Thursday, November 14, 2013

A thug's game played by thugs

There's been a lot of talk lately about football supplanting baseball as "our national pastime." It should come as no surprise that football consistently outdraws baseball in terms of TV ratings. Had this past World Series gone to a game seven, that game would have taken place directly opposite a regular season NFL game, nationally broadcast under the brand of "Thursday Night Football." That particular game featured a non-divisional contest between two teams from smaller markets, one good team, the Cincinnati Bengals, and one so so team, the Miami Dolphins. It would have been interesting to see how the television ratings of the two respective sporting events would have compared: a relatively insignificant game, (except where the NFL is concerned, since if you believe all their hype, every game is of the utmost importance), against what would have been the championship game between two evenly matched baseball teams both with glorious histories, capping off what turned out to be a tremendously exciting post-season. Back in the day, a seventh game of the World Series would have drawn as much attention in the United States as a presidential election, the last episode of Breaking Bad, and the Super Bowl all put together.

Not anymore.

Since TNF is shown only on cable and not available to everyone with a TV, it's unlikely that more people would have watched the Dolphins upset the Bengals that night. Still the ratings for this year's World Series were the fourth lowest in history. That despite a fantastic series featuring the emotional draw of the Boston Red Sox, a team that finished dead last in their division last year, and the city they represent, still reeling from the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombings last April.

Well it turns out the Miami-Cincinnati game was more important than anyone would realize at the time.  That week, Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin turned up AWOL at a couple of team practices and missed the Thursday night game. He cited "personal reasons" but it would come out that his line-mate, Ritchie Ingonito, a player not particularly known for his tact and good manners, had said some rather unpleasant things to Martin over the season.

OK that's a bit of an understatement. Acting on his coaches' insistence to "toughen up" the rookie Martin, Incognito among other things took it upon himself to send Martin texts and voicemails of the most vile nature, including physical threats to Martin and his family, as well as racial epithets, (Incognito is white, Martin is black). Transcripts of those messages went public (I won't bother to quote any of them but trust me, they're bad). The story went viral and set off a firestorm of diatribes, blasting one if not both of the players. Many of the Dolphin players, a team that like the rest of the NFL is predominantly African American, came to Incognito's defense, saying that kind of talk is perfectly normal locker room jive, and that Martin as a professional football player, rather than complaining to the authorities, should have stood up for himself like a man, presumably with a fist to Incognito's face. On the other side there were calls for Incognito's immediate dismissal for his racist remarks and for workplace harassment. Incognito has in fact, been suspended from the team.

The debate made for great theater, especially all the disingenuous NFL "insiders" who sounding a lot like Captain Renault, the Claude Rains character from Casa Blanca, said they were shocked, SHOCKED, that such words could come out of the mouth of a football player.

Quite frankly I'm not sure which side I'm on. Clearly Incognito is an unabashed, unapologetic, (pardon the expression) asshole, who had long before the Martin incident, created a legacy of sociopathic behavior. Martin on the other hand by his actions has shown, unlike scores of other players who have taken the same kind of verbal abuse throughout the years, that he cannot stand up to the kind of punishment expected of a professional football player, and probably does not belong in the NFL.

In other words, he's a perfectly normal human being. There in a nutshell is the basis for my thesis on why we Americans so love to watch football.

Unlike baseball players who traditionally came from all sectors of society, rich, poor and everything in between, football began in the nineteenth century purely as a collegiate sport, designed to "make men" out of individuals who were not likely to ever be subjected to the demands of hard, physical labor. The comparison is similar to that of rugby in England which was also played by college men, and their game of football (what we call soccer), which was the game of the masses. That distinction is still made to this day: "rugby is a thug's game played by gentlemen, while soccer is a gentleman's game played by thugs," (or something of that nature).

Today, although virtually every NFL player still comes from the college ranks, big time universities recruit their players from all sectors of society based exclusively upon athletic ability, for the sole purpose of playing football (and other lucrative sports) for the school. If star players (i.e.: the ones with a chance of making it into the pros) manage to get a college education in the process, it's purely by accident. Beyond those differences, football is still considered the manliest of games. To strident fans, American football embodies all the virtues of the ideal American male: strength, fearlessness, obedience, love of God and country, and a ferocious, competitive spirit. To its most bellicose fans, football is compared to war, its players to soldiers.

In perhaps the most brilliant comparison ever of the two games, the late comedian George Carlin had this to say about baseball and football:
...the objectives of the two games are completely different: 
In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.
In baseball the object is to go home. And to be safe. - I hope I'll be safe at home!
Unlike most other sports played in this country, full contact football exists purely as a spectator sport. Most Americans have themselves played some form of baseball, either the game itself, its close relative softball, or even kickball, the playground game which has had a recent resurgance among adults looking to re-capture their childhood. In parks and playgrounds all over the country you see pickup basketball, soccer and even lacrosse games played by men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes. And on frozen ponds in the north and up in Canada, all you need to play hockey is a pair of skates, a stick, puck, and a couple pairs of shoes for goals. Other than levels of skill, strategy, and intensity, all those games are essentially the same games the pros play.

Gridiron football is different. The majority of football fans, myself included, have never played the game. OK we may have played football-lite in the form of touch or the slightly more intense flag football. Even if some tackling is thrown in for good measure let's face it, with full contact football's complex set of rules, strict division of labor, highly developed play strategies, and especially its speed and sheer brutality, the games that resemble it have as much in common with the real deal as a foot race has in common with NASCAR.

American football is compelling drama, especially as seen on TV with its incessant analysis and commentary designed to milk every last drop of significance out of the game. Like all legitimate athletic competitions, the outcome is not pre-determined, yet in football there is a sense of urgency that doesn't exist in any other sport. In football, with every play comes the real possibility of nirvana or disaster, depending which side you're on. Think of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers recently being forced out of a game (and possibly the season) because of an injury on the opening drive of a Monday Night Football game after being cleanly sacked by Chicago's Shea McClellin. In that one play, Green Bay's agony was Chicago's ecstasy. Injuries are part of every sport of course but in other games they are the exception, in football, they're the rule. Given its short season, every football game is a "must win" situation. In America, watching the game has become a Sunday (or Monday or Thursday) ritual, and much like going to church, it is played out as a clash between good and evil, the believers vs. the infidels. In fact it's not uncommon to hear people profess their full belief in one team or other. I once read a newspaper article on game day up in Wisconsin featuring two Catholic priests who quite seriously debated whether or not God is a Packer fan.

For their part, fans live vicariously through the exploits of their larger than life (both literally and figuratively) cartoon-like heroes, as they wail upon the villains on the other side. All the frustrations of the previous week can be alleviated during those three and a half hours on a Sunday afternoon, if all goes well that is. And if it doesn't, you can always blame The Man, dressed in a white cap and a shirt with black and white stripes.

One can learn a lot about football culture just by watching the commercials during a typical game. Never do you see regular people in commercials actually playing the game; most depict the fan, glued to a TV or tail-gating outside the stadium. Yet these fans are not merely passive spectators, no they're usually involved in some kind of ritual designed to help their team win. Another way fans become "active" participants in the game is through the wildly popular game of fantasy football, where "leagues" composed of a group of people compete against each other by selecting NFL players for their individual "team." Each team's performance is based upon that week's cumulative performance of its "drafted" players, all tallied up on the computer.

Of course, like the computer game, football fandom is all fantasy. Since your average fan could never in his wildest dreams suit up in pads and a helmet and get out there and play with the big boys, these rituals enable us to become part of the game, without having to do any of the hard stuff. That's where Jonathan Martin comes in. Normal people would never put up with the kind of crap that was thrown at him. Of course normal people don't make a living expected to protect a quarterback by blocking 300 pound defensive linemen coming full speed ahead at them, prepared to knock their head off given half the chance.

If normal people played professional football, other normal people would not watch it. My guess is that between the two players, Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito, both at the present time inactive, it will be Incognito who returns to the game. He will go through the obligatory sensitivity training and after a few sniffly TV interviews (maybe even with Barbara Walters if we're lucky), he will apologize for his misdeeds, will be publicly deemed acceptable to return to the game, be welcomed with open arms by his teammates, and hailed as a conquering albeit flawed hero. Football fans have forgiven much worse behavior.

As for Martin his talent notwithstanding, he'll probably have a hard time finding another job on an NFL squad, should he chose to do so. He's an outcast now, known by the insiders as someone who's soft, someone who can't take the heat.  That's the kiss of death in the antediluvian culture of the NFL. All those blabbering NFL insiders on TV may publicly praise him for coming forward and exposing the evils of bullying and harassment in their sport but in the end, you can bet your bottom dollar they'd never pick him to play for their team.

I wouldn't worry about Jonathan Martin however. Given his pedigree, both parents well respected Harvard graduates, one a lawyer, the other a professor, my guess is that he got himself a reasonable education while he attended Stanford. In the end he'll probably get an advanced degree and go on to do great things with his life.

On the other hand, after his playing days are over, who knows what's in store for a goon like Incognito. He's probably not coaching material and with his reputation, he's unlikely to end up in the broadcast booth. He'd probably make a heck of a professional wrestler.

So is football our new national pastime? Well I'd have to say no, simply because in the words of Sports Illustrated columnist Frank Deford:
Nobody would dare call football a pantywaist thing like 'pastime.'
Obsession, maybe new religion perhaps would be more fitting terms; certainly gridiron football is without a doubt, America's game.

In the sixties, the columnist, Mary McGrory wrote this:
Baseball is what we used to be. Football is what we have become.
So true. But like Jonathan Martin's future, I don't worry much about baseball either. Despite the declining TV ratings, attendance at MLB games is soaring, baseball's becoming more and more an international game, and little league programs as far as I can tell are still thriving all over the country, insuring the future of the game.

By contrast, with all the attention lately given to the lasting effects of concussions and other serious injuries common in football, fewer and fewer parents are signing their kids up for the game.

In the end, baseball is still the people's game while football for all its popularity, is for the most part nothing more than reality TV.

Thank goodness it's only 128 days until opening day.

In the meantime, go Bears.

They may be thugs, but gosh darn it, they're our thugs.

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