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.