Love Lost

In the part of his Fox News show not devoted to perfectly enunciated emo-libertarian word salad served over stock footage of Nazi rallies, Glenn Beck occasionally gets emotional about old commercials. Which, like just about everything else having to do with him, is something I’d be perfectly content to leave a secret between him and his horrorshow fan base of gout-afflicted exurban Chamber of Commerce types and seething elderlies. If they want to get together and be dewy over the ad in which a little kid gives his bottle of Coke to Mean Joe Greene, they should absolutely do that. They should do that just as surely as they should remember not to vote, and that’s my stance.

But while it’s easy for me to judge an idiot magical-realist sentimentalism that reads sappy Super Bowl commercials as secret documentaries of the national heart — it is so incredibly easy that I honestly barely even had to type any of what you just read — it’s also true that I and most everyone else make good use of fictive nostalgia. I might imagine, for instance, that it would’ve been great to see Television at CBGB’s in the year of my birth, but it almost certainly would not have been great, and not only because I would’ve been an infant. Everyone involved would’ve been zombified on heroin, Johnny Thunders’ girlfriend would wave a razor in my face for no reason (from what I remember of Please Kill Me she would’ve done this even if I was there as my infant 1978 self), Handsome Dick Manitoba would yarf 72 fully intact qaaludes onto my shoes. I know this, but I remain powerless before the illusion that the show would’ve looked and sounded better and truer than the shows I see today in clean, dark venues with expensive drinks.

The same illusion holds, for me, with the NFL of the 1970s and ’80s. That NFL was doubtless every bit as brutal a wasteland of crass exploitation, puddingheaded bombast and grunty revanchism as this one. Football players and owners and coaches are football players and owners and coaches, and can be expected to behave as such. That the world of the NFL was smaller and marginally and quaintly more disreputable is, like the allure of CBGB’s in that “Marquee Moon” fantasy, the sort of thing that is most appealing at a safe distance. I know all that, but I can’t quite believe it.

But, irresponsible and absurd as it is to imagine a golden age of any kind that includes either Al Davis or the phrase “sex symbol Terry Bradshaw,” the idea of a NFL that was shaggy — not just in terms of mustachery and strange Ford Administration hairdos but, sure, that too — and less dedicated to performing and embodying its brand truths is appealing in some very easy to understand ways. It isn’t so much that the NFL I imagine was more creative or less self-serious or more joyous or any of the other things I wish it currently were — it wasn’t, I know. Professional football has never had a philosopher king era, and if Jim Plunkett looks kind of rock and roll and cool from a particular contemporary perspective, it’s almost certain that he was just as dull and driven and mercilessly competitive as Tom Brady is when it comes to football.

The difference, at least through the scrim of hopeful projection through which I imagine the era but I think also quite possibly truly, is that all involved were a bit less self-conscious about all of it, that the entire NFL Experience seemed to involve just a little bit less at every level. If owners were as craven and self-satisfied then as they are today, the norms of the era dictated that they at least try to seem marginally less cavalier about engaging their fan bases and municipalities the way mining companies engage mountaintops. And if players were reckless, egomaniacal goofs… well, they were. And I think it’s the recklessness that I’m saddest of all to have missed. Or, if not the recklessness itself, then the sense that message discipline was not yet considered a crucial component of the NFL skill set.

The last few decades have not been kind to the practice or premise of the sort of spontaneity I’m talking about, both in the way that they have empowered increasingly comprehensive means and methods of self-regard and in the ways that sad, glib Brand Called You marketization has so coarsened the way that we regard the self we’re constantly checking up on. And so some of this flattening — the subsuming of the individual athletes who gave the came color and shape into a branded whole and the simultaneous acceptance that the subsuming is worth it if the pay is right — was inevitable, or inexorable. Roger Goodell (and David Stern before him in the NBA) might embody the latest and greatest incarnation of this poison-spiked corporatism, but he didn’t start it.

And he can’t quite vanquish it, either. For all the commercials pushing the NFL as A Thing American Families Enjoy Together, for all the furious brand leverage evident in the game’s every televised moment, the game is still played by football players and coached by football coaches. Which is to say: by fucking crazy, crazy humans. If Baltimore Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs wants to wear a t-shirt emblazoned with a middle-finger under the words “Hey Pittsburgh” to practice and then mumblingly chide the media for trying to read too much into it, he may or may not be subject to a fine. But I can’t think of a single football fan who would argue anything but that Suggs can and absolutely should do that. (It’s worth mentioning here that Suggs, who looks like a very big and very real version of a very poor police sketch, is someone who won a brawl that started with him getting struck in the head with a length of steel rebar, and criticizing that sort of person seems unwise at several levels)

Is all that silly nastiness helping, in some way, to make the game or the anticipation thereof any more fun? Not for me, not really. But I’ll allow it, in part because if anything is going to make one human being sincerely want to run through the body of another, ill-will — manufactured or not, deeply reasoned or deeply not-reasoned — makes as reasonable a motivator as anything I can come up with. I have no doubt that Terrell Suggs and his goofy, bought-it-in-the-parking-lot t-shirt is in earnest about his disdain for this week’s opponent. I doubt that his sentiment runs much deeper than that screen-printed flipped-bird image would suggest, but I don’t doubt it. I don’t doubt that the Steelers and their fans, for reasons that probably don’t run very deep and which might contain trace amounts of any manner of toxic substances, feel the same way.

The pity, then, is less the dim aggro bluster of most NFL trash-talk than how rare and how disreputable it has become. New York’s sports media is famously and hilariously censure-happy, but watching the sour patch grumps that comprise the city’s sports pundit corps attack the Jets for a lack of message discipline in their ramshackle week-long psy-ops campaign against the New England Patriots is a bummer for reasons that go beyond the (manifold) regular reasons that reading the Post is a bummer. It’s true that, as trash talk goes, Rex Ryan’s campaign of passive-aggression and underminer-y linguistic loading was kind of clumsy, but if there’s a reason to criticize it at all, it’s that it lacked Ryan’s usual kookily outsized joy of performance. The Patriots, who have kept up their team-wide Patrick Bateman routine for half a decade now, and are the apotheosis of the NFL’s new victory-without-joy norm, would never take Ryan’s distraction-bait, no matter how well he delivered it. The two teams deal in essentially different styles and languages — watching Ryan’s ragged (and not-necessarily-likable) Jets and Bill Belichick’s lockstep Pats engage each other in the media is like watching a debate between Roddy Piper and Donald Rumsfeld.

That Ryan may actually have managed to piss off the Patriots was only revealed on Friday by a press conference in which Pats receiver Wes Welker made numerous obvious-but-deniable references to Ryan’s now-public foot fetish. (Long story. Gross story.) It hardly seemed worth it. But while Ryan’s campaign might not have been totally true to his rhetorical strengths — cornerback Antonio Cromartie’s witless but frank assessment of the ultra-Batemanian Tom Brady (“He’s an asshole, fuck him”) seems closer to that — only a true churl or overdetermined sports columnist wouldn’t give him points for trying, and for bringing every bit of his hammy (like cured pig meat, not like the slang term) self to the task.

Jeff Pearlman, who has written some terrific books about misbehaving teams and some lousy moralizing columns about misbehaving athletes, has spent much of this week making the curiously not-self-serving argument that the Jets need to cool it, or shut up and deal, or whatever. On Monday, though, Pearlman wrote something better. In that column, he compares Ryan to a former Chicago Bears coach named Abe Gibron, who ran up an 11–30–1 record in the early 1970s. Gibron, like Ryan, was both something of a high-functioning maniac, as well as a man of (um) appetites. Pearlman recounts Gibron tasking Bears clubhouse attendants with soaking bratwursts in beer during practices. “Then, when practice was over, Abe would grill ‘em,” says Bill Martell, the team’s longtime equipment manager. “He’d eat them like they were fries.” It’s a fun piece, full of that sort of goofy color and human ridiculous and old-NFL excess. It would be a shame if Pearlman’s comparison to Gibron were intended as an insult. It’s sadder still to think of how readily, in today’s NFL culture, it could be perceived as one.

So, belatedly, sadly, finally: my season-long exercise in being really wrong is over, and the inanimate object won. Prediction-wise, I was one game under .500 over 16 weeks (I’m taking Week 17, during which I was in Thailand and definitely not thinking about football, as a bye week). The coin was significantly better than that and overall, honestly, I am totally fine leaving it there. I have been fine “leaving it there” all season, honestly. It is the closest thing to an honorable option I’ve got left. Beyond tears and/or ritual suicide, and I don’t care enough about predictions to manage even the former. There’s too much to live for. Too many adjectives to use. Too many elaborate and overdetermined meat similes to attempt. It’s a beautiful world and I can’t let my inability to ever, ever correctly predict a Houston Texans game detract from that. Although I think I seriously went 0–16 in games involving Houston this year, including being wrong on straight-ahead pick ’em games in the last two weeks. So, for the postseason, we’ll be changing currencies — the coin has been hired by a Vegas oddsmaking concern, and in his place I give you King Bhumbibol The Royal Thai Baht (KBTRTB), who will be holding it down through the postseason and will be flipped by me myself. If this thing beats me, too, I’m going to have to seriously consider the tears/ritual suicide thing.

Week 16 and Regular Season Records: Week 16 (and overall) David Roth: 8–8 (115–116–9); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 8–8 (121–110–9)

Saturday, January 15
•Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (-3), 4:30pm — DR: Baltimore; KBTRTB: Pittsburgh
•Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons (-2.5), 8pm — DR: Atlanta; KPTRTB: Atlanta

Sunday, January 16
• Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears (-10), 1pm — DR: Chicago; KPTRTB: Seattle
• New York Jets at New England Patriots (-8.5), 4:30pm — DR: New England; KPTRTB: New England

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 30039486@N03, from Flickr.