Tuesday nights aren’t big for televised sports, and this Tuesday was even worse than usual. The Mets were in the process of blowing their game to a Broward County Pony League team dressed as the Florida Marlins, and that was tough for me to watch. The Yankees were… whatever, doesn’t matter, I wasn’t going to watch the Yankees. The fluorescent inertia of the World Series of Poker was on ESPN2, but it was not going to happen – I could almost smell the dense room full of sour hours-old breath, I couldn’t handle the featureless Felliniesque baby-men in their logo-emblazoned hats and microfiber golf shirts sussing each other out. College football (which I don’t like) had the night off. But there was football on ESPN, it turned out. LSD truck commercial “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” CMA highlight reel football, with close-ups of Bill Parcells’ curdled mayonnaise face. So not football, but also football.
Okay, so: there was pee-wee football, but then it was abruptly Bill Parcells and his Evil Manatee visage and then other successful coaches speaking with stern earnestness about toughness and improving young men. Explosions In The Sky in the background. Talk about leadership and inspiration, but also about toughness and also pee-wee football and camaraderie. John Madden – or someone in a Where The Wild Things Are mask, I don’t know – somehow too close to the camera, was there being positive and obvious in that endearing way he does. It was all moving very quickly now. More burnished, wealthy-looking coaches – some Ohio high school football godfather, the reasonable-seeming Saints coach Sean Payton, the lewd sausage known as Joe Namath. The production values were ESPN-high, but it was impossible to tell what was going on – the images skipped around and the narration didn’t explaining anything and the interviews all seemed to be about slightly different topics. A wash of well-lit faces: Brett Favre’s craggy squint and some words about something. University of Alabama coach Nick Saban on leadership, but then also about… sorry, was that Kenny Chesney just now? The country dude? Does Parcells really need to be that close to the camera, because it looks like someone threatening me with a weissewurst. Footage of high school football under the lights, now. How long ago did the commercial break start? Pulse racing. Tripping balls. Television off. What. Was. That.
So it turns out that the person I thought was either Kenny Chesney or the raincoat-clad goblin from Don’t Look Now was actually Kenny Chesney, and that the thing on ESPN was a rerun of an hour-long documentary Chesney made named The Boys of Fall, which premiered back in August and was being rerun because, I guess, the television public could conceivably wince itself to death were the World Series of Poker on both ESPNs at once. It is not a very good documentary, and is actually possibly even more fatuous than Chesney makes it sound in the AP story I linked to back there. “It’s no different if you’re playing football, if you’re on the road like I am, if you’re running a company – everybody’s got to work together if they want to achieve something that’s special.” That’s what Chesney said to the AP writer, and I guess that’s the message the film has. If that was a message or this was a film.
All of which is a kind of long way of revealing the not-so-surprising news that a semi-documentary tied in to a country song – the first single off Chesney’s most recent album was called, yes, “The Boys of Fall” – was about as illuminating and roughly as interesting as that description would lead you to expect. But in the way that The Boys of Fall tries to keep us from understanding football – all those layers of incoherent sentiment and dangerously pure certainty and unctuously sincere success-worship – it does serve a purpose. Two purposes, I guess: it got me to eat dinner really quickly and get the hell out of my apartment to meet a friend for a drink. Also, it revealed, again, just how little football’s most ardent proponents actually want to deal with football.
For obvious reasons. Football is an intricate, violent, brutishly graceful, surpassingly difficult and occasionally beautiful game, but it’s also a mile-high pile of lividly toxic semiotic waste and an all-too-easy outlet for the armchair belligerence and brain-dead sentimentality that have made possible our nation’s worst thinking. Watching Bill Parcells get misty during some shaping-young-men monologue that frankly don’t make no damn sense – both in terms of the words used and that it was coming from Parcells, one of the ur-assholes in all of sports – is ridiculous on its face. But the brutally sentimental bipolarity of football discourse conditions those of us at home to get dewy right along with him. Those brave young men, those modern gladiators, selflessly putting everything on the line so we can be moved by how moved we are at it all. The Tea Party’s crocodile tears about The Troops come from the same shallow well, and the same wish to be, simultaneously, the heroes and the heroes’ biggest fans.
It’s tough to argue that the NFL’s decision to appropriate both the sawed-off language and desperate, terrified sentimentality we get during wartime hasn’t worked like a fucking charm. There’s no comparing the human costs of war and an AFC West game, obviously. But the depleted discourses surrounding each reflect many of the same distortions back at each other, and match each other for deeply-felt incoherence and pissed-off stridency. What a call-in radio goof who calls Giants running back Brandon a pussy for not wanting to run inside and George W. Bush in Fuck-Saddam-We’re-Taking-Him-Out mode have in common is that they’re willing to talk extra-big and extra-certain about something 1) that they’re not nearly able or willing to do themselves and 2) of which they have no experience themselves. Strip the context and cost from the violence and there’s nothing left but dirt-cheap emotion and explosions in the sky.
Admittedly, though, from a football perspective, it is indeed frustrating that Brandon Jacobs doesn’t run inside. Jacobs is 6-4 and 260 pounds, and he is also really a lot better at running over defenders than he is at juking them out of their jocks. But while I guess William C. Rhoden of the New York Times deserves some credit for trying to understand Jacobs’s power-running issues rather than simply ripping him for it, it’s not surprising that Rhoden falls short in some Chesney-ish ways.
“Like most of us, Jacobs has run through his share of brick walls when told to do so,” Rhoden writes, in a sort of defense of the big back. To which the only response is “No, dude.” Yes, as adults we all do things we don’t want to do. But the walls we castigate Jacobs for not running through are different than ours – if Rhoden doesn’t want to write a column, he can half-ass it. (Tuesdays With Morrie super-creep Mitch Albom has been doing this since Reagan was president, and he won The Red Smith Award) Rhoden does, at least, acknowledge what makes Jacobs’ walls less inviting than a sports columnist’s – the epidemic of brain injuries in football, the pain of getting hit 25 times a game, the fact that if Jacobs runs the way talk-radio ghouls want him to (and the Giants need him to) he’ll shave lucrative years off a career that will, even in the best case scenario, be over by the time Obamacare begins in 2014. But Rhoden still can’t resist the comparison. It’s not its crass Palin parallel – “Like infantrymen in combat abroad, small business owners fight for what they believe in, tax-wise” – but the same point is being missed in the same vain way.
Football, because it’s a game and because it’s loaded with the violence and struggle we associate with things more serious than games, invites just this sort of unseriousness. (Politics, when covered as a sport, does the same thing.) Kenny Chesney made a movie about how he sees a football hero in himself – how football’s incoherent mythos explains the successful country star to himself. It doesn’t make sense, of course, but there’s no real way it could – it’s just Chesney talking to himself, recasting himself as a hero in a different epic, a guy who runs through walls instead of touring the sun belt.
More so than other pro sports, football has created a discourse that makes fans both the boss – Chesney’s guy “running a company,” idly pointing out walls that need running-through – and someone, per Chesney, “no different” than the man-in-the-arena hero despite our position outside the blast zone on a Ray Lewis tackle. Our own biggest fans, then, and our own worst enemies. But still, thankfully, not nearly as bad as Parcells. Because holy shit, that guy.
You know where I am not a hero? In the field of not getting savagely out-picked by a fucking coin. Worse, a Canadian coin! All it knows of football is Flutie, Warren Moon and Rocket Ismail! This coin thinks the field is 110 yards long and is basically picking the Winnipeg Blue Bombers versus Hamilton Tiger-Cats game, and it is still beating my ass. Eventually, this is going to change; there’s presumably some law of probability stating as much but also, really, honestly, the coin has managed a push or a correct pick in more than two out of three games. I might be that bad at this, but there’s no way this doofy nub of foreign-ish currency is this good, right? Anyway, on with the humiliation ritual:
Sunday, September 26
• Atlanta Falcons (+4) at New Orleans Saints, 1pm – DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• San Francisco 49ers (-2.5) at Kansas City Chiefs, 1pm – DR: San Francisco; ATTLCTDC: San Francisco
• Detroit Lions (+11) at Minnesota Vikings, 1pm – DR: Detroit; ATTLCTDC: Minnesota
• Dallas Cowboys (+3) at Houston Texans, 1pm – DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
• Tennessee Titans (+3) at New York Giants, 1pm – Remember Kerry Collins? Wasn’t that whole thing hilarious, when he was a starting NFL quarterback? Hold on, I’m getting some news… DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: Tennessee
• Buffalo Bills (+14.5) at New England Patriots, 1pm – DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• Cleveland Browns (+10.5) at Baltimore Ravens, 1pm – DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Pittsburgh Steelers (-2.5) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1pm – DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• Cincinnati Bengals (-3) at Carolina Panthers, 4:05pm – DR: Cincinnati; ATTLCTDC: Cincinnati
• Washington Redskins (-3.5) at St. Louis Rams, 4:05pm – DR: Washington; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Philadelphia Eagles (-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars, 4:05pm – DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Indianapolis Colts (-5.5) at Denver Broncos, 4:15pm – DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Denver
• San Diego Chargers (-5.5) at Seattle Seahawks, 4:15pm – DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego
• Oakland Raiders (+4.5) at Arizona Cardinals, 4:15pm – Worst game of the week by, um, the length of Al Davis’s life as represented in miles. DR: Oakland; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
• New York Jets (+2) at Miami Dolphins, 8:20pm – DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
Monday, September 27
• Green Bay Packers (-3) at Chicago Bears, 8:30pm – DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”
Photo by Jason Poulton, from Flickr.