Friday, January 28th, 2011
33

Our Men In The Field

Even before the Wall Street Journal put a stopwatch on it earlier this year, fans knew it. There's just no way to watch a football game, let alone follow the NFL's shouty, certainty-intensive news cycle—if "news cycle" is the right term for something that reaches its analytical apex frequently during Herm Edwards' livelier televised free associations—without noticing that the greater part of the NFL experience is about space and time and waiting and talking. That there are roughly 11 minutes of actual football in a given game is a neat tidbit, but not a surprise. The director cuts between things and Dan Dierdorf says "I'll tell you what" and then tells you exactly what, and then there's a commercial break and then it's back at it. The sun goes down while all this happens, and manic little moments from other games interject and recede. And, at home or in the stands or in some wing-afflicted bar, we drink stuff and eat stuff and talk to other people. When the game is beautiful, it's beautiful in little nervous interpolations to the general grunty lurch. Football doesn't flow in the way basketball does, or lull like baseball does, but it works. It's comfortable, and as such it does not take long to get comfortable—on an unspoken level—with the idea that those 11 minutes take three-plus hours, that those three hours take a week, and that three-or-so hours of actual football take five-or-so months. And then, all of a sudden, it stops.

Well, not yet. It's not over yet. There is a NFL-related football game this week, but it's the Pro Bowl. Scheduling the Pro Bowl—the NFL's annual hungover half-contact all-star nonstravaganza—before the Super Bowl is almost cruel, given the contrast in engagement, interest and more or less everything else between the two. The spam infantry at Demand Media will be awake for the next eight days in a nonstop oegy of crummy Super Bowl-tie-in recipe-generation, but no one will be searching for Pro Bowl seven-layer dips. (Pro Bowl chili, on the other hand…)

The Pro Bowl has a bunch of problems, which could be said to begin and end with the no-one-giving-a-shit issue. But the goofy, groggy distinctively Hawaiian idyll of the Pro Bowl seems especially out of place when sandwiched between games that people actually care about, in a sports media environment in which even regular season games between Buffalo and any other team must be treated like a matter of global geostrategic import. To look at past box scores, it's not out of the question to wonder if the Pro Bowl—which features those NFL players healthy, willing and competent enough to engage in a full-pads scrimmage in Hawaii—might actually be fun to watch, at least for lovers of long passing plays. But the competitive energy of the average Pro Bowl is somewhere between “Rock’n’Jock” and the Puppy Bowl, and while the friendliness of it all is appealing in the abstract—and doubly so when taken in contrast to the NFL's otherwise unceilinged escalation of rhetorical brinksmanship and concussive intent—the game itself is slack and sloppy and almost impossible to watch. Without consequence or seriousness or competition—and without violence, to the greatest extent possible, due both to restrictive one-off rules and no one wanting to tear an ACL half-assing their Patron hangover through a go-route—the Pro Bowl barely feels like a football game. It's football without football, and the comfort of what's going on out there on the field is oddly discomfiting and enervating (and plain boring) to watch. A friendly game of football, even between the best football players on earth, barely feels like a football game. And that's probably quite enough about the Pro Bowl.

But because no one who cares about football is talking about the Pro Bowl this week, and because there is no other football this week, and because all that NFL media space needed talking-in, something strange happened to the NFL discourse this week. Where next week there will be discussions of legacies and fan bases and individual match-ups and goofy bets between the mayors of Pittsburgh and Green Bay, there was this week a lot of staring into/being-stared-into the abyss of Fan Guilt. With the revelation that the injury that knocked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler out of last week's game—and left the streets of Chicago strewn with nylon replica jersey ash and awash in bitter, "Chicken Cutler"-grade punnery—was a serious-sounding knee injury, it seems a reasonable enough time to do it. There's also the matter of both the Steelers and Packers bringing multiple concussion victims with them to Dallas for the Super Bowl; Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has suffered two this season, and was rumored to have been concealing another after Julius Peppers came startlingly close to fitting his entire 6-7, 283-pound body through Rodgers' facemask on one gut-wrenching hit. Peppers was later fined $10,000 for the tackle, an amount that's a little more than one one-hundreth of his weekly take-home salary. Which, in terms of carnage and fan response thereto and haphazard disciplinary ministrations, makes the week of the conference championships something like the average week in the NFL. The difference, this week, is that with the NFL media's froth machines powered down for a week of maintenance and Rodgers et al nursing their non-concussions beneath ice packs in dim rooms, the dearth of other readily available topics and the manifest obviousness of the NFL's brutality problem makes it tough not to talk about it even a little bit.

"Everyone is getting hurt, in awful, long-term ways, all the time," Tom Scocca wrote at Slate earlier this week. "How will football adjust to this reality, as the news sinks in?" Ben McGrath addressed the same question in a long feature in this week's New Yorker, a piece headlined "Does Football Have A Future?" These are important questions (and, to Scocca's credit, questions he has been asking in various forms all season), but their elevation from constant ringing-in-the-ears background noise to the discursive forefront has more to do with the fact that they're competing against #ProBowlSnubs and #SuperBowlDipRecipes for traction this week. There are football fans who really, truly do not care about this sort of thing—the ones sending nasty emails to Wisconsin health columnists who wonder about Rodgers' contrecoup issues, accusing those columnists of being objectively anti-Packer, for instance. There are, I think, just as many who are not like that.

I've been asked, with increasing frequency as the season has gone on, if I actually like football, and I've wondered about it myself. The answer is yes, at least insofar as I enjoy watching the games, fussing over my fantasy teams, having a valid five-month excuse for afternoon beers, and coming up with new ways to compare football players to foodstuffs. What has left me half-exhausted and short-tempered and trying and not always succeeding to avoid peevish what-is-the-MATTER-with-you-people self-righteousness is not so much that people refuse to take football seriously enough—there is plenty of that, from the NFL's brand managers on down to the dude trying to torch his Cutler jersey—but the fundamental unseriousness of all this seriousness. What has been discussed this week as the NFL's doomsday scenario has already come to pass. Former NFL lineman and football historian/English professor Michael Oriard tells McGrath, in the New Yorker piece, that he wonders "What happens if football players become like boxers, from lower economic classes with racially marginalized groups." He continues, "If it gets to the point where it’s rich white guys cheering on hits by black guys and a Samoan or two, Jesus, I hate to imagine we’re indifferent to that." There's no reason to have to imagine that, of course.

It's difficult to imagine any fan or player—anyone outside the NFL's front offices, honestly—who thinks that the current way of engaging the NFL's inhumanity issues is satisfactory. The question of football violence and its costs—the older ex-players, shuffling and ghostly in their sudden senescence, the younger ones betrayed by damaged brains and fogged-in by a demi-epidemic of painkiller addiction—has become darker and more difficult as the season has worn on, with new reporting unfolding new and more insulting outrages. Fans know that the NFL will not deal with this question—here's an article on an anti-concussion campaign from 1995; see if you can spot any progress. But boardroom cynicism is a fact of all of our lives, it's simultaneously the subject and the object of our news, and an inescapable subtext in our entertainment. We learn to identify that and recalibrate, to reason and read around it in the direction of knowledge, without even knowing we've learned it.

If the NFL has an inhumanity problem, it's not one that's going to be solved by indiscriminate fines and haphazard bans and the lawyer-vetted semaphore that emerges, in a flurry of fragile forcefulness and willful opacity, from the commissioner's office. And it won't be solved, either, by removing football's essential and fundamental violence from the game—that's the Pro Bowl, and no one wants that. (It's also something that no one is proposing, but which would seem to be the biggest threat and most likely outcome of the NFL's current anti-headshot efforts if you listened to certain players and pundits) But there's something heartening, just in the very fact that it happened, in this past week of talking about serious things. As the NFL continues to push further and further into the red, the new depth of public engagement with the NFL's inhumanity issues suggests that fans have been watching these games more closely than the NFL's ruling cynics might have guessed.

The greater part of every NFL broadcast, it seems like, is given over to commercials that insist, in a dozen different ways, that we define ourselves by what we consume. And so we get what marketing and advertising gives—new anxieties and ever-goofier fatuities of the "does this beer make me look gay?" variety. But the NFL issues the same message to those who consume it, and this season's latticing of interlocking brutalities—scored, unconvincingly, by the increasingly baroque Football As America sentimentalities of the NFL's branding people—have made the challenge in that more and more difficult to ignore. The fan quiescence that the NFL seeks is something as glib and brutish as a Fox News "Support Our Troops" chyron—the sort of support that requires nothing but arms-length sentimentality about Those Brave Boys on the television getting themselves harmed for us.

Liking football, or loving football, does not necessarily have to mean loving what it is now—it doesn't have to mean tolerating a confederacy of oligarchs treating their (human) employees as a stubborn line item, it doesn't have to mean ignoring the trauma those (human) players suffer and lining up or paying up or otherwise submitting to simply lap it up. Spend enough time as a football fan and its strange rhythms become comfortable, even comforting—those 11 rough minutes spread strangely, happily, narcotizingly across those Sunday afternoons. But we are living with and living in the national rot wrought by the bleak, selfish sentimentality that says our troops are out there solely to insure our continued comfort. The comfort of the NFL comes at a cost, too, and it is also complicated. The fans will not have a seat at the table when the players association and the owners sit down this spring to figure out what the next NFL collective bargaining agreement and future NFL seasons will look like. But our seat on the couch, or in the stands, matters as much or more to those with the real power in the NFL—the ones with the power to acknowledge and engage and mitigate the effects of the NFL's inhumanity problem on the players who give (and gave) the game its present power and wealth. The relative strength in our numbers depends on how we use it, and the conditions that we set for continuing to occupy all these couches.



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!

Image by Chad Davis, from Flickr.

33 Comments / Post A Comment

So many topics I have thoughts on, none very interesting. First, the Pro Bowl is terrible. I would rather watch them have the Pro Bowlers attempt something like the Wipeout course (which I have only seen in commercials, but looks fun). Second, I have no problems with them trying to discourage excessive/unnecessary hits. They did it to protect linemen's legs, players adapt or are penalized. Third, maybe I'm strange, but I like the strategic movement of players and plays more than the big hits. In fact, most of the larger hits, the ones that get discussed, I cringe (partially for the victim and partially for myself and the weeks of complaining to follow pro/con, warriors/wusses). That said, those aren't the only damaging hits, there isn't necessarily a strong correlation between "big hit" and brain damage. Glancing blows, the placement of some fulcrum when falling to the ground that angles the head just wrong into the turf, the smaller but repeated hits absorbed by those on the line, they all could be life-changing. I don't know where all that leaves me as a fan, though, because I like football, but don't know how to fix it. Discouraging the more extreme hits and being open to adjusting rules moving forward seems reasonable.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Haven't read the article yet (clicking more took me to the comments), but I agree with 100% of that, syh. Now, off to read.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Still making my way through the article, but I want to say something before I forget. I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the amount of false importance that NFL games carry, because said false importance seems to keep increasing. It behooves the league and its partners (TV and otherwise) to keep ratcheting up the importance rhetoric, but people seem to be buying into it hook, line, and sinker. I haven't thought enough about this issue to craft too much of an argument about it, but it really is becoming a nagging feeling of unease whenever I watch a game or read about a game or whatever. Back to reading.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Another point – re: the angry fans who react to any bit of critical thinking with "HATER!!!," I do not think there are as many of them as you suppose. Much like politics, the crazies are outnumbered by the reasonable (or at least apathetic) by a 70-30 margin, but that minority is the group who reacts loudly on sports radio and letters to the editor and comment sections of blogs (uh, hi there). Back to reading.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I like this, Pete ducking in and out of the story.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

@BOD – y'know, it's either that or take notes as I read to comment later. The subject matter is something that's been on my mind a lot lately, considering so much of my life involves and has involved watching/playing/talking about/working in/writing about sports. I'm getting a little burned out on it all, to be honest, which saddens me. But the hype train seems to have left the station, and narratives and storylines rule the day. As noted above, I haven't thought concretely enough about it to do much more than these stream-of-consciousness comments. But I will be writing more about it, for sure.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Haha. I was definitely being sincere! The trouble with all of this is, and I can only speak for myself, I keep waiting, futilely, for someone to come along with the magic formula that reconciles my love of football with my growing ethical questions about supporting what amounts to a meat grinder. I know that's not coming down the pike, ever, so continuing to read and write and think about it is the best we can do. Some days, it helps to move my own ball down the field (so to speak), and other days it just feels like nebbish hand-wringing. It's a tough spot.

SeanP (#4,058)

It's a very difficult question. Go too far in the direction of safety, and it's not football anymore. Give up on safety, and it's too uncomfortably reminiscent of Death Race 2000. To some extent, it's fair to say that certain occupations are inherently dangerous, and if you can't hack that, then don't play. But it's also true that as a society, we've got some obligation to protect people from situations that they have difficulty protecting themselves from. Is there any room for football in between?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

With regards to injury, I strongly advocate taking out most of the pads and armor and letting the game evolve of a speed/finesse/strategic version of Aussie Rules or Rugby or whatever. But that doesn't satiate the bloodlust of the casual fan who tunes into the NFL for the brutality, tune into the NHL for the fights, and tune into NASCAR for the crashes.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

It is a Bread and Circuses thing. As the Great Recession drags on and on and people become more angry and confused as to why, the anger is channeled into meaningless endeavors such as NFL games and the Tea Party. We are an angry people and we don't know why, but someone is going to be hit over it. God damn it!

See also, US foreign policy over the last decade.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

During the Seattle-Chicago game a few weeks ago, they had Mike Pereira in the booth with the commentators. Marcus Trufant had just gone down after a knee to the helmet, and was being carted off the field, and Pereira and Daryl Johnston had a conversation about how the NFL is thinking about mandatory knee pads. I've never heard anything more credulous and naive than the two of them speculating that maybe, just maybe that extra quarter or half inch of protection could mean the difference between a head injury or just an incidental hit.

This is of a piece with talking about high tech mouthguards and helmets, or cracking down on helmet to helmet hits (on defenseless receivers, not running backs, because everyone knows you can't get a concussion if you know the hit is coming). I don't doubt that extra pads or better helmets can cut down on concussions, but a lack of pads isn't what causes concussions. When you've got 300 pounders smashing into each other on literally every play, you've got an institutionalized player health issue. You can delay the bill, but after the players are wrapped up to the greatest extent they can be, you still have to pay it.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Exactly.

And that is one of the things that sticks in my craw about this ridiuculous Jay Cutler bashing this week. People want an increased focus on player health and safety, then expect a guy to enter the game as long as he is conscious and isn't paralyzed. In fact, that's exactly what Ditka said: "I'd have to be PARALYZED to get me out of the game." Incidentally, Ditka is the spokesman for Gridiron Greats, an organization devoted to the physical and mental care of retired NFL players.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I didn't want to get into a Jay Cutler thing, because it almost made my head explode. For other professional football players, guys who know exactly how tough and just how competitive you have to be to play at a high level in the NFL, to come out and question a colleague's toughness seemed to me to be so absurd that I almost thought it was some kind of like, postmodern performance art. (Perhaps if Maurice Jones-Drew took a game or two off to rehab his knee that was apparently injured all season, his team would have made the playoffs.)

And has anyone talked about how Jay Cutler has diabetes? I know people with diabetes are perfectly capable of living perfectly normal lives and engaging in all sorts of physical activities, but it's still something he has to deal with every day. I actually think he's a pretty tough dude.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Well the weird thing about that Cutler narrative was that, before the game, almost ALL the criticism of Cutler was about his demeanor/body language/personality/etc. but nearly universally had a disclaimer attached that "well, I know he's tough and all…" And then all of a sudden Sunday, so many other factors got conflated together to provide a completely bizarre narrative out of the blue. Basically, a lot of people already didn't like Jay Cutler for the aforementioned issues and used this as an excuse to pile on. He was already scrutinized for his body language and demeanor; this just played right into it.

Even Maurice Jones-Drew backed off his statements and admitted he was wrong after the fact, and even more players and former players came out after the fact to support Cutler, including Kobe Freaking Bryant. But the narrative is already written. Jay Cutler is a quitter, facts be damned.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Preach. Speaking of quitters, did everyone leave work early or something?

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Shit, good question. I have an email group with about 10 of my college buddies where we shoot the shit all day; on a usual weekday there are anywhere from 250-500 messages. Today? 70, and only one of them past 1:30. Granted, it was like 55 degrees in this area today, but that doesn't explain all you east coast elites.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

I mention this not to be disrespectful, but is it possible that Cutler has a form of Aspberger's or slight autism? He just reacts completely off. It might be personality, but maybe it's something more.

David Roth (#4,429)

That's a funny question, LV. It's either that or he's a total a-hole, I guess, but there is a distance to his stare — and such a weird, profound depth and consistency to his reticence — that it's not totally crazy to ask. Apparently he's smirkier and somewhat more voluble when not on TV, though.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Wait, am I reading it wrong or did that NYer thing somehow imply Ray Lewis is "cuddly?" Anyway…

It seems there are three kinds of approaches to the concussion issue. 1) Find it lamentable but conclude that everyone is an adult and could choose not to play football and not to give too much of a shit. This is most everyone.

2) People who find the game generally abhorrent for this and other reasons and just not watch.

3) People who love watching football but are so torn with guilt about it that they need to make long examinations of what it all means in order to feel better about watching the game they love so much. (I'm not pointing at you David, though I'm not not pointing either. Pitfalls of sportswriting I guess?)

Back to the NYer piece: The suggestion that violence at any time fully explained the popularity of football is a set up. Sure the violence certainly doesn't hurt the game, but it is also all about all the things other pro sports are less about: community (football is wildly provincial), teamwork (no team wins just because it has a single superstar or three), and apparent fairness (your team has a chance almost any given sunday).

The NYer thing also misses one piece of the concussion money trail. Even though it notes "the helmet-manufacturing industry is overseen by a volunteer consortium funded largely by helmet manufacturers," it fails (unless I missed it) to note that the NFL even does with helmets what it does bets with every other brand: form exclusive marketing partnerships. So players are subtly encouraged to wear Riddell helmets even though, you know, Schott may have developed some new technology (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDMWAOQ3WQE&). Players are allowed to wear what they want of course, but they have to scrub it of all brand identifiers (further discouraging non-Riddell use.)

I get the concern about NFL players. Having suffered a football concussion and "got back out there" I guess I'm lucky to not have dropped dead. But in the end I personally find it absurd that THESE are the horrid working conditions that are attracting so much attention and guilt and ink and handwringing and questions. Mine operator Massey itself employs nearly as many miners as there are NFL players. Massey killed 29 people AT ONCE last year. To say nothing of the injury list. Then there are the improving (but still pretty bad) stats on percentage of truck wrecks due to overworked truckers, who are often pressured into running longer and faster. blah blah blah. And unlike the NFL, we all participate and benefit from much less well reimbursed Massey employees and long haul truckers.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Jesus, Abe. Talk about false equivalency there.

The same can be said for those miners: "If they didn't like their odds of dying in a mine explosion, they should have gone to community college instead."

petejayhawk (#1,249)

The same could be said for those miners: "If they didn't like their chances of dying in a mine collapse, they should've gone to community college."

And concern about NFL working/health issues does not prevent one from caring about working conditions in other, more hazardous, less lucrative industries. That is a shitty argument on your part.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I never said it did prevent it. Though, when it comes to the media, it actually does prevent it as there are only so many stories in the day/pages in the magazine.

and ok, they are not the exact same thing. But the point remains the same. The noise around this issue remains intense because it fits so perfectly into how we already argue about the subjective elements of the sport anyway, which is the second most popular activity of football fans after watching the actual games. Was the arm coming forward? Did Cutler give up? Are the Jets Is Harrison too aggressive. Is he just playing the game the way it was meant to be played? Yes! No! It's just another football thing to argue about with, as with most football arguments, almost none of the parties doing the arguing having anything to do with the actual outcome (or, really, offering to do anything beyond argue more about it). As a football coach might say, shot or get off the pot.

hockeymom (#143)

Here's something helmet related…in hockey, more and more parents are dropping hundreds of dollars to buy the Messier helmet. It supposedly helps with concussions. Unfortunately, it also has an apparent side effect…it fits so tightly on the head of the child, that kids are now going to the emergency room FOR STITCHES because their foreheads are getting cut.
This is just a random thing, being discussed around the rinks.
I pitched it as a story to someone I knew…they passed. Feel free to steal it and break open the "heads sliced open by super-safe, super-expensive helmets" scandal. (It might be true!)

Abe Sauer (#148)

*shit*

soco (#8,225)

So this is probably a long shot, and given the general anti-baseball quibbles I've seen in the various football articles throughout the year I think I know the answer, but any possibility there might be some kind of weekly baseball article during the long but approaching spring and summer?

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

(I was thinking the same thing but didn't have the courage to ask.)

I would definitely love a baseball feature. It's the sport I love the most!

David Roth (#4,429)

If they'll have me, I'll certainly be writing about baseball here, if probably not every week. These are tough, and also the baseball season is like eight months long, which would be a LOT of words. But it's my favorite, too — well, that and basketball — and at the very least I'll be bitching about the Mets somewhere on the internet. Here works fine for me.

soco (#8,225)

I would love this very much. Baseball certainly has it's own quirks for a weekly column, not being separated into neatly packaged 'weeks' is one. But The Awl has consistently shown great writers, so I think it could work.

Re: the Pro Bowl. Football perhaps just doesn't lend itself to the fun-to-watch goof-off-ability of other All Star formats like the NHL and MLB (fuck the NBA). Half-assing it through the NHL All Star game — where players routinely acknowledge that they aren't hitting — is still great to watch. Perhaps it is my hockey bias, but the skill is still there even absent the checking. And watching a Sedin or Stamkos try to score on a mic'd up Henrik Lundqvist is awesome.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I think mic'ing up the centers at the pro bowl would make the game so much more enjoyable.

SeanP (#4,058)

Sort of a side issue regarding the 11 minutes of actual play per game: once I was subscribed to this service that delivered me a video tape of every football game my alma mater (Texas A&M) played. Much to my surprise, the tapes were edited to remove absolutely everything but the actual game play – no huddles, no commentary, no nothing. You went straight from down to the next snap. It was extremely disconcerting and surprisingly, a lot less entertaining. It seems that a lot of the entertainment value of football (at least for me) is in the tension that builds up prior to, say, that 3rd-and-short situation when the team is behind in the fourth quarter… just going straight from play to play not only makes football less enjoyable, it makes it fairly difficult to even understand what's going on.

sethnotshep (#779)

I just wanted to echo the desire for David to do these — to whatever extent possible — throughout the baseball season. Otherwise how will I know what foodstuff CC Sabathia most resembles?

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