By Akim Reinhardt
This Super Bowl, on its surface, is a perplexing one for me. Whom to root for when you don't like either team?
It's not unusual to have a championship game or series featuring two uninspiring teams. During such circumstances, my standard tactic is to simply root against the team I hate more. That's usually not too tough. Teams such as the Boston Red Sox, the Dallas Cowboys, Duke University and the University of Notre Dame offer an ample supply of villains to focus my animosity on when their opponent lacks charisma.
But this Super Bowl's tough. The problem is, I really hate both teams.
Let's start with the San Francisco 49ers.
As a middle-aged man, I'm old enough to have vivid memories and a strong case of 49ers fatigue left over from their cheery little dynasty, which ran largely uninterrupted from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s. Although the 49ers of that era weren't a particularly hateable team, they were fairly relentless in their winning ways, from Joe Montana to Steve Young, from Bill Walsh to George Seifert.
Their free-spending ways eventually caught up to them, and after owner Eddie DeBartolo was banished from the NFL in 2000, they spent the better part of a decade wandering in the wilderness. But they're back to their winning ways, and it's a little too soon for my taste. What's worse, this time, they really are hateable.
It begins with head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Harbaugh was the starting quarterback at the University of Michigan when I was an undergraduate there. Michigan's a large school, and I didn't have any direct interaction with Harbaugh, or any other athletes for that matter. Instead, I saw him only from the student section of what's now known as The Big House (though I don't remember anyone ever calling it that back then), tossing touchdowns to the likes of wide receiver John Kolesar and tight end Eric Kattus.
At the time, Harbaugh seemed gutsy: A rough-and-tumble pigskin slinger well suited to lead a Bo Schembechler-coached football team. But as head coach of the 49ers these past three years ... where to begin?
To my mind, Harbaugh has come to represent everything that's wrong with idiotic, macho jock culture. At first glance, he's all about boisterous claps and hearty black slaps. But the minute he doesn't get what he wants, his rah-rah attitude sours, and a tirade of whining and yelling quickly follows.
Whether pitching a spoiled-brat fit at a referee, or acting in ways that redefine the word boorish, such as his infamous "handshake" with Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, Harbaugh's poor behavior has been well documented.
Unless you're a Harbaugh apologist (i.e. 49ers fan), you can't spend three minutes staring at the guy before deciding his entire aesthetic can be described as frat-boy bully. He comes across as a raging, grunting, chino-wearing jaw box; a femur-wielding baboon of a man who'd probably despoil your wedding reception by using his toast to the happy couple as an opportunity to rave on about the time he hung 50 on Pete Carroll and the University of Southern California when he was coaching Stanford.
No wonder that when you plug "Jim Harbaugh is," into Google, eight of the nine auto-suggestions offered to complete the search are, in order: a jerk, crazy, a douche, a prick, frothing mad, a , douchebag, an idiot and a whiner.
True. Look it up.
So Harbaugh makes it easy for me, right? I should just hate on San Francisco and root for the Ravens then, right? Well, here's the rub.
I'm a Steelers fan. I have been my whole life. Really, you don't need me to list all the reasons why I hate the Ravens.
For me, trying to choose one of these teams is a no-win scenario, much like the fabled Kobayashi-Maru test in "Star Trek." It's designed for you to fail.
Under normal circumstances then, I'd be stymied and ambivalent about this Super Bowl. And to cope, I'd either find a rooting interest by laying a bet (take the points and the over), or I'd just laze on my couch and grumble in my beer, quietly hoping for a blimp to crash into the stadium.
But in this instance, it's about more than just picking a team to root for. It's about coming to terms with Baltimore.
Alas, I have made up my mind and chosen definitively.
I'm going to root for the Baltimore Ravens. Because, mostly, I'm rooting for the city of Baltimore.
Baltimore has become my home. I've lived in Charm City for more than a decade now, having first moved here shortly before 9/11.
Almost immediately, I became rather fond of Baltimore -- this dirty, beaten-up old harbor town, with its portly rats, its dirty alleys, its legendary syphilis epidemic, its depressed economy and its triple-threat drug markets: crack, heroin and meth.
Charm City's got its ups and downs, but one of the most endearing things about it to me is the culture of honesty. Everyone here knows exactly what Baltimore is. It's a second-rate city that's seen far better days, and nobody ever puts on any airs or pretends that Baltimore is something it ain't. The people are humble, yet proud, ornery, yet warm.
Because they know that even though Baltimore is a city that smothers its broken dreams in cheap beer and Old Bay, it's a real city nevertheless. It might be grimy and dilapidated; it might be mired in poverty; it might have a local government that's unfathomably corrupt and incompetent; but Baltimore still has everything you need: fine restaurants, world-class museums, spacious parks, corner bars, a half-assed mass transit system and some really gorgeous architecture.
Baltimore may not have 50 of everything like New York City, or a dozen of everything like Boston and Philadelphia, or even five of everything like Washington, D.C., but it does have everything. Maybe it has just a few of each. Maybe it has just one of something. But it's got it if you need it, or just plain want it. And I'm a modest man, living here among these modest, oddball people.
The Ravens, though I do loathe them with all my heart, reflect Baltimore in ways that are befitting and even admirable. Their head-scratching purple uniforms boast the state flag on the sleeve. It's a show of hometown pride that's actually quite rare in professional sports. And since arriving in 1996, the team has played a physical brand of football that excites the perpetually sold-out crowds at M&T Bank Stadium into a rabid frenzy, making it one of the fiercest home-field advantages in the NFL. Calling their style of play blue collar is a cliché, but the nuts and bolts of their playbook reflect this post-industrial town. The offense is lacking in gimmickry, and the defense prides itself on hitting opponents very, very hard.
The Ravens have also cultivated a salty and down-to-earth image, with lunch pail in hand and chip on shoulder. And they don't seem to particularly care whose feathers they ruffle, no pun intended. Such as when linebacker Terrell Suggs recently looked into a television camera and called New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick something I can't repeat here.
But more than anything, perhaps I'll be pulling for the Ravens during the Super Bowl because I'm rooting for the people of Baltimore, the crab-smash denizens of this dingy and dented town who douse their lake trout in hot sauce, who don't apologize for drinking Natty Boh even though it hasn't been made in the city since 1978, who use lawn chairs to secure parking spots on snowy days (I actually hate that) and who are proud to have the only NFL team named for a literary allusion.
And boy do they want this. Baltimore is a football town, Baltimoreans love their team and this game really means something to them.
Meanwhile, far too many San Franciscans are too hip to care. And rightly so, I suppose. I'll be the first to admit that I've wasted too much of my life watching other people play sports. But then again, I've always been a sucker for loyalty and devotion, and the people of this fairly fair city have that in abundance.
Look, if Baltimore were going up against most any other NFC team on Sunday, I'd say, "No way." Hell with it. Let 'em feast on a big plate of pain and suffering, with a side of schadenfreude for me, thank you very much.
But this time, and this time only, when it comes to football, I'm standing with these people, these marble-mouthed, oyster-poppin folks of the Chesapeake. Because it's a mean world, it's a frosty time of year, and we gotta take our little victories where we can get them.
And because, although I'm not from here, Baltimore is my home.
Akim Reinhardt is a professor of history at Towson University, and he's also a Steelers fan living in Baltimore. His website is ThePublicProfessor.com.
Posted Jan. 30, 2013