Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Jets and the NFL Bounty: Declarations of Dependence

I've been reluctant to write lately, here or anywhere. I'm on vacation this week and am still exhausted by work. Usually the months between football seasons are filled with making up for lost time with respect to the Infinite Jets. There's more to discuss because there's only so much time you can devote to real life and the draft before it becomes all too redundant - the commute to work, the usual looks of reluctance and disdain on the part of my clientele, the same commute home, walking the dog, making the same dinner, having the same conversations with everyone. A single human life is dull - ask anyone who has one - but, as the late Harvey Pekar would say, who am I kidding? What would I be without my routine?

So it's not life getting me down or any of that. I have medication to thank for getting me through what Harvey calls his daily life: "a major struggle." No, I think I know what the answer is.

First, it's the Jets, naturally. I know I'm not supposed to be talking about this anymore and that we're all supposed to be moving on. The nice thing about the trauma induced by fandom is that it's not real trauma; real trauma takes actual psychological help to undo. It cannot be fixed by forgetting alone. Fandom's trauma can be undone by forgetting, even when, as we all know, none of us ever really forgets. Still, it's all going to be OK.

The disparate outcomes of the two teams that claim New York in 2011 was sort of like having my wife leave me for a guy whom I was forced thank after he punches me in the groin. That's actually never happened to me, but being humiliated by the Giants on Christmas Eve and then having no choice other than to root for them against New England in the Super Bowl was fairly close.

At my college, about 25 years ago, the majority of my friends were from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts. New Yorkers and Connecticuters were solidly Giants fans and then split their affiliations in baseball between whichever New York team did better, which varied differently back then, though that may be difficult for younger readers to believe. The Mets made the postseason in 1986 and '88. The Yankees did not and would not for several years to come. Guys from Mass were solid Red Sox fans out of practice and tradition, though they harbored a little hope of seeing the Patriots return to the Super Bowl, but they loved basketball because it meant rooting for the Celtics. Like the Puritans of old, my Massachusetts pals felt justified when their teams' fortunes eventually changed for the better.

My friends followed winning teams. I was a Jets fan. I walked around the dorm in a kelly green t-shirt with the Reagan-era streamline JETS logo, and guys looked at me like I had joined the Hare Krishnas. I lived with guys like this; they liked me, but they didn't understand me, and that was fine. They studied finance, marketing and law, the disciplines of winners. I was an English major. No one wins in literature. People get married in the end of comedies, people die meaninglessly in tragedies, and otherwise everybody else learns sobering lessons about how hard human life is. That's not winning. This year's Super Bowl was like wearing that stupid t-shirt again, being reduced to the losing circle in every way. Jets suck, Roche. Great. Tell me something I don't already know. Welcome to my life. Just remember, if I didn't have this routine to go through year in and out, I wouldn't be anything at all.


It's also football. American football, the game you and I love. And before I become overwrought, let me first make clear, I'm not declaring independence from anything. I made my bed, and I'm sleeping in it. I have loved football for as long as I can remember being human, and I have been a Jets fan for at least that long. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with myself if I don't watch football this year, and there is no other team I can call home. So that's settled, and everything will inevitably return to normal.

Yesterday, while listening to recordings of Gregg Williams' tirade before the playoff game against San Francisco, I was struck by his emphasis on three points:

1) "The NFL is a production business," he says. "Don't ever forget about that." There isn't a single NFL coach, assistant, or executive who wouldn't disagree with that, and the degree to which that production involves sacks, tackles, assists, or legs, heads and spines is, in American football, a source of confusion, for both players and fans, and it's a confusion that we know we live with all the time. As long as you win, you will be paid. You are paid to win. Winning means killing. Ergo?

2) "Kill the head and the body will die." It makes me think of Frank Rizzo. I may be attributing far more distinction to former Philadelphia Mayor Rizzo than he deserves from a bleeding heart, but I think one of his mottos was Ego frendo caput capitis, which stands for pretty much Gregg Williams' philosophy on why his defense was so good. I've always said that moving to Philadelphia a year after Rizzo's death was like moving to Spain a year after Franco. Suddenly there was air to breathe again; you were no longer being told that the reason why the city was a great place to live was because you were being protected from some horrible element by a military-styled government. Here I take the blogger's cue to expand my musings - the head is the source of imagination, creativity, wisdom, inquiry and reason. The body will die without it, but the head makes us human. And like other violent exercises - coercion, terrorism and warfare - the goal of a good defense is to do nothing else but to make the noble mind think twice because it's suddenly beset by fear (Yes, phantom reader, another link to Dune) the mind-killer.

I remember a briefly poignant moment in Bill Buford's gripping Among the Thugs where a police officer in Sunderland asks Buford about fan violence in American football. How many people attend football games in America? he asks. Buford says about 50-60,000, sometimes 80,000. The constable blanches at the thought. And there's no significant violence to speak of? he asks. No, Buford says. The constable looks vexed and perturbed. How can that be? he seems to ask. Buford doesn't supply the answer; the point is that he is trying to say something about the violence endemic to the English people - it's ageless and elusive, at the heart of every human person who spends time on that island nation. But American tribes of violence are priced out of sporting events. Yes, fans get stabbed at Raiders games. Mostly, there are armed gangs outside the arena, weaving their own mythologies of loyalty and manhood the same way that hooligans do from station to station. Even then, even if no tribe will have you in America, you need only a gun and a state law written for a backward-minded people that suggests you can interpret the right to stand your ground for yourself and kill another human being.

3) "It's a great game. It's a production business." It's sort of repeat of one. Every sport is the symbolic gesture of its culture's anxieties and conflict. Hockey belongs to the hatred of English to French and vice versa. Soccer transcends them all, possibly because it's so maddeningly sublime that its suspensefulness is too much for the racked mind, and while clubs have largely priced hooliganism out in England, the beautiful game engenders a fear that everything or nothing can happen in 90 minutes, and this can bring out the most guarded resentment absolutely anywhere.

It's a great game because it's a production business. American football allows others to act out that rage for us. It pays handsomely for men to destroy one another, and we all know it. It's the American way: as long as you're being paid, what do you have to complain about? We already know that money justifies everything. The logical extension from being paid to win to being paid to kill in order to win is something we all know from our own values. It's what tobacco companies do, what distilling companies do, what oil companies do, what drug dealers do, and it's why all of these groups are so successful. We all accept the trade; in order to win, you have to kill. In order to enjoy this sport, people must be disabled, must fall apart and die an early death. That's what they're being paid to do. Human life is cheap.

Which brings me to musing at long, long last about what this means. It means nothing. I will still be grateful for football's return, and I will be (just as I am now) overly optimistic about the Jets' chances (seriously, they're not as bad as everybody thinks). Remember the father of our head coach is the poster child for the bounty. I will watch every NFL game I possibly can because I would rather watch a football game than anything else on TV, even Mad Men. I have no choice in this matter (other than, say, reading or exercising). I have already accepted the reality of this larger agreement among men and machines, that this game is what it is and that bounties are surely omnipresent because they are a logical extension of a game and the culture that produced it. I am merely a part of it all.


Anonymous said...

Wow. That was brilliant. Maybe the most moving blog about football (of all things, football!) that I've ever read.

Martin Roche said...

Thanks very, very much. That means a great deal.

Mark in NYC said...

A really quality post! Refreshing on NFL blogs this time of year.

I'm inclined to agree with you. I think our culture isn't willing to acknowledge the appeal of organized violence.

Loved your description of literature and being an English major, too. Hilarious!

Slimbo said...

To hear Gregg Williams' words (or for that matter, hear Charlie Sheen's drug-induced mantras), I worry that the concept of 'winning' has become something perverse which my better natures think I should avoid.

Lovely piece, Marty. Love live Pekar.

Martin Roche said...

Thank you very much, Mark. I'm ashamed that I'm just now fixing a spelling error in the first paragraph. Some English major. And yes, Slim, it has come to this - finding Harvey Pekar comforting.