Football Is Socialism

Where there was once a manic parade of high-fiving bald eagles and beer-drinking pickup trucks and panty-raiding Founding Fathers in the commercials that fill out most NFL broadcasts, there are now two more boring types of ads. You’ve got the ones predicated on grim, recession-appropriate anxiety-comedy—the foxy bartender makes fun of you for not properly appreciating Miller Lite’s futuristic new bottles and then your friends also make fun of you. And then you’ve got the increasingly baroque paeans to increasingly unconvincing rugged individualisms, of the build-your-own-boat-and-sail-it-to-the-top-of-a-mountain variety. The ultra-traditionalist and progress-averse language of the average on-air commentator—toughness, grit, more toughness—has been uncomfortably and incompletely but also undeniably modernized.

Still, for all these hesitant mini-evolutions, the general spectacle surrounding the NFL remains defined by a manic, flop-sweaty patriotic pomp. Of course, it would be really tough to sell macro-brews as bafflingly crummy as Coors Lite without attaching an overdetermined symbolic heft—patriotic or gay-panicky or whatever—to what is, essentially, a beverage that tastes like farty seltzer. Put these ads in the context of a NFL broadcast, though, and the symphonic overcompensation in the average commercial break starts to seem… well, deeper isn’t the word. At some point it’s still Sam Elliott’s voice pitching faintly wheatish headache juice. But all that desperate Americana makes a bit more sense when you consider just how frankly socialistic football actually is.

Not the NFL, mind you. The NFL itself is platinum-plate plutocracy, and from the bluff, too-adored bully atop it all to the surly billionaire paranoiacs in the owners suites, the NFL behaves more or less the way the U.S. government would if one of the Koch brothers was president and the Senate had 70-odd Mitch McConnells in it. But the game at the center of the spectacle, the thing that powers the TV deals and merchandising and personal-seat-license dollars—that is as glaring an example of from-each-according-to-his-ability collectivism as a Bernie Sanders block party. More consistently and more inherently than any other sport, football just does not work if every player on the field does not dedicate his individual performance to team-scale goals. There’s room for individual brilliance, of course—that’s what sells the replica jerseys, certainly moreso than the prospect of any adult looking good in a giant shiny drape of nylon mesh—and that virtuosity is where much of football’s excitement comes from. But wins come from collective effort, from the sublimation of the individual to a greater common good.

That the nation just cast millions of sour, terrified votes against some un-understood version of socialism is a not-so-necessary reminder of just how scary most people find this sort of talk outside of a football-related context. The ambient, omnipresent uncertainty of these years of multiple and near-total systemic failures has sent people reeling into the rococo Rand-ian fantasy that all this collective failure can be reversed only by individual… well, not individual action. But individual something, or individual everything.

The liberty that comes when context is stripped away isn’t really liberty, of course. It’s a callow fantasy, a Barcalounger projection. That it’s easy to understand in context doesn’t make it any more easily excused. But my point, at least in this particular column’s context, is that Randy Moss understands how these people feel. More specifically, let’s try this: the desperate narcissism and self-defeating vainglory that has degraded Moss from one of the NFL’s supreme talents into one of the NFL’s most toxic assets reflects the same anxiety that leads some Gadsden-Flag goof to slap a Hitler mustachio on a picture of Nancy Pelosi.

There’s not really much wonderful about the month of this season that Randy Moss spent half-assing his way through go-routes with the Minnesota Vikings, but there is one wonderfully Minnesotan detail to the way in which it ended. While the Vikings had some faintly reasonable football-related reasons to cut ties with Moss after four not-so-effective weeks with the team, the emerging official narrative is that Moss was cut in large part because he was impolite to the Minneapolis-area restauranteur serving a post-practice meal to the team. Actually, “impolite” doesn’t quite sum up Moss’s unprovoked, Kenny Powers-ian kamikaze jerk-assault on what seemed like some obviously well-intentioned carving stations. (“We had the whole buffet set up, and we had a nice spread—chicken, ribs, round of beef with a carving station, the whole deal,” his victim said. “[A]nd all of a sudden I heard, ‘What the (expletive) is this? I wouldn’t feed this (expletive expletive) to my (expletive) dog!'”) Moss’s actions were impolite, of course—a much more serious crime in Minnesota than elsewhere, but not a firing offense anywhere—but also seem to have come from a place that had nothing to do how pleasing Moss did or did not find his prime rib. By the same token, while the Vikings may or may not have overreacted in cutting ties with the future Hall of Famer for whom they traded a valuable draft pick just last month, what Moss was actually reacting to almost certainly had nothing to do with a flavorless au jus.

It’s also not unique to Randy Moss. The “I Am John Galt” petulance evinced by Moss essentially everywhere he has worked—always a new culprit, be it quarterbacks who can’t accommodate his genius, coaches who will not utilize it, or bosses and fans who can’t comprehend it—is common among the NFL’s most-blessed and least-loved receivers. Salary aside, it’s obvious to everyone just how painful and shitty are the jobs of concussion-begging over-the-middle human-target types like Anquan Boldin and Hines Ward—the injuries and physical suffering these guys endure scans like blue-collar valor if only because of 1) the self-absolving sentimentality the NFL demands of its fans and 2) how clearly even the most blinkered and bloodlustful spectator can comprehend the gritty shittiness of these receivers’ lot. Every week, every game, they could get killed out there. Fans admire him, but no one wants Hines Ward’s job.