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.

The more transcendently talented receivers — the faster, more gifted vertical threats — are the ones who generally wear the black hat. It doesn’t absolve these guys — toxic ur-narcissists like Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson and Moss and saddishly grandiose off-brand imitators such as Braylon Edwards and Brandon Lloyd — of their flagrant personality defects to point out that they’re cursed, to a certain extent, by the apparent effortlessness of their physical genius. Randy Moss has always made impossibly difficult plays look easy — the larger portion of his greatness lies in the way in which even his greatest catches don’t appear to be the result of any heroic exertion. Where Moss and his pyrotechnically egotistical peers fail so consistently and predictably is in applying their God-gifted grace to the simple human things that lesser beings manage with the same ease that Moss has brought to full-speed one-handed grabs — things like answering a question directly and respectfully, suffering a fool with even faint politeness, going through a buffet without being a total fucking prick about it for no apparent reason. The inhuman grace that Moss displays on the field casts his fundamental human gracelessness in even sharper relief. The race and class complications that inhere in sports make all this seem more confounding and complicated than it actually is — you don’t need to follow football to know that geniuses, even those well-appreciated as such in their time, are seldom generous in their gift, never feel quite appreciated enough and often tend to be dicks about all of it.

And much of this, of course, is on the geniuses, who are perhaps not so well-appreciated because they are, you know, absolute jerk-steaks. This might be a good time to note that Moss is absolutely and objectively an epic kook — before his chow-line churlishness somehow became a firing offense, Moss issued a truly weird stream-of-consciousness monologue in which he undermined his coaching staff, expressed wince-inducingly fulsome admiration for everyone involved with the team that had just traded him, and informed the media that all future Randy Moss interviews would be conducted between Randy Moss and Randy Moss. He has never apologized for anything, never acknowledged a mistake, never passed up an opportunity to lord his fragile privilege over anyone listening. There is that. This is not the first time that Moss has managed to lose friends and alienate people simply by, apparently and (of course) unapologetically, being himself. But there’s a reason why, with a few exceptions that are mostly ridiculous for how exceptional they are — preening tight end Kellen Winslow Jr.’s hilariously inflated sense of his own integrality comes to mind — this particular personality disorder seems disproportionately to afflict wide receivers.

And that comes back to the essential collectivism of the game. Every bit of on-field brilliance in football is contingent on some other bit of brilliance, but receivers are different insofar as they exist on the outside of the grunty, brutal struggle on the front lines of every play. They can execute their roles perfectly — run an ideal route, beat their opposing number, execute one of the little mundane acts of physical brilliance that Moss does a dozen times per game even when he’s in whatever-mode — and still be undone by any number of failures that occur, somewhere behind them on the part of any number of people.

The vainglory of the alpha wide receivers — demanding the damn ball, willfully ignorant of how much has to go right for the ball to reach them — is so ridiculous precisely because it doesn’t admit the obvious and incredible difficulty inherent in all this. Consider: a player misses a block and things get screwed up. The quarterback overthrows or underthrows and things get screwed up. The coach misreads the defensive scheme and sends in the wrong play, and things get screwed up. Everything has to go right for even the simplest play to work. Even on a play where the raw ingredients are individual genius — perfect throw, brilliant catch — there’s a ton of prosaic, self-sacrificing stuff that has to happen before all the fun stuff. This is the socialistic part, the real grace in the game that makes the stupid, atomized dude-ism of those commercials look that much dumber. You can’t watch a football game and not understand this — that nothing succeeds unless everything and everyone succeeds, that no one wins unless everyone wins.

What succeeding under these circumstances requires, finally, is less virtuosity than the humility and patience and, one more time, grace to trust in others and then the generosity to make one’s own brilliance more broadly valuable. Randy Moss, since he was very young, has been the fastest and most physically graceful human on the football field — it’s saying something about how fast and graceful he is that the statement is still true at age 33, after 13 seasons in the NFL. The problem — the thing that has made him this beautiful and despised vagabond, that has him heading to his fourth team in five years in something like disgrace — is partly that he seemingly cannot or will not trust in others, and mostly that he seemingly cannot fully comprehend the importance of a cause greater than himself.

This is a common enough thing. Trusting in and caring about other people is tough and scary and frankly weird given that we — Randy and the rest of us — are taught that it somehow makes you weak. But it is what being an adult demands, and the important thing is that you either do it or you don’t. You either believe in something bigger than yourself or you can’t. You either realize that there are causes greater than your own peevish self-interest and problems greater than your own grievances or you never realize just what you’re cheating yourself out of and how much you’re losing for refusing to see all that. That is, you either buck up and do your part and try to win something or you never see how childish and shameful and small all your earnest vanity appears to everyone but you, and never see how thoroughly your attachment to it dooms you to lose.

Or, shorter: elections, am I right? Anyway, football: three weeks in a row of above-.500 picks would feel a lot cooler if I’d had any weeks of above-.500 arithmetic to go with it. Endearingly obsessive commenter PCNut has been checking my math on the season standings over the past couple weeks and revealed some truly shocking arithmetical failures on my part — failures that are doubly so, given that I have a calculator and can also do basic math — in calculating the full-season records for me and the (freaking) coin, to date. The season tallies you see below are his, and they’re correct, and I thank him for them. The rest you know: coin flips by Garey G. Ris, betting lines by, wrongheaded certainty by me my own self.

Week 8 (and overall): David Roth: 8–5 (53–57–7); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 8–5 (57–53–7)

Sunday, November 7
• Chicago Bears (-3) at Buffalo Bills, 1pm — DR: Buffalo; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• San Diego Chargers (-3) at Houston Texans, 1pm — DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: Houston
• New Orleans Saints (-6.5) at Carolina Panthers, 1pm — DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: New Orleans
• Arizona Cardinals at Minnesota Vikings (-9), 1pm — DR: Minnesota; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons (-8.5), 1pm — DR: Tampa Bay; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• New York Jets (-4) at Detroit Lions, 1pm — DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey J
• Miami Dolphins at Baltimore Ravens (-5), 1pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Baltimore
• New England Patriots (-5) at Cleveland Browns, 1pm — DR: Cleveland; ATTLCTDC: New England
• New York Giants (-7) at Seattle Seahawks, 4:05pm — DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: Seattle
• Kansas City Chiefs at Oakland Raiders (-2.5), 4:15pm — How hilarious is it that this is basically the most important and interesting game of the week? Love it. More Chiefs, always. DR: Oakland ; ATTLCTDC: Oakland
• Indianapolis Colts at Philadelphia Eagles (-3), 4:15pm — DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers (-8.5), 8:20pm– DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Dallas

Monday, November 8
• Pittsburgh Steelers (-4.5) at Cincinnati Bengals, 8:30pm — DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh

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 rezsox, from Flickr.