Publish date:

Hot Topics, Cold Truths

There are always two Americas: We're divided into Rich vs. Poor, or Red vs. Blue, or Original vs. Cool Ranch, though January's polar vortex split the republic into two other camps entirely: Cold vs. Hot.

Sports break down along similar fault lines—Us vs. Them, Big Market vs. Small Market—but the most unsung of these divisions is also Cold vs. Hot. Next month's Super Bowl in East Rutherford, N.J., by all accounts, will be too cold. The Australian Open, which last week saw shoe soles, water bottles and tennis players melt down at 120°, is too hot. Seldom are things Just Right in the anti-Goldilocks world of games, which are played in the space between warmup and cooldown.

The 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar on the logic that teams could play in stadiums chilled by outdoor air-conditioning. Sports provide a choice of blast furnace or meat freezer or blast furnace--meets--meat freezer. Players are treated with whirlpools or ice baths, hot or cold therapy. In the most binary business on earth, athletes are always one thing or the other: ice cold or on fire.

It can be difficult to tell on your local newscast where Weather ends and Sports begin. The Flames play the Avalanche, the Sun Devils face the Huskies. First baseman J.T. Snow succumbs to high heat. For years the Fridge (Bears tackle William Perry) and the Microwave (Pistons guard Vinnie Johnson) were in close proximity on sports pages, in accordance with sound principles of kitchen design.

Hot and Cold can coexist sublimely. Think of a cold beer and a hot dog, of Icy Hot, of Don January on a sun-scorched golf course, of cold milk meeting fire suit after the Indianapolis 500. These are the pie à la mode of athletic pursuits, when cold and hot are complementary.

But far more often Hot and Cold are in direct opposition, especially in the NFL playoffs, when warm-blooded teams visit cold-blooded teams in January. Veteran referee Ed Hochuli, born in Milwaukee and raised in Arizona, once told me he'd much rather ref in 110º in Glendale than on a cold day in Green Bay, to which he was posted this month for the Packers-49ers wild-card game, where Winter Storm Hercules had its way with Winter Storm Hochuli. Zebras prefer savanna to tundra.

That's because Hot and Cold are mostly irreconcilable. Even the hot-meets-cold McDLT didn't last. "How can you expect a man who's warm to understand one who's cold?" Russian émigré Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about empathy—though his maxim also applies, less consequentially, to the NHL's incursions into the American South and the troubled marriage of Ice Hockey and Sun Belt.

Yes, the Ducks-Kings game to be played outdoors at Dodgers Stadium on Jan. 25 will be cool (or hot, if you're Paris Hilton). These adjectives often mean the same thing, except Cold has a much worse publicist than Hot. It was especially vilified when polar vortex trounced quilted Gore-Tex in most of America.

"Some say the world will end in fire," wrote Robert Frost, "some say in ice." If football, in which Cold almost always conquers Hot, has any say, ice will prevail. In Green Bay, recall, a bare-armed Colin Kaepernick outshone a long-sleeved Aaron Rodgers.

More NFL dynasties skew Cold than Hot—even the 49ers of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice played in the only frigid place in California: Candlestick Park. And so the Vikings are moving back outdoors for the next two seasons after three decades of domed, 72¬∫ mediocrity. They played outdoors for their first two decades, eschewing heaters on the sideline, and made it to their only four Super Bowls.

Hot and Cold are funny that way. The Iceman had a hot hand, the Hot Stove warms the Winter Meetings. When cool and warm air collide, something spectacular often happens: The puff of a warm breath on a winter day becomes the signature shot of NFL Films. Even a man standing at a stadium urinal this month can produce his own rising steam, that ethereal vapor associated with the heaven portrayed in movies. It's an effect produced by dry ice, so cold it can burn you. The Super Bowl might behave that way too. In football, hell isn't always a hot place.

Of all the fault lines in sports—Us vs. Them, Big Market vs. Small Market—Cold vs. Hot is the most unsung division of all.

Are you a cold-weather or hot-weather fan?

Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin