibly wealthy yet proud of its frugality. The Big Game has become just the latest opportunity to discuss Seattle's civic identity, to reconcile its practical values with an event that is universally ostentatious.

All the stereotypes have been rolled out: It's a geeky city, an aloof city, a city of book readers, coffee drinkers, rabid recyclers, and liberal politics (John Kerry got 80 percent of the Seattle vote) -- in short, a city that does not sharply reflect the NFL demographic. (Although the city's popular image belies the fact that this is also a place of shipbuilders, fishermen, loggers and riveters.)

The vote to fund the construction of Qwest Field using public dollars was a dead heat, and there are still many in the city who resent its presence, a stone's throw from Safeco Field, a seemingly identical and costly baseball-only stadium. At the time, both endeavors were viewed as crass and excessive to practical and high-minded Seattleites.

Indeed, polls and anecdotes indicate a minority of the team's fans reside in the city, that most come from the suburbs and surrounding counties and states like Alaska and Montana. The team has arguably the most geographically diverse fan base in the league and, because of the city's isolation, travels more miles than any other during the season.

A Super Bowl championship would be the city's second pro championship in a major men's sport. The Seattle SuperSonics won the NBA title in 1979, when the notion of professional sports in Seattle was still a novelty. A true, pro sports tradition has been slow to build. And in the case of the Seahawks, 30 years of finishing in the middle has trained fans to expect little.

"By definition you are not certain of your surroundings," Thiel said. "Thirty years of skepticism is a lot to overcome in a weekend ... It's an abrupt departure from the mediocrity from before ... Not that it hasn't rocked and hasn't been loud."

With classic Seattle modesty, Mayor Nickels, who will attend the game in Detroit, talked of the Super Bowl not as a chance to show off, but as a "community-building opportunity."

"People who are complete strangers get to hug one another," he said. "It's a shared experience for the community unlike any other."

Even regulars at the bohemian Blue Moon Tavern, for decades the roost of poets, artists, and beatniks, will be treated to a special viewing of the Super Bowl. The owners plan to bring in a projection television for the occasion and serve free food. It's a meaningful but understated effort, about right for a city that prides itself on having a sense of proportion.

In that regard, the 12th-man flag makes sense -- trim and discreet, a friendly number on a square flag, white block print on a blue background. It is both mathematical and poetic. A 12th player in a sport that allows 11. Looked at another way, however, it proves a contradiction.

"It doesn't fit with that stereotype of everyone in Seattle being so polite," said Bill Radke, longtime comic observer of the city, and co-host of a weekly program on National Public Radio. "How does being polite go with screaming so loud the players can't hear each other? We could sit in the stands and focus mirrors in the other players' eyes, too, but I'm not sure why that's admirable."

EDITOR'S NOTE -- Hugo Kugiya was a longtime resident of the Emerald City.

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