Friday, November 5th, 2010

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.

19 Comments / Post A Comment

Let\'s not also forget that the league\'s best players/teams are the ones who negotiate more balanced contracts in order to keep their cores intact–Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.–which is the most socialist shit of all. And that revenue sharing among teams was standard until last year!

Harry Cheadle (#6,316)

I've always thought that football teams were structured like a corporation, with the head coach as the CEO/figurehead who acts as spokesman and mascot, the coordinators as the upper-level management who actually set policies, down to the players, who do all of the work and whose destinies are controlled by the whims of management. Moss is like a successful but problematic salesmen, with company after company wondering if his rudeness to co-workers is worth the numbers he brings in.

David Roth (#4,429)

This is what I was getting at — hurriedly, because I needed to get to MORE WORDS — with the NFL-as-plutocracy thing. It's almost as if the crushing, totalistic corporatism of the NFL franchise and the glib Football IS America aestheticization of the TV broadcasts is a response to the game itself and its radically team-y, non-individualistic essence. Really, though, I guess it's just an American reflex.

Fantastic piece. I don't know if that explains all of Moss' issues (likely not your argument), but it certainly makes a lot of sense. Also, kudos to pcnut!

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

So, in this scenario DeMaurice Smith is Eugene V. Debs?

Let's not forget one of the MOST socialist aspects of the game – that all players bargain collectively with all owners as the NFL Players Association. The players' contract expires in March and there's a very real possibility of a lockout sometime next year. Drew Brees led the Saints and Vikings in a gesture of solidarity at their season opener which had to send a chill through the blackened plutocratic hearts of the owners.

David Roth (#4,429)

It's going to be interesting, what happens with the coming labor-ocalypse. Under Gene Upshaw, the NFLPA was a TERRIBLE union, and it hasn't really served players well for decades. (How badly the NFLPA cheated retired players is also a matter of public record) From what I've seen so far, DeMaurice Smith obviously isn't Eugene V. Debs, but honestly not being Gene Upshaw is enough to inspire some optimism.

My guess would be that the owners are going to lock the players out, and that there will be a fairly serious confrontation — the owners kind of hate the players, and they REALLY hate the idea sharing half-plus of their revenue with them. But I do hope the NFLPA keeps it together. Sports unions can often look kind of ridiculous, but the idea of a non-union NFL is 1) horrifying and 2) given Upshaw's work, probably not that much uglier than what we see on Sundays.

preening tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.'s hilariously inflated sense of his own integrality comes to mind

Then tell Rotowire to quit insisting that I start him!

Screw_Michigan (#8,015)

"rococo Rand-ian fantasy"

Nice Arcade Fire reference. +1

barnhouse (#1,326)

Good lord I have teared up at a SPORTS column. Wait long enough and you'll see it all.

Mr. Roth in answer to your final question, yes, you are so, so right.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Gah. Alpha Receivers. Their entire interpretation of the game is through some impossible hypothetical. In that they not unlike the armchair QBs sitting in their chairs at home screaming "If Favre would have just dumped it to the flat that would have been a first down! We should have had that." I am convinced this Coulda' Woulda. Shoulda. attitude develops only in players who are not required to block on a regular basis.

David Roth (#4,429)

I had a graf on your last idea, actually, which I cut, mostly because I obviously needed to cut SOMETHING instead of just hitting poor Alex off with 2200 words or whatever. But I also saw a kind of cul de sac coming, there — receivers are the most beautiful athletes on the field and the ones people actually want to look like or play like, for the most part, which amps up the vanity. And then the fact that they're not doing the ignored, painful, maximum-trauma blocking/grunting stuff further insulates them from the game itself. To hear Terrell Owens bitch about touches, for instance, you'd think that he'd never even watched a game before. It's like, dude, there's a reason McNabb or Romo aren't throwing to you, and it's not because they think you're a jerk or want to see you fail. (Although in TO's case that would be a totally reasonable response)

Bittersweet (#765)

@Abe and David: Great minds. This season I've been watching a lot more of the line play and appreciating everything that has to go right there in order to create the highlight plays. Have Randy or TO ever made a block in their careers? Doubtful.

Michael Dunford (#4,984)

This is tangentially related, in that it's an Alpha Receiver comment: I've always looked at Chad Johnson's (I won't call him Ochocinco) Dennis Rodman-style megalomania as somehow indicative of everything fucked up about wideout culture. If 85 had to block (or do anything useful near the line of rescrimmage) he probably wouldn't do strange and tasteless things like make lists of safeties who could cover him successfully.

On some other side of the cube of things that could be said about Chad Johnson, I guess it's good that his super-wackiness shines about as brightly as his dick-headedness (reading his twitter account straight down is great fun).

Paul Martin (#8,445)

Its Socialism in the sense that there are wage caps, the weakest teams are rewarded with better draft picks, and there is a monopoly with the existing teams as new teams are not allowed in unless the existing teams allow it; and thus the worst run teams are allowed to continue. In European soccer, the weakest are relegated to lower divisions to be replaced by better teams from the lower divisions every season, and there are no wage caps.

Ronit (#1,557)

And this is why soccer is so much less competitive than football.

af412 (#4,055)

great article but i gotta say you can't ignore the fact that all (most?) of the primadona WR's are black, and i don't think i need to explain how that creates tension with the football establishment.

and i don't think i need to explain how this maybe also explains why socialism is so scary to americans, as opposed to europeans who live in more homogeneous countries.


i agree with Harry Cheadle — football is only socialism if you focus on the players and the game. if you zoom out, it's corporate biz as usual and the players are the grunts in the factories and whatnot. and for that matter, football is socialist as it is militaristic.

benny profane (#8,568)

So you're absolutely right to point out that football, more than any other sport, contains a "from each according…to each according…" ethos that really cuts against the grain of our rugged individualist culture. But doesn't our culture also harbor an obsession with powerful things and with things that function properly? And isn't the suppression of individualism, and the use of human bodies for the sake of that power and function a huge part of this ethos? To me, football fits better into this latter strain.

From the acquisition of territory, to the metaphors of violence, the focus on mechanistic function, and the deeply hierarchical structures (this last one is more true in the NFL than at any other level of football, but I can tell you that even at the Division III college level the division of planners and managers–coaches–from labor–playas–was really significant) football looks more like those military/bureaucratic dinosaur-era commie regimes, or more apt yet, like some multinational defense contractor, than like any socialist utopia. More like Sparta than the Paris commune.

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