Friday, January 21st, 2011

War Is Heck

Before it became America's most wholesome and family-oriented violence-delivery medium and a decade or so after it ceased to be a simple sport, the NFL was, briefly, war. This wasn't so very long ago—then as now, the United States was intimately-unto-inextricably involved in two wars of the actual-going-on-thing variety. And of course the NFL wasn't so much war as it was a violent professional sport on television, but it's easy to see how the NFL's marketing people—who cut together a series of TV promos featuring Edwin Starr's "War (What Is It Good For?)" that left in the funky-dramatic music but removed every lyric except for the word "war"—could get it twisted. It's not so much that the language of football is full of careless war metaphors—the blitzes and rallied troops and grunts-in-trenches and so trivially on—as it is that the contemporary NFL is designed to be misunderstood and consumed in the same way as the nation's second-favorite combat-related enterprise. Which would be actual combat.

It's worth mentioning, I guess, that the NFL's approach to marketized combat isn't actually more egregious than the others you can find during the average NFL broadcast. There are the actual soldiers in the actual Army commercials, for instance, but they're all splashing through obstacle courses and helping each other up meaningfully and persevering and fear-taming in extreme close-up and hand-held low angle shots and pounding through smash cuts before emerging on the other side of it all as Army Strong Individuals. Gary Sinise narrates that one, and Keith David does the voice-over on the Air Force commercials that make being in the Air Force look kind of like working for a space-based, mission-control version of “CSI: Miami.” And there are the ads for the video game "Call of Duty" in which a bunch of ordinary people (and a few celebrity cameo players) get their war on in slow motion over "Gimme Shelter." Explosions bloom like big dumb poppies, someone dressed like a construction worker shoots a machine gun from a helicopter, a deli-counter guy with a mustache struts across the screen expressionlessly emptying the clips of his twin pistols, a pudgy gamer-looking lady kicks in a door and fires a shotgun, and what is either an animate lump of self-satisfied cookie dough or Jimmy Kimmel shoulders a bazooka. The tag line is "There's A Soldier In All of Us" and it's a thousand times dumber than anything the NFL is responsible for.

If all the visions of combat or soldier-hood—as a high-risk, high-reward method of personal discovery or as an epic blast—are incomplete or irresponsible or just kind of fucking gross in their kidulty callowness, they're also commercials and so yeah, of course they are all those things. But if they seem especially at home during NFL broadcasts, it's because of the ways in which their mild fraudulences and elisions and all that willful sentimental muddling fit with the way the NFL presents itself. Some of this is a result of changing times, of course—maybe the NFL was once content to market games as friendly-ish brawls, but a more general rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with the way in which those boys-will-be-boys scuffles were transformed into epic darkling plain warfare. If NFL players would be physically exhausted and emotionally wrecked by the NFL's proposal to add two more games to the regular season schedule, fans would at the very least probably feel kind of wrung out after another couple weeks of steadily elevating rhetorical stakes—"these two teams really just want to literally actually murder each other at this point in the season" and so on—as well as tingly-armed from all the loaded potato skins and such. Burnout would seem to be a risk, that is, if the NFL and the networks that make bank off it did not so elegantly understand how to market exhausting conflict.

The NFL would never be able to pull off its strange, successful split screen routine—football games as The Thing That Brings Americans Together and football itself as exalted bloodsport—were it not able to utilize the power of distance so well. If there's something kind of squirm-inducing about actual combat being presented as either the personal fulfillment gambit of Army commercials or the massive multiplayer kick of “Call of Duty,” the way in which we do and do not see our actual ongoing wars has very little to do with combat. We hear about strategies and tactics, about the impact of developments upon elections and which generals or staffers are de- or ascendant, which kind of crowds out the terrifying stuff. If it's about narratives, it's also about the characters in those narratives.

In the same way that we know far more about General David Petraeus than we do about what it's like to work for him—and for the same reasons that Peter Baker's lengthy New York Times article on the fallout from the economic collapse wound up being about Larry Summers being a dick to (anonymous) underlings and the tenor at economy-related White House meetings—we will hear of coaches redeemed and rebuked and so on this weekend. These are redeemed eccentrics like Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz—an offensive genius with brilliant St. Louis Rams teams at the beginning of the last decade and a stubborn Colonel Kurtz type calling back-to-back end-arounds from his massive playbook for crummy teams at the end of it—and poker-faced tacticians like Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Rex Ryan's Big Personality and Lovie Smith's Quiet Dignity and so on. All the while, on the field, the infantry does its thing to the point of mania—Jets linebacker Bart Scott fumes with incoherent rage, promises vengeance on imaginary haters; Bears quarterback Jay Cutler refuses to make eye contact and mumbles what kind of sounded like it was maybe a "go fuck yourself." If I had to choose between interviewing Rex Ryan or interviewing Bart Scott, I know what I would choose to do. But what Bart Scott is doing—and what he does to himself to make himself do what he does—is at the heart of what the NFL doesn't want to talk about. That madness, more than Martz's intermittent genius or LeBeau's structured brain, are what makes the NFL go, and what makes people watch. But that crazier stripe of blood-in-the-eye genius—and the conditions, the manifold exhaustions and exertions that necessitate it—is more complicated and scarier and tougher to sell.

"It's war," Kellen Winslow Jr. once said back when he was at the University of Miami. "They're out there to kill you, so I'm out there to kill them… I'm a fucking soldier." It was a stupid comment, because Kellen Winslow Jr. is in fact not a soldier but a wealthy tribal tattoo aficionado with a poignantly overstated sense of his own importance that astonishes even by the standards Jeremy Shockey set for vain University of Miami tight ends. What was surprising about it was not that Winslow would say something dumb after a football game—he says dumb things all the time—but that he was immediately and roundly chastised for it. (Even Deadspin, which was admittedly not yet the cock-shot juggernaut it is today, got huffy about it) But going back and reading Winslow's apology for his remarks—"As for my reference to being a soldier in a war, I meant no disrespect to the men and women who have served, or are currently serving, in the armed forces. I cannot begin to imagine the magnitude of war or its consequences."—it's hard not to at least feel a twinge of sympathy. It wasn't a new metaphor, but metaphors aren't Kellen Winslow Jr.'s job.

And the picks, right. The ridiculous picks. Is Thailand better than Canada? In terms of readily available high quality Thai food, the answer is yes. In terms of recent incidents of sad political violence, I guess you'd have to say Canada has the edge. For willingness to eat spicy papaya salad for breakfast, the answer is yes, Thailand is better. But in terms of producing currency that beats me soundly when it comes to predicting football outcomes, Thailand is frankly kind of meh. Which is fine, since my predictive abilities barely even qualify as meh, if we're being honest, and I should probably be happy to tie any nation's currency when it comes to picking football outcomes against the spread. There's no way I can possibly finish ahead of my inanimate counterpart at this point. So I am saying (reiterating, really) something along the lines of fuck it. I'm picking for pride, and with ignorance. I suspect this is the sort of behavior that could lead to a job offer from Al Davis.

Second Round and Overall Records: David Roth: 1-3 (116-119-9); King Bhumbibol The Royal Thai Baht: 1-3 (122-113-9)

Sunday, January 23
• Green Bay Packers (-3.5) at Chicago Bears, 3:05pm — DR: Green Bay; KBTRTB: Chicago
• New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3.5), 6:35pm — DR: New York Jets; KBTRTB: New York Jets

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 AxsDeny, from Flickr.

16 Comments / Post A Comment

Annie K. (#3,563)

No opinion on the NFL whatever, but Edwin Starr's "War" gets under my skin and into my bones. I just had to say that.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I could go for another couple thousand words about how awful that Call of Duty ad is.

Bittersweet (#765)

Great, thoughtful essay, David, thanks. I'm picking the Packers and wishing both teams could lose the AFC game, but thinking Pats overhype fever has been transferred to New York.

turd_sandwich (#5,660)

I got a pretty strong whiff of disenchantment from this piece, but I don't disagree with any of it. Fuck that Call of Duty commercial in the ear. Maybe the 2010 season's ending just in time for some of us.

David Roth (#4,429)

You're not wrong in that. I was feeling it less this week than usual, and I also had a bunch of other work stuff that didn't leave me enough time to write. Luckily, that Call of Duty commercial sucks SO MUCH that I was able to reach back and find a little extra.

Abe Sauer (#148)

There is something to be said for how easy it is for coaches to fall into this "combat" mentality when trying to psyche up their "troops." As you clearly know, so much about the game lends itself to an easy comparison and (to bring in personal experience) this comparison is highly motivating to a 16 year old (who then just kind of thinks about it this way until he stops playing, being at 18 or into college or, I guess, into the pros.) This goes doubly for linemen.

In a perfect commentary to what David has noted here, I'll add that we used to watch the first (pre-vietnam) part of Full Metal Jacket to get "up" for games (plus Metallica, natch). I'm not saying I know anything about actual combat. And a lot of kids who play football in their teens, maybe a disproportionate number even, sadly end up finding out. But walking onto a field shoulder to shoulder in matching uniforms and seeing a group of other uniformed people you don't know from Adam but whom you have for the last week been instructed to want to physically hurt very badly, people you will brag later about hurting (within or without the rules) and then having that whole thing be sanctioned by people who, as a teenager, you have been brought up to trust as the authorities on what is right and wrong… well, that's probably as close to any real combat as anyone should ever get.

Meanwhile, Re: "marketized combat" let's not forget the absolute worst ad of this football season which is the Bud Light "Close Encounters" spot where modern updates of Robert Palmer's bassists come down from space to offer men who love Bud Light in exchange for bad, brief intercourse, and when those men abandon their girlfriends and wives for $3.75 worth of beer and things that, for all they know, might not even have vaginas, the women themselves whoop and bellow in excitement that "the guys are gone" as they've been waiting for years to have a giant lesbian Lilith Fair (and when that moment finally comes they celebrate with $3.75 worth of beer). Even within the beer commercial meme of the gender war fought through mutual passive aggressively spite between men and women, this commercial stands out.

"Violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact a crypto-fascist metaphor for nuclear war."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

That Bud Light ad makes Miller Light's "Man Up" campaign look like a sober reflection on contemporary gender relations.

And really, doesn't the part with the women whooping it up seem like an afterthought to keep us "fem'nists" quiet or something? I can picture them around the ad table "Won't that ending make those bitchy ladies mad? Got it! Let's just briefly show them being glad the guys are gone!"

Abe Sauer (#148)

You're more right than you know; original versions of that ad did not have that little addendum.

@bod: God, those "Man Up" make me so fucking angry.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

My favorite beer commercial is when "they" (hot chicks, of course) make fun of a guy in Speedo-type ("fashionable") trunks for not being manly enough for "this country" to deserve a light beer (with practically no alcohol) made by a European-owned corporation. It looks like Budweiser knows that the complete idiots are the only market they have left (and by Lord, they are going to embrace them!)

icecreammang (#9,487)

Deli-counter guy? I'm pretty sure that's a dude in an In N Out uniform. I was not pleased to see that. Leave my burger lust out of your war porn games.

David Roth (#4,429)

Oh man, he absolutely is — the hat should've tipped me off, since I went to college in LA County. Off-week, don't hold it against me. (Also, if he'd been in a Fatburger uniform, I wouldn't have made this mistake)

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

I've loved this column so much all season. I'll miss it!

Nevertheless, I'll risk seeming churlish and ask whether a word isn't missing in paragraph 3? I'm having trouble parsing "a more general rhetorical inflation has a lot to do with the way in which those boys-will-be-boys scuffles [VERB] into epic darkling plain warfare." (Which is to say, I expected a verb at [VERB].)

May I suggest!
- escalated
- metastasized
- shock-and-awed themselves
- cowboyed up

David Roth (#4,429)

Thanks, and thanks for the edit. I rushed the writing, then hit poor Alex with 1200-odd words like 15 minutes before his week ended, so there were some typos, and they're fixed. Honestly, if I was in a better groove I would like to think I would've used "metastasized," and I really would've loved to have used "cowboyed-up," because it's better than anything I would've thought of, probably ever.

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