Fans need villains more than they need heroes, because villains give a face to the otherwise oppressive but abstract concept of losing. Long-suffering cities like Seattle have needed and hosted their share.
1. Clay Bennett
Sports fans live on hope. Rational hope. Irrational hope. Crazy hope that keeps them rooting for a miracle deep into the fourth quarter. Hope for a great draft pick in the darkest seasons. Hope for a playoff contender in every offseason. Hope for a title in the greatest seasons. Hope. No crushing loss, no injury, no incompetent general manager, no losing season, not even having a championship stolen by bad officiating can destroy hope.
So, there is little doubt who the greatest villain in Seattle sports history is: Clay Bennett, the man who destroyed hope.
The sordid details of Bennett's scheme are better left for others. He swooped into Seattle and destroyed one of the city's most storied franchises and arguably its most successful. For thousands of fans, hundreds of thousands of fans, fans who grew up with Seattle's first major sports franchise, that remember player Lenny Wilkens and better even coach Lenny Wilkens, that watched the dominant defense of '78-'79 Sonics lead the franchise and the city to its first and only major title, that remember Payton and Kemp squaring against Jordan and Pippen, that trusted Karl and McMillan and knew the promise of Durant, hope died on July 2, 2008. Clay Bennett killed it in cold blood.
2. Ken Behring
Before there was Bennett, there was Ken Behring. Behring had the aspirations of Bennett but was foiled by the NFL. Behring bought the Seahawks franchise from the Nordstrom family. Ownership had been passed from Lloyd W. Nordstrom to his family after his death, but though the deed was transferred, the passion for the team was not. A sale was deemed necessary in the modernization and reorganizing of the Nordstrom Corporation. Behring sensed an opportunity.
Behring was a football player in high school that received a partial scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. Injury ended his career and forced him out of college. It is not clear whether Behring's original intention was to move the franchise, but he never felt welcome in Seattle. He was a top down owner that almost immediately clashed with Seahawks then-coach Chuck Knox. Knox eventually moved on and Behring promoted Tom Flores. Things went south.
He did not like Seattle; he did not feel welcome in Seattle and wanted his franchise without the city it truly belonged to.
Behring and Bennett believed that with enough money and enough influence, they could buy something that belonged to the hearts of the people, the history of the city and the future of its citizens. Behring failed. The NFL shot down his attempt to move the franchise to Los Angeles and following that, Behring was ordered to offer the team to a local owner. Paul Allen stepped in, and the rest is history.
3. Bill Bavasi
Despite his bald head and goatee, Bill Bavasi is miscast as a villain. He is too nice. He was too warm to fans. At a time when blogging was its absolute least respectable, and I don't pretend it has progressed terribly far, Bavasi sat down with the writers and readers of USS Mariner and shot the shat. He was open. He was sincere. He was affable. And he buried the team under a pile of veteran bodies, bad process and worse trades.
Bavasi was not entirely at fault for the Mariners' collapse. Pat Gillick is well known for sacrificing the future for immediate gains, and he left Seattle with little young talent to build on. It nevertheless resounds when a team that is finishing its best stretch of baseball in team history, that has won 91, 116, 93 and 93 the previous four seasons, suddenly wins 63. But Bavasi doesn't win his place among top-five villains with results but process.
His free agent signings were dead on arrival. He signed Richie Sexson to mega bucks and though Sexson produced for a season, he and especially his contract was a burden from 2005 on. Bavasi signed mid-tier veterans to mid-tier contracts and by force of numbers undercut the team and maxed out the payroll. The players were so disastrously unsuccessful and dislikable they took on pseudonyms like Player A, Beluga Tits and Reefer Jaw. When the team lucked into a competitive season, Bavasi overplayed his cards and went all in. He traded the best overall prospect and a raft of talented pitchers for Erik Bedard. That trade, well, that trade did him in.
Bavasi was a villain because of well-meaning incompetence. His reign of terror was orchestrated through crimes of incontinence rather than crimes of malice. But likeable as he was, and well-meaning as he was, he put the team and its fans through too much for too long, and set the franchise back for years.
4. Bill Leavy
Oh no. Oh hell no.
I don't even want to talk about this.
The final question worth asking about referee Bill Leavy is this: Did Bill just screw up or was something more foul afoot? I tend to think Leavy just screwed up.
In some ways, the officiating was bad: a missed push-off by Hines Ward, a screwy personal foul called against Matt Hasselbeck. The penalties were certainly one-sided: seven for 70 for the Hawks; three for 20 for the Steelers. Believe it or not, that is not particularly suspicious by itself. Sometimes, one team just gets called for more penalties than another.
In some ways, the officiating has become an easy scapegoat: Did Roethlisberger break the plane? Well, it's damn hard to say for sure; the ruling on the field was that he did and back then officials had a very high standard for overturning a ruling through replay. But a better question might be, does it matter much? It was only third down. If it was overturned, there is a very good chance the Steelers score on the next down. Very good. And if not, field position alone has sizable value.
Leavy has become a cheap scapegoat for a miserable loss. If he wasn't compromised, and I know of no evidence that he was, then the calls that went against Seattle are symptomatic of the inescapable role of human error in professional sports.
Seahawks fans would be better off moving on, owning what was a fiercely contested game that Seattle was favored to win as late as the fourth quarter, and not buying into a somewhat overinflated sense of victimhood. Hating Leavy is easier and understandable. I swore off football forever after XL. On first viewing, it seemed like a travesty. I thought the game was fixed. I said that night to my future wife, pissed and loud and drunk on anger and beer, that if the game isn't fair, it's not sport and I just as well watch professional wrestling. And I know not everyone will sit down and re-watch and scrutinize every penalty and piece out if the Seahawks were jobbed or just got some bad breaks compounded by some huge blunders, and so, for convenience, for grieving, for sake of feeling cheated rather than like a loser, which I guess is preferable for some, we have all-time villain extraordinaire, Bill Leavy.
5. Everyone Else
Villainy is a transient quality. One week, Josh Brown signs with a division rival and badmouths the team and its fans on the radio. The next, everyone is wondering why Brian Russell is a guaranteed starter. No one cares about Brown eventually, and the wahoos that insist on booing long after the story loses resonance are booing for themselves, not on behalf of some collective outrage.
I listed Bill Bavasi, but Bavasi is mostly notable for being recent and presiding over terrible ball clubs. Another time, pre-sabermetrics, a less informed fan base, a less informed media covering the team, and Bavasi could have stuck it out and maybe shaped Seattle into a contender. He was no worse at constructing a roster than Woody Woodward. Woodward was blessed with and squandered Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez among a host of other talent.
Ken Behring is eminently hateable, but his sin was mostly pride. Who knows, maybe he, like many of history's greatest villains, was little more than an average guy given great means and therefore ability to do great harm. Maybe he wasn't a bad guy. It is very hard for me to wish ill on Behring. May Clay Bennett die of dysentery in the backwater dustbowl he scurried to. Those wounds are still fresh.
Most aren't though. Most wounds are scabbed over or scarred or healed entirely. Tim Ruskell was a heck of a villain for a couple seasons. One might say his record speaks for itself, but then, unfortunately so did his most prominent hire: Jim Mora. Ah, Playoffs Junior! A quality if short-lived villain. Child of privilege inherits his semi-dream job and loses it in one season. Villain for a day; sad footnote in Seahawks history ever after.
Villains are transient but villainy constant. We always need villains, because every year every team but one ends a loser. Neuheisels and Bloomquists and Pateras and how about that trick DeLisha Milton-Jones? Smack her around, Lauren.