Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

The NFL is Back!

The NFL is Back!

Photograph via Flickr by Arnett Gill

Editor’s note: This fall, Sam Ennis and Nathan Schiller will cover the 2012 NFL season with a blog called “Vinatieri, Back to Kick It Off.” (If you don’t know why we’re calling it this, you obviously didn’t play excessive amounts of Madden ’98.) Each week, they’ll exchange thoughts on the previous week’s games, examine developing and ongoing league trends, bring in guest writers to irrationally breakdown their favorite teams, and unravel many more features. Imagine the format to be like a radio show, except written. (In other words, not like a radio show at all.) The blog will run every Monday at Construction, except for today, which accounts for the gimmicky Wednesday night season opener.

Nathan: I know we’re doing an NFL blog, but I have to start by writing about baseball. Recently, I watched Catching Hell, the ESPN documentary about Game Six of the 2003 Cubs-Marlins National League Championship Series, otherwise known as the “Steve Bartman incident.” I remember watching the Bartman fan interference play live and being intrigued, like everyone else, by the uncanny way it seemed to incite events (the Cubs subsequently giving up eight runs in the inning and then blowing a 5-3 lead to lose Game Seven the next night) that seemed to alter/reinforce the trajectory of baseball history (the Cubs organization living up to its supposed billy goat and black cat curses). What’s most interesting over time, though, is the way the media, rather than focusing on the actual baseball players that performed worse than their Marlins counterparts, became obsessed with Steve Bartman.

During Game Six, various events conspired to create the narrative that Bartman was responsible for the Cubs’ loss. First, the FOX Sports announcers devoted a disproportionate amount of time to talking about the foul ball, while camera shots repeatedly showed Bartman sitting in the stands, appearing, with his headphones, baseball cap, turtleneck, and vacant stare, like an oblivious nerd. Feeding off of this energy, the crowd inside and outside of the stadium built up anger toward Bartman, directing “asshole” chants and throwing beer and food at him. Eventually, he had to be escorted into hiding by security, though even inside the concourse, flanked by security, fans harassed him. To finally get him out of the stadium without being recognized, security guards dressed him up in their uniforms, and one of them brought him to her apartment, where he hung out before eventually making his way home. The next day, as sportswriters and broadcasters and talk-radio DJs continued to make him the news, he released a short and sincerely apologetic statement, and then disappeared from the public eye. Two years later, the ESPN writer Wayne Drehs tried to interview him and failed. To this day, Steve Bartman has never spoken in public, on the record, about the incident.

The film does an excellent job of contextualizing the incident by framing it with the Bill Buckner incident, the one where the media helped turn the Red Sox player into a pariah for letting a ground ball go between his legs in Game Six of the 1986 World Series. But where it really excels is in its depiction of the visceral horror Bartman himself faced that night. Wrigley Field fancies itself the “friendly confines,” but the moment the fans had their taste of victory snatched away, they engaged in a kind of mob mentality, and we get the feeling that, if given the chance, they all would have been complicit in the eventual killing of Bartman. Director/narrator Alex Gibney anchors the film in his quest to understand scapegoating in sports, and while he fails simply because it’s a quest underpinned by the desire to decode certain elements of human nature (i.e. something extremely hard to do), this attempt, which at times gets a bit too heavy-handed, allows the more interesting question to rise: what does Bartman think about being a scapegoat?

[pullquote_right]The quality of “truly caring” is the heart of our current engagement with/enjoyment of/participation in football.[/pullquote_right]

We never get an answer, but we do get hints as to what it might have been like to live through such a situation. For instance, when the security guard who took Bartman to her apartment after the game says that, while Bartman had been pretty taciturn since having been removed from his seats hours earlier, once they were alone in her private residence, he started asking all sorts of basic recall questions: “How many outs were there? What happened afterwards? How did we get out of the inning? What was the score?” In other words, Bartman did not understand what had happened. This tiny detail has haunted me because it draws an incredible line of distinction between Bartman and everyone else: The film is a documentary telling a story; every story has characters, and since this story is one of fact, each character is participating in reality; but Bartman, who has by the powers of chance become major character (remember, everyone seated around him instinctively reached for—i.e. interfered with—the foul ball), is participating in a surrealist world. This is exactly what happens in Kafka’s The Trial, only unlike K., Bartman never took a knife to the heart.

Like any convincing work of art, Catching Hell insists that I simultaneously conjure up images of what I love about sports (the import of history, the capriciousness of game play, the spectacle of the world’s best) and what has led me to distance myself from fan culture: that people care about their teams way too much (something I consider myself having “been guilty of” for the better part of my life). It’s true that the Bartman incident became an “incident” and not just one of the thousands of forgotten plays because of the media. But the root of the media’s treatment is the fan’s insatiable need to care. As I’m using the verb, to care means “to feel trouble or anxiety,” to “feel interest or concern.” If no one truly associates any of these feelings with the performance of the Cubs, then there is no market for coverage of the incident, and an innocent and unlucky guy named Steve Bartman isn’t nearly killed/probably traumatized for life. Of course, the real trick is assessing the definition of truly, and to figure out exactly what it is that we truly care about.

Nothing in the last decade of American sports has evoked the quality of “truly caring” like the Bartman incident . . . until now, when the idea is at the heart of our engagement with/enjoyment of/participation in football. Any American sports fan knows that our sports culture has reached the point where it is impossible to speak intelligently and thus convincingly about professional football without first acknowledging head injuries. The discourse concerning such injuries has forced us to consider how we might enjoy a game when we’re suddenly 100% cognizant of the fact that the primordial facet of the game is to seriously injure another human. Historically speaking, this is an ignorant and unoriginal statement, and I’m hoping that, as a Classics major, Sam can provide some background on the competitions that originated in civilizations thousands of years ago . . . you know, the ones that involved people killing other people so a 14-year-old princess could laugh as a slave dropped another grape in her mouth.

But we’re living in the present. We understand science, technology, and philosophy far more intricately than our ancient brethren, and that has led to complications. The NFL has superseded its mere sporting genre to become, figuratively and literally, America’s greatest reality TV show. Tom Brady wants to avenge his Super Bowl loss. Peyton Manning’s on a new team and even has a new neck. Tim Tebow is so totally not coexisting with Mark Sanchez. The season’s about to start, and once again everything about the NFL feels so urgent, and everything else about football feels so distracting and annoying. So, how do we reconcile two contradictory sentiments about enjoying football knowing the (potential) long-term effects it has on the players? Can we? Should we? Those are moral questions; I’m also wondering if there are any legal components involved, and whether those overlap with the moral (and ethical) principles. I’m further wondering if, in contemporary times, one can unapologetically express the sentiment, “Football players choose to play football, businessmen choose to pay them, networks choose to broadcast it, and I choose to watch,” without some smarmy, pious Sports Illustrated-type penning an open letter about your morally reprehensible decision.

Sam: An open admission at the outset of this correspondence: I tried to hack it as a Classics major but just couldn’t last past one year of Ancient Greek, so I settled for classical history (all the fun, none of the languages!). As such, I’m likely going to butcher most of my analogies (historical or otherwise). But hey, I’m just a lawyer; who pays attention to details?

[pullquote_left]For the Greeks, sports were a challenge of self and a demonstration of virtue.[/pullquote_left]

That said, there is an interesting corollary between both the Greek and Roman attitudes toward sports and the current crossroad at which, at least in the popular media, the NFL has arrived. In ancient Athens, children underwent a form of holistic education known as paideia, which sought to train youth in, among other things, math, grammar, public speaking, philosophy, and, notably, sports. This concept of athletic achievement was tightly bound to the Greek concept of arete. Loosely translated, arete represents being the best that one can be and achieving the ultimate fulfillment of potential. This permeates the classics: Achilles in Homer’s Iliad fights like a man possessed in order to achieve perpetual notoriety so that all may know his excellence; on a less mythological level, Athenians engaged in sports so that they could demonstrate the depth of their arete: to this day, inscriptions still remain praising the arete of victors in the ancient Olympic games. For the Greeks, sports were a challenge of self and a demonstration of virtue, exemplified in something tangible toward the outside world.

Fast forward to Rome and the ludi circenses, public games held for the entertainment of the people (chariots, gladiatorial shows, you name it). While such games often held deeply important religious and political significance, the ruling class quite cynically sponsored many such contests as a form of panem et circenses: “bread and circuses.” These were superficial means of entertainment that lacked intrinsic societal gain or other significance. Essentially, they were used to distract or otherwise mislead the population from what may otherwise be fundamentally wrong with their lives.

So what does that have to do with the NFL? (Other than nothing?) I think this headline says it all: “Why should we care about concussions when NFL players don’t?”

The media has ignited a firestorm of discussion about whether the NFL is doomed: In light of understanding the extensive trauma experienced by the concussed brain, will parents continue to let their children play football? Will the NFL maintain its dominance of the sports landscape once science proves that long snappers suffer eleven concussions every time they get lunch at the team training facility? But what I’ve found most interesting about the current debate over the widespread exposure of the extent of concussions in professional sports (most notably football and hockey) is not the very real, and very devastating, effects of concussions on athletes. Rather, it’s that the athletes have reacted through a showing of arete, while the fans remain supportive of their panem et circenses.

The current concussion lawsuits against the NFL are remarkably similar to those filed against the tobacco companies in the past few decades: just as the tobacco companies allegedly covered up the fact that cigarettes caused cancer, the NFL has allegedly covered up the fact that players were suffering debilitating concussions that led to permanent brain damage, dementia, and death (in a tragic example, read up on the slow decline of Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster). But, these lawsuits are populated entirely by former NFL players; current players seem squarely in the camp of Troy Polamalu, who has admitted to suffering an unknown number of concussions throughout his football career but insists that this is a necessary byproduct of the game he loves. The current players appear, if not resigned, then steeled to the fact that they play a child’s game for millions of dollars; and if concussions are a part of that experience, so be it. In many respects, this is the essence of arete: the players’ desire to personify the homicidal competitiveness required to succeed as a professional athlete, and to demonstrate to peers and fans that they have fulfilled the vast potential that they’ve spent their entire lives cultivating

[pullquote_right]Amidst dueling cultures of arete and circenses, who’s to judge the players for playing, and the fans for loving it?[/pullquote_right]

And how are we, the fans, any better than the Romans celebrating their panem et circenses? Excluding the high profile neurologists and retired players leading the charge on concussion awareness, do you personally know any run-of-the-mill fan advocating for fundamental changes in the way that we play football at any level, professional or otherwise? Who is boycotting the NFL until it institutes proper safety measures? Who prefers Roger Goodell’s seemingly random attempts to crack down on hard hits and ensure player safety to the (now-taboo) “NFL’s Hardest Hitters” videos? Who is more concerned with the pending MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIME than with his favorite team’s quarterback situation? We, as fans, don’t care about player safety: we want the highest quality product on the field. And given that we’re just rooting for laundry, and that the active players don’t seem to consider this a high priority, why does this make us bad people?

Yes, I believe that we need to do everything that we can to improve equipment and concussion awareness, train players to avoid the type of head-to-head hits that lead to concussions, and prevent players from returning to games once they’ve been concussed. Yes, I believe that the NFL has a serious problem when so many of its alumni find themselves suffering from mental illness and cognitive disorders upon retirement. But amidst dueling cultures of arete and circenses, who’s to judge the players for playing, and the fans for loving it?

Nathan: I like how your response suggests that cognitive dissonance should apply here in full effect, but it doesn’t, not at all. We don’t have to grapple with conflicting thoughts because, in this discussion, they can’t exist. So long as the relationship between the two cultures of arete and circenses is that of parallel lines, morality, resting in the space between them, will never be called into question.

Okay—is what you’re saying true? Probably. Is the result of this sad and unfortunate? Maybe, but then again, even asking that question violates the idea that an athlete (trying to make a living) or fan (needing his entertainment fix) ought to feel a sentiment about his decision to partake. Finally, is any of this “right”? The answer to this question is a determination that we, as individuals, have all the power in the world to make . . . and, strangely, none of the power.

The counter to the “Why should we care about concussions when NFL players don’t?” piece you referenced is the “I’ve now realized that football is kinda hard to watch” piece that has been sprouting up the last few years. The most recent iteration is Will Leitch’s article in New York magazine, in which he explains how “[t]he NFL wants you to think about what goes on behind the curtain as little as possible” and how he doesn’t “blame them. There’s a lot to hide back there. I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.”

The article is a noble assessment of his own fandom as much as it is a look at football’s concussion problem, and thankfully he doesn’t take any sort of pious or reactionary stance. But the most honest and accurate explanation for the entire situation at hand can actually be found in a reader’s comment:

[quote]

Sadly, although Leitch may drift away from watching football, it won’t stop him from writing about football or telling us how we feel about football, which are the real afflictions.

You’re right, Will, people should not watch football. Please stop . . . writing about football. Let those .0001% of people who can name a play do it. You’ll be better. They’ll be better. You can do it. Write about something else.

[/quote]

Yes, the commenter hits on the root of the problem—that media coverage from Voices of Emotional and Moral Authority drives interest. Interestingly, he fails to take into account what drives the media. Follow me here.

A recent New Yorker article about Obama’s negligence in sucking up to wealthy donors makes a convincing case that the Citizens United decision paves the way for a world where U.S. elections can be bought. Once society sets up a system where money can purchase real power, the article suggests, said society becomes a plutocracy. It’s a simple idea that provides a helpful framework for understanding this transaction of power between normal people and NFL people.

Each year, millions of normal citizens choose to part with their money for the sake of football entertainment. That small donation from each of us exchanges hands many times, winding its way to the bank accounts of professional athletes. So now these superstar athletes, equipped with a normal amount of money times one million, have extraordinary power. What would it take for those people with the potential to accrue this power to give that up?

[pullquote_left]You can personally boycott the NFL, but good luck influencing everyone at the bar to go along with you.[/pullquote_left]

The only way football becomes less popular is if all of us decide that we don’t want to give up our donation. But we’re not going to do this because of disinterest, we’re not going to do because of financial constraints, and we’re not going to do it on account of morality. We have the power, but the payoff for not exercising that power is high. It would take a collectively monumental decision for us to stop paying DirecTV for Sunday Ticket, paying Nike for NFL apparel, paying owners to build new stadiums. Sure, you can do your part by personally boycotting the NFL, but good luck influencing everyone at the bar or the stadium to go along with you. Our control over the NFL is, on the most authentic of levels, both a reality and an unreality.

The NFL is not going to undergo widespread systematic change, and I would be shocked if, on a day-to-day function, anything about NFL fandom changes. We may say we’re repulsed by football’s most violent hits, but we’re really not. We’re repulsed by the image of one human lying on the ground unconscious after having been crushed by another human only when the media tells us the image should elicit repulsion. (Like the Bartman incident, don’t underestimate the media’s role: you can’t tell me a thinking person in 1970 could watch a hit across the middle and conclude that the guy on the ground would never feel the effects later in life.) Add in all the context—the thrill of 60,000 people cheering, the stakes of a Super Bowl, the chance for the financial bonus that comes with delivering the hit or getting up from the hit—and all you have is football being played the only way it’ll ever be played before it becomes not football as we care about it. The sport owes it to itself to modernize in the way that all industries must, but it doesn’t owe an emotion-based apology to any person, group, or entity. The idea that we, as fans, have a moral duty to save the players from themselves is the sort of blue-blooded philosophy that drives conservatives nuts. Who knew we had this much Paul Ryan in us?

Sam: I think the comment from the Leitch article says it all: on an individual level, we can stop watching; we can stop reading; we can, as you said in the beginning, stop to evaluate how much we “truly care.” But that’s not going to change anything. The brand is too big, the stakes are too high, and the money flows too freely. Ultimately, the NFL will cease to exist if, and only if, parents stop caring and prevent the new generations of players from suiting up in Pop Warner and in high school out of fear for what will happen to their children’s bodies. It’s like global warming, in that regard: you can read all the doomsday predictions you want, hear about vanishing sea ice, insane weather, failing crops, and whatever else, but ah screw it, it’s humid, I’m cranking the AC! No one is going to change anything until there’s a financial incentive or real-time cataclysm that forces them to do so. So goeth the Arctic, so goeth the Patriots.

But lost in our academic discourse about the philosophical underpinnings of sating our societal bloodlust via pro football is the fact that THE NFL SEASON IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER! I’ve spent the past five NFL seasons living in either California or Alaska, where 1 p.m. east coast games are on at either 9 or 10 a.m. For five straight years, this has led to my getting up at around seven, pounding beers, putting on a Steelers jersey, playing the “Here We Go Steelers” song, and dancing around my apartment while singing “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” like a lunatic. I’m an attorney, and spend a disproportionate amount of my time focusing and thinking. For four hours a week every Sunday, I get to turn my brain off and live or die by the deeds of players I’ll never meet who couldn’t care less about the city of Pittsburgh or the Steelers franchise. And yet, during the game, they’re all that matters. And that’s what I care about.

So to hell with player safety, to hell with schadenfreude, and to hell with Steve Bartman. It’s gametime.