Like it or not, sports have brought Denver its greatest fame.
And its greatest infamy.
No matter how often city cheerleaders jump up and down to praise Denver -- its scenery, its 4,000 days of sunshine each year, its swell new airport (with newly swelled fares), its astounding arts attendance (arrived at through equally astounding mathematics that factor in every amateur theater production while subtracting every Little League game until arts lovers outnumber sports fans), its livability, hell, its downright lovability -- the positive attention this town attracts invariably focuses on sports. Occasionally they're the sort of snow-skiing, rock-climbing, rapids-rafting, trail-hiking, bungee-jumping, bike-riding solo sports that contribute so much to Denver's livability and, yes, lovability. But usually the sports that gain national notice are practiced by supplement-swilling pro athletes, whose playgrounds are subsidized by taxpayers and whose individual incomes top those of all Brighton residents combined.
They get the glory -- and deliver us into ignominy.
Was it after the Broncos' second or sixth Super Bowl loss that Denver leaders beat themselves into a pitiful pulp? After a national newscast describing the team's sorry performance ended with the footnote that this city had never been number one in anything other than air pollution, boosters hurried to find Denver's other claims to fame. We have the world's largest laundromat! crowed then-congresswoman Pat Schroeder. Denver was also tops in vitamin consumption, as well as psychiatrists per capita.
By then, we needed all of them. In preparation for the non-victory parade, the city had painted an orange stripe down 17th Street that took weeks to fade; it took even longer for the loss to disappear from this city's bruised psyche.
And even after Denver finally grabbed the prize, the city gave itself a black eye with that first post-Super Bowl riot. In morning-after TV accounts, the country got a good look at what the Denver Police Department considers tear-gas-worthy behavior: drunken revelers who might well have been on their way to a quilting bee, compared to the usual rowdies celebrating, say, a Chicago Bulls victory. For pity's sake, Denver's miscreants were breaking windows in order to loot...athletic gear!
January 1998 would not, of course, be the first -- or the last -- time that Denver's fixation with sports crossed over the thin blue line. Fans again failed to toe the line in January 1999.
And on Saturday night, that line was trampled into oblivion.
But in the week leading up to the CU-CSU game, neither the city's sports figures nor its law-enforcement types had covered themselves with glory.
On Monday, there was Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's ousting of quarterback Bubby Brister, followed on Wednesday by Bubby's burbling over his treatment, followed on Thursday by the news that fellow Bronco Bill Romanowski was the subject of police scrutiny in connection with a few prescriptions allegedly picked up by his wife and a friend.
All that before the Broncos loaned their supposedly city-owned home to Colorado's premier public universities for their annual grudge match.
The Denver Police Department started out that same week still taking hits for its over-enthusiastic apprehension of two slow-speed chase suspects. Then the DPD picked on someone even less likely to fight back: the Denver Junior Police Band and Choir, an innocent victim of a spat between the city and the Denver Police Protective Association. And by Friday, Romanowski's supporters were firing back: With shady characters around like the two federal drug suspects who'd already led the DPD on such a merry chase, why bother with the football hero?
It was a week filled with sour grapes and sour notes.
And all that before the police signed on to guard the Broncos' supposedly city-owned home during the annual CU-CSU grudge match.
The Denver cops and the Denver Broncos both deny reports that team owner Pat Bowlen wanted the DPD to protect the field so that it would look all tidy (unlike the team itself) at next Monday's season opener. But there was no denying the offensive line of cops that lined up to face the crowd. There was no denying the mists of tear gas that overcame everyone from grandparents to kids to members of both schools' marching bands to the hardcore, inebriated troublemakers.
On TV it was impossible to tell whether beneath all that haze the field was still nice and NFL-ready. But it was already obvious that when the smoke cleared, Denver wasn't going to look too good.
On Sunday, Mayor Wellington Webb said the city would review the officers' actions -- the second such police review the mayor had ordered in less than two weeks. On Tuesday, Webb also called for a meeting with CU president John Buechner and CSU president Al Yates, to tally the damages (hundreds of fans kicked out of the stadium, 27 arrested, countless more sent off to the city's detox facility -- and enough bad press to give you the shakes) and determine how the universities can make sure such bad, bad behavior is not repeated.
Under their current agreement with the city, CU and CSU can still play one more year at Mile High -- although why they'd want to is a mystery. Murder suspects get treated better in Boulder than football fans do here.
After 2000, Mile High won't be an option for the schools. By then, Bowlen and his Broncos will have a spanking-new home, one that taxpayers are subsidizing to the tune of $300 million. Ground was broken for that new stadium months ago, and already the construction project has swallowed up parking around Mile High.
On the same ballot in which metro-area voters agreed to build Bowlen's new play toy, Denver residents approved a neighborhood bond issue that authorized three new police stations. Construction has yet to begin on any of them.
But in the meantime, this city continues to break new ground in groaningly bad behavior. And that's not even counting the CSU fans.
Maybe the cops protected Bowlen's turf so aggressively simply because they wanted to make nice to make up for Romanowski. Maybe they weren't sacrificing hundreds of well-behaved bystanders just to save the goalposts. Either way, they certainly collected enough in overtime to save an institution more deserving of support than this city's already overly shored-up sports teams. After Saturday, the DPD should be able to meet its obligation to the Junior Police Band.
A city institution started in 1937, the band had seen thousands of young Denverites pass through its ranks before it was disbanded in 1987. By the mid-Eighties, the band had already weathered one bingo scandal when fighting broke out between overzealous parents and the police. Then-police chief Tom Coogan investigated the mess and insisted that new bylaws be written for the band to put it under the protection of the Police Protective Association. But two years later, a funding shortage silenced the band until 1994, when the PPA again agreed to help keep it going.
Until this July, that is, when the city decided it would no longer fund the PPA's full-time lobbyist -- and the PPA retaliated by withdrawing the $45,000 it gave the band every year.
Even without the PPA's support, the band has vowed to play on. Still undecided is whether it will continue to model itself in the image of the cops. For decades the band has enlisted beginners as "cadets" and let them work their way up to captain, when they earn a full uniform and badge. During a less politically correct time, they also received a cap gun.
Today, a football would be more appropriate.
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