As with anyone else who drinks and/or attempts to scratch out a living at the fringes of media, I have some experience with apologies. I have issued them often and I have issued them fulsomely. By the time you read this, I will almost certainly have apologized to someone already today-it could be an employer or potential employer (whose lunch I could be ruining with an article pitch or something) or person on the subway who actually stepped on my foot, but got an apology from me anyway because it is actually just reflex for me at this point. Compulsive deference is symptomatic to freelancing-I thanked a guy for letting me hold the door for him the other day, and it didn’t even feel that weird. But then, I’m not a professional football player.
Ambiguity and insight and context don’t really have a place on a football field, and I say this as both an ambivalent but card-carrying football fan and someone who values the aforementioned things more highly than, say, a well-executed stiff arm. The game itself is about speed and strength and certainty, and that’s a big part of its appeal. The dumb noise and passive-aggressive don’t-be-a-faggot come-ons of the beer and truck commercials that define football’s broader culture reflect that violent simplicity. This, I think, is why the writing about football is almost universally puddle-deep and poor-it’s not so much that the football commentariat’s call-out artists and mind-readers and instant-reaction “What We Learned” pedants (ahem) are bad writers or limited thinkers or whatever. It’s that doing a better, deeper job would be glaringly out of step, both with the discourse around the game and the game itself. It’s easier to stick with the declarative sentences, the dead-serious mundanities, the goofy They Are Truly Modern Gladiators pomp.
And if this is bad for the writers-and most things are bad for writers-it’s doubly so for the players. While football players can become various interesting things after their playing careers-anything from state Supreme Court justices to respected academics to full-retard proto-Tea Party Congressmen to adoptive fathers of adorable sitcom moppets-their primary purpose on the field of play is to be vehicles of violence and domination. Which looks pretty terrible, sitting there in those words, but which is also probably less creepy than the newer media narrative in which players are just muscle-yoked avatars for the genius of their (middle-aged, generally Caucasian) coaches and the redirected aggression of their (middle-aged, generally Caucasian) fans.
Anyway, either way: the greater culture of football doesn’t value insight, and you can’t have a good apology without that. It does value intransigent toughness and non-stop aggression, and you can’t have a good apology with that. To ask a professional athlete who has been more lavishly praised (and more casually criticized), and been notably bigger and stronger (and more observed, commodified and exploited) than his peers for more or less his entire life to say that he did wrong and feels badly about it is to ask that person to do something he has been told, for years, that he ought not do. The fantasy of never having to apologize-of being able to literally outrun or outhit any mistake-is a big part of the way we do (or don’t) understand football. (It should go without saying that no one ever asks NFL owners or coaches to apologize for anything)
There’s a chicken-egg causality question with the NFL’s rise to National Pastime status over the past decade-plus, but it’s easy to see ways in which our discourse has become more NFL-ified over that period-louder and more certain, more knee-jerk in its aggression and more brashly myopic, more emotional and resistant to nuance, wronger and wronger. What’s mirroring what is complicated, but there’s inarguably a lot of mirroring going on, here. Some sports columnists ape the haughty confidence of coaches, while others prefer to mimic the cool dominance of the players. Fans, for their part, are left to soak in it-the halftime shows are loaded with loud ex-jocks not because those ex-players are especially good at guessing whether the Bengals will make the playoffs or bring anything special to reading teleprompted scripts of first-half highlights, but because fans presumably want to hang out with Shannon Sharpe or Howie Long. You can see why “Order The Wrong Beer And You Will Be Gay” advertising works well in this setting-everyone except the players and coaches is tense about being found out as someone they’re not, in a place they’re not supposed to be.
Like a locker room, say. The biggest NFL story of the week was that of Ines Sainz, a reporter from Mexico’s TV Azteca who was subjected to some nasty, middle school-ish harassment while reporting at a New York Jets practice. This was a story both because of the Pen15 Club idiocy of the Jets’ behavior, and because Sainz is the sort of sports reporter who gets photographed in bikinis a lot-or at least notably more often than Dan Dierdorf-and thus a story involving her delivered the easy SEO jackpot of a suddenly newsy slideshow to sites eager to run that very slideshow. But even acknowledging the manufactured nature of all this, both the Jets’ harassment and the broader football scene’s reaction were both disappointing and telling.
The pyrotechnic idiocy of the blame-shifting, point-missing reaction to the Sainz story had little to do with Sainz herself. Dickishly making women uncomfortable is something few people would defend, and few (but, of course, some) defended it. But the story quickly turned into a broader debate over whether female reporters could or should cover men’s sports. From NFL players, we got some unsurprising off-the-rack dumbassery-Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett arguing, in the opaque and half-intelligible language indigenous to Twitter, that women shouldn’t be reporting from locker rooms, for instance, or Redskins running back Clinton Portis explaining on the radio that female reporters’ natural and inevitable desire for people who look like this or this or this would make it difficult (if not impossible) for those reporters to do their job, what with the cascading orgasms that naturally follow seeing Shaun Rogers in a towel and all.
Which is dumb, but easy enough to parse. After years of being leapt into, landed on and otherwise slammed, smeared, concussed and thrown around, Clinton Portis’s body is one injury away from total system failure, so I can see why he’d need to believe it to be a super-powerful magnet for female desire. (Also, Portis has always been a legendarily off-message goofball) Likewise, Darnell Dockett made his millions by throwing people to the ground-I can see why he’d take a similar rhetorical tack in a debate on gender in the workplace. It doesn’t make any of it less stupid, but I get it.
But what excuses do football fans and writers have? A disappointingly large number of writers were quick to blame the victim-a former Miss Universe contestant who dresses in the way Mexican television dresses its women-for wearing jeans into the locker room. They were backed by a host of comment section types-all people I can only assume don’t make a big deal about women in their respective workplaces-who quickly fell in line behind Portis and Dockett.
That the trolls did so in an ignorant enough way that the Washington Post‘s Dan Steinberg saw fit to dedicate a longish post to debunking the five most popular commenter misconceptions was probably inevitable, given the rhetorical ground the trolls were defending. But the living-the-fantasy projection (“We can’t just have women walking around our locker room, right Darnell?”) is palpable. I ordinarily resist the argumentum ad comment section thing, because comment sections seem to have an irrational and irresistible power to make people into drooling bile-monsters. But the difference here is that the entire fucking discourse surrounding the NFL scans like a comment section-overarching dumb passion, righteous tabbing of this or that as either a disgrace or cosmically awesome, the lowest self-satisfied groupthink.
Where basketball and baseball’s media, fan and online cultures are generally more sophisticated than the sports they orbit, football’s simply mimics it. It’s one thing to want to do one’s job as brilliantly as Darnell Dockett or Clinton Portis do theirs-a blameless thing, and one every sports fan knows at some level. And it’s equally easy to envy the tenacity and certainty and purpose we see in football players-most of us don’t get to experience the state of grace that comes with simple greatness at a (comparatively) simple thing. The bummer part-an actual childish excess more glaring than the weirdness of a grown-ass man in face paint and a football jersey-comes when writers and fans let themselves play intellectual dress-up as those on-field heroes for whom regrets or apologies or self-examination are, like signing the Contract With America or straight-manning Webster through a very special episode, things for later in life.
And now, I guess, the football part? Given that predictions for Week One of any given season are inevitably the product of misrememberings of 2009 stats, fantasy football biases, over-analyzed candid photos of Tom Brady shopping in Soho and the non-Starbucks-related portions of Peter King columns, I guess I’m okay with almost getting half my picks right. I’m less okay about getting my ass beat by a fucking flipped coin, but I’ll get over that. While I would be surprised if the Seahawks are remotely as world-beatingly excellent as they looked last week or if the Raiders are quite as bad as they seemed against Tennessee, I feel obliged to mention that I’m at least a week or two from having any idea what the hell I’m talking about, if I ever get there. So, yeah, let’s pick some picks! As usual, I will be making my picks against Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin, an actual Canadian toonie flipped by Garey G. Ris, my former colleague at the Wall Street Journal‘s Daily Fix. The point spreads are courtesy of Sportsbook.com.
Sunday, September 19
• Arizona at Atlanta (-6.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• Tampa Bay at Carolina (-3.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Carolina; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• Kansas City at Cleveland (-1), 1:00 pm – DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Kansas City
• Philadelphia (-6) at Detroit, 1:00 pm – DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Detroit•
• Pittsburgh at Tennessee (-5), 1:00 pm – DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Tennessee
• Miami at Minnesota (-5.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Minnesota; ATTLCTDC: Miami
• Baltimore (-2) at Cincinnati, 1:00 pm – DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Cincinnati
• Chicago at Dallas (-7.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Dallas; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
• Buffalo at Green Bay (-13.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
• St. Louis at Oakland (-3.5), 4:05 pm – DR: Oakland; ATTLCTDC: Oakland
• Seattle at Denver (-3.5), 4:05 pm – DR: Denver; ATTLCTDC: Seattle
• Jacksonville at San Diego (-7), 4:15 pm – DR: Jacksonville; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• New England (-3) at New York Jets, 4:15 pm – DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
• Houston (-3) at Washington, 4:15 pm – DR: Houston; ATTLCTDC: Washington
• New York Giants at Indianapolis (-5), 8:20 pm – DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
Monday, September 20
• New Orleans (-6) at San Francisco, 8:30 pm – DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: New Orleans
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 Chris Yunker, from Flickr.