My Sundays have never been the same since I left the faith.
Despite a Catholic upbringing, my purest expressions of fervor were for what I piously believed was my true religion — my devotion to the Miami Dolphins, who kick off their 52nd season this week.
As with many Miamians who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, rooting for the Dolphins wasn’t just a source of hometown pride for me. It was a passionate rite of passage, and for the most rabid among us, our house of worship was pro football’s cathedral — the Orange Bowl. More than any other local facility, the Dolphins’ legendary home stadium was our most beloved gathering place and hallowed ground.
I bore witness to my first football game there on Jan. 2, 1982 — a playoff contest between the Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers. While the matchup would later be christened the “Epic in Miami” in NFL lore, and sanctified as arguably the greatest game in league history, it was more the spirit in the stands than the gridiron action that stirred this soul.
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Outside the rocking stadium’s walls, Miami was a simmering cauldron of political and ethnic tensions, fresh off the deadly McDuffie race riots and coping with yet another mass exodus of Cuban refugees arriving via the Mariel boatlift.
Yet inside the Orange Bowl’s sea of humanity, I vividly remember people of all faiths and persuasions — Anglos, African-Americans, and Hispanics, young and old, the wealthy and the meager, the professional and the working man and woman — sitting side by side, cheering together at ear-splitting decibels, as one fandom, behind one team.
The Miami Dolphins did that. They inspired that. Long before the Heat, the Marlins, and the Panthers, the Dolphins were the essence of Miami. As our only professional sports team, they stood for something greater than football. They stood for us. And in return, we stood for them. They turned a fracturing community into a unified congregation.
I was a true believer — a Dolfan to the grave. Or so I would have sworn then.
The Dolphins weren’t a public entity or charity, they were fundamentally a business. But while the Dolphins were a professional, for-profit organization, their financial pursuits never seemed to overtly exceed their community-first orientation; game tickets accessibly priced for modest family wallets; team merchandising opportunities never prioritized over the product on the field; public tax dollars purposefully eschewed for private capital when the team sought a new home.
But this ethos, a reflection of the values instilled by Joe Robbie, who founded the team, began to erode when the equalizing spirit of the Orange Bowl gave way to the class system of the new stadium where luxury boxes and premium club seats segregated the haves from the have-nots. The Dolphin dogma of community over bottom-line interests unraveled, and monetization at all costs — and at fans’ expense — became the new credo. Ticket prices exploded, topping out at today’s absurd $140 per-ticket average, practically eliminating access to the communal game-day experience for most income-strapped South Floridians, deepening my crisis of faith.
And while the organization hasn’t abandoned admirable philanthropic initiatives such as the Dolphins Cancer Challenge, summer reading programs and countless player visits to area hospitals, those laudable initiatives feel like penance for game-day greed.
The final fall from grace came recently, when the current Dolphins ownership cynically redesigned the classic team logo and uniforms — at no diehard fan’s request — for another passing of the merchandise collection plate. Perhaps most blasphemous of all, they also volunteered to export certain “home games” overseas to foreign stadiums for richer paydays, depriving players and fans of crucial home field advantage.
My beloved Miami Dolphins lost their way and sacrificed hard-won community goodwill on the altar of profits. What had once felt like an indispensable institution has become just another big business enterprise. Ironically, the franchise’s financial wins haven’t translated onto the field. Though valued at over a billion dollars, the team hasn’t won a playoff game in 17 years.
I confess that I am no longer a faithful parishioner of the once Almighty Dolphins, whose Sundays now seem mostly devoted to their pursuit of the Almighty Dollar.
Fernand Amandi is the president of Bendixen & Amandi International.