By Ben Joravsky
For the last few years the most relentless voice in local satire has come from, of all things, an alternative hockey program for Blackhawks fans.
It's called the Blue Line, and its publishers are now taking a step toward greater prominence by going after the biggest, most sacrosanct target in town--the Bulls. The success or failure of their new program, Foul Line, will speak volumes about sociological divisions among sports fans.
"We're kind of nervous," says Mark Weinberg, who along with Steve Kohn and Greg Simetz puts out both publications. "Will the fans be able to laugh at satire about the players, the owners, and themselves? Or are the Bulls just too sacred for humor these days?"
It's sort of hard to picture the Blue Line unless you've read it. Think of it as a combination of the Sporting News and Spy--a 16-page tabloid filled with statistics and sports gossip as well as wickedly crude portraits of powerful politicians, team owners, and stars.
Weinberg and Kohn put the Blue Line together on a home computer and sell it as fans enter the United Center. "I've been out there for 198 straight Blackhawks games," says Weinberg. "We freeze in the cold and soak in the rain. After the game starts I go home. But Steve stays. He buys a ticket from a scalper and watches them play."
Their favorite target is Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, routinely depicted as an oafish, Scotch-abusing, mean-spirited robber baron who "fucks over fans and players alike, laughing all the way to the bank, which he also owns." In one issue they ran a mock obituary headlined "Wirtz Not Dead Yet: A City Mourns." In another they made up a letter from Wirtz that reads "Rest assured, dear fans, that I go to sleep each night with a big, self-satisfied grin on my unnaturally-tanned face, secure in the knowledge that pathetic swine like you will keep coming back to the United Center even if I were to put huge piles of shit on the ice and charge you $50 to use the god-damned toilets, which I plan to do next year."
The unsparing assault, much of it written by Simetz, gives vent to the fury of fans who feel at the mercy of the rich men who own their favorite teams. The program is popular with Blackhawks fans (they sell more than 1,000 issues a game), partly because underneath the parody is real passion.
"I watch every minute of every Hawks game," says Kohn. "I truly love this team, and what Wirtz has done really pisses me off. He won't put any home games on TV and prices are so out of control you can't afford to go unless you're rich. You go to a Hawks game and they're not cheering like they did in the old days. You yell and some guy will turn around and look at you like you did something wrong. That's because the real fan's priced out and being replaced by a corporate crowd."
Weinberg, a graduate of the University of Chicago's law school, has different motivations, some of which are personal. He's been arrested selling programs twice by off-duty law-enforcement officials moonlighting as United Center security guards. In each case he was carted off to jail. As Weinberg sees it, Wirtz was trying to drive him out of business. "It's not enough that he controls parking, concessions, and tickets, but he apparently wants to control our little publication by running us out of business," he says. (A Blackhawks publicist refused to discuss the Blue Line, saying only "We have no opinion of the Blue Line. We have no comment whatsoever.")
"I don't think Wirtz is bad," Weinberg says. "I think he's a powerful man who doesn't consider the consequences of his actions. We're using humor to point out the abuses of powerful people. I can't stand this worshiping of the rich and powerful. There's nothing wrong with being wealthy, but there is something wrong with revering wealth as the ultimate virtue."
He promises to poke just as much fun at Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf; Weinberg's just not sure how the Foul Line will depict him. "Wirtz and Reinsdorf are examples of rich owners who abuse the fans for selfish, greedy motives," says Weinberg. "But you can't portray Reinsdorf as bumbling. Unlike Wirtz, Reinsdorf didn't inherit his money, he actually made it."
There are all sorts of sociological theories as to why the Foul Line might not be as successful as the Blue Line. For one thing, the stereotypical Blackhawks fan is a working-class guy from a blue-collar neighborhood who despises Wirtz almost as much as he loves a bloody brawl. But Bulls fans (the ones rich enough to afford tickets) are reputedly pampered North Shore professionals--in other words, a bunch of Reinsdorf wannabes.
"I wonder if there's something special about hockey that's not there with basketball," says Weinberg. "Is there an underbelly of violence that makes Hawks fans more willing to respond to an underground publication? I don't know. I think that Bulls fans will respond to satire about Reinsdorf's excesses. Everyone says they're such a different crowd, but we're not sure. The NHL's own demographics show that a hockey crowd is a wealthy crowd. Obviously, hockey's a very white-middle-class sport. To play it you have to have some money. It costs $1,000 for equipment, and ice time is expensive. To play basketball all you need is a hoop and a ball. I mean, there's a reason so few inner-city kids play hockey."
A satirical publication about basketball must expect to have to deal with matters of race, a subject that's rarely discussed in hockey since almost all of the players and fans are white. But the Blue Line did manage to brush on a few touchy subjects. "We did a piece on the great Jewish hockey players of all time," says Weinberg. "We listed four players. We got a letter from a Jewish organization saying we were promoting racial stereotypes." They also ran a mock ad for the NBA and the NHL. It showed a picture of a white tennis shoe and a black puck captioned "The NBA: where only the shoes are white. The NHL: where only the puck is black."
"Is that offensive? I don't think so. I think it's good satire," says Weinberg. "But not everyone's going to agree with us. We know we're treading on sensitive ground. But we're not making fun of black people, we're making fun of a culture where men are put on a pedestal because they jump high, even though they can be insanely stupid and act in antisocial ways."
The opening issue of the Foul Line reads a lot like the Blue Line. Above the headline "Let the March Down the Aisle Begin," the cover has pictures of Michael Jordan, Steve Kerr, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman dressed in bridal gowns. In addition to the usual collection of facts and gossip, it features a story titled "How Tough Is It to Get a Bulls Ticket?"
Weinberg, Kohn, and Simetz called 18 ticket brokers and asked how much it would cost to attend the opening game November 2. (Quoted prices ranged from $65 for standing-room-only to $1,000 for first level.) "We said, 'That sounds like a lot of money,'" says Weinberg. "We shut up and listened for their answer."
Among the answers cited are: "You want cheap? Try a Hawks game"; "Oh, well"; "That includes a free macarena lesson"; "You can pay with a home-equity loan if you like"; "These seats are so close Rodman may pinch your ass."
So far the Bulls have made no comment about the Foul Line (team spokesman Tim Hallam didn't return a call on the subject). But if recent history is any judge, the publishers can expect a fight that may force Weinberg to resort to his legal skills.
Acting as his own lawyer, he's gone to court several times in the last few years seeking to uphold the rights of vendors to sell their products near the United Center (he even filed a class-action suit on behalf of peanut vendors, who have been banned from within 1,000 feet of the arena). This summer Weinberg successfully sued the city when it tried to keep him from selling Smart Ass, a satirical political magazine, outside the United Center during the Democratic convention. And in what some might see as an act of chutzpah, Weinberg and Kohn sued the Blackhawks for refusing to allow them media credentials to home games. (Kohn may be the only reporter who covers games by purchasing tickets from scalpers.)
"We argued that by not giving us media credentials they are creating a competitive advantage for themselves in the sales of programs," says Weinberg. "In other words, they're using their monopoly control in one market to create a monopoly in another market." The matter has gone all the way to the state supreme court, which ordered that a trial be held.
"I'd like to think that the Bulls would have enough of a sense of humor to laugh at us, but I don't think that's going to happen," says Weinberg. "The Bulls are famous for being hard-asses. After all, even Wirtz allowed peanut vendors outside the old stadium. It was only after Reinsdorf came around that they got banned. So I wouldn't be surprised if they come after us. And to think all we want to do is have a little fun."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Randy Tunnell.