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Whew! It's over and good riddance. What was either the Buffalo Bills' 1997 season or history's longest-running root canal has come to a merciful end, and for that we should all be grateful.

However, once again I find myself cast into yet another category of people who've been deemed "unworthy" -- feminists, public school teachers, pagans and "fair-weather football fans."

You know us -- we're the ones who refused to buy tickets to the last home game and who never let up on our criticism of the powers at One Bills Drive. We're accused of being deserters and traitors and false-hearted, double-dealing, all-around bad people.

But one fan's "disloyalty" is another's "mature judgment" -- and I believe it's time to speak up for us stay-at-home complainers.

First, football is entertainment. That's all. It can be great fun, but it has no effect whatsoever on how lives are lived in the real world. It's also expensive entertainment.

Suppose, for example, that I paid a large sum of money to attend a widely publicized concert. And suppose that the highly paid violinist wasn't familiar with the score, made horrible screeching noises, dropped his violin on the stage floor and ended his performance by screaming at the audience about how deficient we were. Would I buy another ticket to see him again? No.

Second, the gap between the amount of money I have to spend on discretionary activities and the amount professional athletes make long ago reached the point of absurdity. When I hear a steroid-enhanced narcissistic jock complain that he's getting only a gazillion dollars instead of the two gazillion he's really worth, my eyes glaze over and I push the "off" button as quickly as I can.

When I hear a multimillionaire franchise owner complain that the cooks and cops and home-health aides of Erie County aren't giving him enough money to comfortably pursue his hobby, I realize that -- at long last -- the monkeys have taken over the laboratory.

Third, in no other area of life can I be as fickle, faithless and flighty as I am in my relationship with the Bills.

If someone close to me is diagnosed with a serious illness, I can't say: "Sorry you're not doing well, but, frankly, your disease bores me. Call me when you're feeling better." But when the team constantly flip-flops and fumbles its way through game after game, I can say with total justification: "You guys are just awful. Call me when you get your act together."

If I see a child having a hard time learning to swim or ride a bike, I can't yell: "Yikes! You're such a bozo! What's the matter with you -- are you dumb or just incompetent?" However, show me a highly paid professional athlete consistently dropping the ball or throwing it to the wrong team and suddenly I'm free to yell insults as loudly as I can. It's been a noisy year.

Suppose my neighbor is building a deck and I can see that the project is certain to fail -- that the necessary planning has been done so poorly as to make success impossible. He's bought the wrong wood, his soil is too sandy and he hasn't a clue about handling his new high-powered saw.

For the sake of neighborly civility, I'm not going to walk over and say, "Hey, Dumbo, you're doing this all wrong. Your wood's going to rot, your deck's going to sink and you're going to end up in the emergency room with your fingers sawed off."

No, I wouldn't dream of doing such a thing -- nor would I say "I told you so" loud enough for him to hear. But when I see the Bills' coaching decisions defy common sense, I have no problem telling everyone what I think.

Admittedly I'm not an expert, but I've watched enough well-played games to know the difference between a simple, well-executed game plan and The Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

Was I a "fair-weather fan" this season? You bet I was, and I'm not the least bit ashamed that I knew enough to come in out of the rain. I have enough warm memories of the good years -- the competent years -- to keep me happy while I wait and see what develops next year.

To end on the hackneyed cliche that's become an integral part of the Great NFL Morality Play, it does matter -- enormously -- how you play the game. Play as though you care and we'll support you. Play half-heartedly and we won't.

Perhaps this isn't fair, but it's certainly the way our game of "real life" is played in our "real world."

MANYA WARN is a Buffalo-area free-lance writer.

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