While they are disproportionately a problem for tweenagers, social-networking narcissists, rappers, and people doing it real big up in the club, Haters are a problem that affects us all. Which makes it that much more surprising how few of us were even aware of the risk presented by haters, doubters and naysayers until just a few years ago. Many of us, indeed, went about our daily lives secure in the belief that people not intimately involved in our daily lives probably didn't spare even a moment's thought on our respective existences. Which, granted, is somewhat unconvincing if you think about it—I mean the idea that other people, between their jobs and love lives and DVR backlog and meals, do not have spare psychic energy to expend anticipating (if not, indeed, plotting) your failure; that they were too busy doing something with their own hands, like something for work or fixing their hair or wrapping a gift for a loved one, to be rubbing their palms together in glee at the prospect of your defeat; that they are too busy talking about themselves and their lives to say something cutting and nasty and totally unfair about you and yours. We now know that this is bullshit, of course. The contemporary question—one with which a great many of our more unbearable fellow citizens struggle in public every day and which the NFL's strong discursive current of meaty, aggro paranoia can help us answer—is what to do with haters.
Motivation by real or imagined disrespect iis not new in sports (or the world). It has, in fact, been the preferred get-up-and-go strategy for highly productive assholes for generation. The unwillingness or inability to forget even the slightest of slights, among other things, is what gave us Michael Jordan, a dazzling and pathological icon of joyless mastery and as unloved a legend as any sport can boast. It has also given us any number of curdled, disordered leaders—Richard Nixon, pickled rotten in his own bile, comes to mind—and the millions of smaller despots out there grimly settling and re-settling grade-school scores in fluorescent-lit office parks, or maniacally luxe boardrooms, or from behind do-you-know-how-fast-you-were-going cop shades. Everyone knows at least one of America's grudge farmers, and has hopefully figured out how to deal with the narcissism specific to this particular type of hypertrophic adolescent—as one of those very adolescents put it, in a song that later became part of a 35-minute, multimillion-dollar movie about himself, the answer is to run away as fast as-you-can.
Criticizing specific NFL players for Olympian self-absorption and corny tough-guy vanity is easy enough—I do it myself, actually, and I do it fairly often. But while nothing quite absolves Terrell Owens of his essential Terrellian Owensness, we should probably also apply a sliding scale here. From practice-squad anonymities on up, NFL players have spent much of their lives alternately lavished and savaged with an attention those of us watching on television will never know, and subjected to warping extremes of earned and unearned adulation and criticism. The armies of youngs crying and raging and gloating with obscure self-delight on YouTube or piling LOL-ily onto some hash tag or other are enough to make any self-respecting youngish curmudgeon wince him/herself comatose, but the kids have got their age as an excuse—it takes a long time to recognize that the rest of the world is not as concerned with you than you are, and so almost certainly less interested in what happened with Brianna at lunch or whatever. Prolonged exposure to the backwards, bugged-out priorities of big-time football postpones that realization, which is to all appearances about as unhelpful and unhealthy as it sounds.
Because it often seems as if the entirety of our mass culture is designed to more fulsomely and efficiently serve it, the surly self-importance of adolescence is uncomfortably familiar to anyone with a television or an internet. And while the kids are the ones who do this particular thing best and most authentically, the peevish entitlement and fuming vanity of a child alone at the center of the universe is everywhere to be found in our culture. Watch any television channel long enough, and you'll see some petulant adult child, gone savage with self-esteem and self-regard, decrying imaginary outrages against their sanctified self with a toddler's fury and a spooky middle-distance self-possession that suggests they've done all this before, a lot. That ESPN is among the places to find this display isn't a shocker, really—we don't traditionally look to our fastest-running, strongest-armed individuals for lessons on how best to live.
What we do look to our fastest and strongest and most uniquely named individuals for, though, is entertainment and a little vicarious transcendence. Every sport has its signature fantasy—basketball is for those of us who want to fly, golf is for those who aspire to a singular focus and precision and also hate taxes, mixed martial arts is for scary jerks. And while the NFL's success has a lot to do with wholesale national failures of judgment and a love of violence and a lack of other good television on Sundays, it also owes a lot to an especially appealing foundational fantasy—football's intimations of plain invincibility, and occasional fleeting actual instances of it, are intoxicating. There's a simple and essential fun to watching Chris Johnson outrun an opponent, or Adrian Peterson run over an opponent, or Michael Vick make himself invisible to an opponent—they can do it, and we can't.
There's a certain testiness that comes with acknowledging these living on-field ideals as human and vulnerable and flawed—noticing that the personification of a nation's idle but deeply felt fantasies also has a stupid haircut or refers to himself in the third person or some appalling off-season habits. I'm inclined to think this realization is healthy, but humans are also humans and great athletes can be vain, which means we get vanity runoff like Chad Johnson's VH1 dating show and Brandon Lloyd's rap career. If Tom Brady, who is a fashion model married to another fashion model and a multi-millionaire and recipient of innumerable gifts, wants to motivate himself by remembering that he was picked 199th in the 2000 NFL Draft—134 picks after Hofstra quarterback Giovanni Carmazzi, for the record—then he can do that. It has worked great for him. It has worked great for a bunch of NFL players, and works with them still—mid-week NFL stories are rife with individual players snarling reflexively at unnamed doubters and haters, with teams determined to dedicate this next win to everyone who thought they'd lose.
That's always true, but it seems especially so as the season drags into its final stretch—grudges planted and cultivated during the early season are bearing fruit, but this is also the time when motivation is hardest to come by. I imagine a constellation of these doubters blinking away above each player's head—a pathological dad or a hard-driving youth football coach or a middle-school girlfriend or a rude drunk at a bar, carping and doubting forever, calling forth the silly/serious righteousness that readies someone to try to run through someone else. All those weird, dim motivational lodestars may look petty to those of us with aspirations too minor to warrant disparagement or doubt, but they presumably serve a purpose for their owners. There's a reason why most of us don't walk around our offices letting out crazy-eyed whoops and slamming work down on managers' desks while yelling ALL DAY BABY or CAN'T STOP IT or something, but also most of our jobs don't require living in denial at the unpleasantness of inflicting serious physical pain on ourselves and others.
But that pain does take its toll, and as the NFL season works towards its end amid Percocet prescriptions refilled by team doctors and grievous injuries denied beyond reason and the gnawing sense on all sides that this game inflicts more pain than any game should, things are going to get meaner. The notional haters firing up the NFL's players will grow in size alongside the effort it takes those players to get out of bed in the morning. The New England Patriots, still the NFL's masters at leveraging individual vanities and inferiority complexes into one massive, mechanized monstrosity of grievance, are ascendant again and look like a good bet to be the heroes of the coming mean season.
But what a sour, seething bunch of heroes, in New England and elsewhere—great and small at once, they give those of us looking for transcendence in the joy of athletic performance a glimpse of the real and rageful madness required for them to entertain us in such in a painful, wearing way. At this point in the season—the weather is cold, time is short, the light is lowering and everything hurts, all the time—the love is all on the living room side of things. That prideful fury reigns in the locker rooms and on the field is something of a bummer for those looking to the game for something finer, and it curdles and problematizes our watching, but it's what the attrition of this harshest of games leaves behind after these months of their punishment and our pleasure. If the creeping, creepy realization of that doesn't feel good on our side of the television, it almost certainly feels incalculably worse in that other, unimaginable universe projected on the screen. 14 weeks is a long time.
So yeah, let's have some fun with some football picks? Only one of this week's games pits two teams with winning records against each other—that would be the warm-and-fuzzy Pats and the Bears, who are probably just as insane but do not play in my time zone. They still have Neal Anderson, right? He's pretty good.
Week 13 (and overall): David Roth: 7-8 (96-90-9); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 5-10 (93-92-9)
Sunday, December 12
• Cleveland at Buffalo (-1), 1:00 pm—DR: Cleveland; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Green Bay (-7) at Detroit, 1:00 pm—DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• Tampa Bay (-2) at Washington, 1:00 pm—DR: Tampa Bay; ATTLCTDC: Washington
• Oakland at Jacksonville (-4), 1:00 pm—DR: Oakland; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Atlanta (-7.5) at Carolina, 1:00 pm—DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• New York Giants (-2.5) at Minnesota, 1:00 pm—DR: New Jerey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Cincinnati at Pittsburgh (-8.5), 1:00 pm—DR: Cincinnati; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• St. Louis at New Orleans (-9.5), 4:05 pm—DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Seattle at San Francisco (-5.5), 4:05 pm—DR: Seattle; ATTLCTDC: San Francisco
• Kansas City at San Diego (NO LINE), 4:15 pm—DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: Kansas City
• New England (-3) at Chicago, 4:15 pm—DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: New England
• Miami at New York Jets (-5.5), 4:15 pm —DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
• Denver (-5.5) at Arizona, 4:15 pm—DR: Denver; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
Philadelphia (-3.5) at Dallas, 8:20 pm—DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
Monday, Dec. 13
• Baltimore (-3) at Houston, 8:30 pm—DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Baltimore
David Roth 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. And he tweets!
Photo by ctoverdrive, from Flickr.