A Meditation on the Contradictions of “NFL Nation”

Ivan Cole writes about what he believes are interrelated themes in our recent articles and comments. As you read, you’ll understand why this post is headed with a video. A mere still photo wouldn’t have done the job.

A number of years ago I came across some interesting results of a survey given to pre-med students. The question posed was what options these students might choose to pursue if they were unable to gain admission into medical school. Given the many health career possibilities other than medical doctor that would be available, the researchers were surprised that many of the respondents chose law school.

What the results revealed is that for many of these students the motivation was not healing and health but rather status and wealth. This was brought home to me during a career counseling session when my client, a doctor, revealed his conundrum. He had come to the conclusion that this was not the field for him and that he wanted to pursue a passion for carpentry. However, his wife informed him that she had signed on to be the spouse of a doctor and that she would leave him if he made the change.

Marriage of Different Values

This was on my mind when reading Rebecca’s piece on humility and the accompanying discussion. As I pointed out in Part One of the Training Camp for Fans series:

It has been said that professional sport is an oxymoron. To be sure it is a marriage of different sets of values. The balancing act of being a profitable business, providing a reliable, renewable entertainment product and some fidelity to the parameters of the sport is a difficult one.

How humility factors into sport is different than how it plays in the entertainment business. 

In the movie Gladiator, General Maximus had to adjust to the contradictions of killing. As a soldier he was an efficient instrument of the state, successfully fulfilling the aims of Roman foreign policy. He killed, but he had a conscience, being able to mourn the suffering of the men under his command as well as having empathy for the warriors that opposed him. When thrown into the arena (the entertainment business of its time), he had to learn that his interests were best served by embracing a different set of values. He had to kill with an entertaining flair that in the context of being the soldier/warrior was unnecessary and probably disrespectful of his opponents as well. 

A discussion of humility might vary according to point of emphasis. Are we talking about the sport of football, the business of football or the entertainment spectacle? Sport, as ideally conceptualized, is as much a test of character and attendant virtues as it is that of talent and skill. This would explain the attraction that many have for sport and also why it is at the center of much of our community life, such as its presence in schools.

Bring the business entertainment aspect in and the meaning must morph to an extent. Like the game itself, ‘character’ and ‘virtue’ become commodified. 

Of course, these aspects don’t exist in silos, which is how it becomes confusing for all of us, players, fans and media alike. If you work in the NFL you are simultaneously a football player, an independent business contractor and an entertainer. Humility carries a different level of utility to a football player as opposed to an entertainer. (Some, as shown in the Muhammed Ali quote in Rebecca’s piece indicates, would ascribe no positive value to it at all.) 

Heath Miller is a great football player, but leaves much to be desired as an entertainer. That more than anything explains the gap in perception between him and Rob Gronkowski, which  seems greater than could be attributed strictly to talent or performance. 

I think it is fair to say that outside of Pittsburgh, Miller’s football legacy will be under-appreciated as a consequence—overshadowed by more flamboyant talents. It almost certainly means a negative impact on money making potential as a contractor, as well as his football legacy. Heath might make into the Hall of Fame, but don’t be surprised if it takes a while for him to get in. 

At another extreme might be a Mike Wallace who placed business (money) as his highest concern. Now because of his greed and inattention to the characteristics that make for a good teammate, he finds himself in a career cul de sac, neither appreciated nor even respected, but well paid for now. 

Meanwhile, Antonio Brown stands on the cusp of greatness because, more so than Miller or Wallace, he has been able to strike a more favorable balance with these contradictory elements. Now, some have said, including Mike Tomlin, that the end zone celebrations are unnecessary and detract from his work. Maybe so, but let’s add another layer or so of complexity to this portion of the picture. 

The Ambiguous Meaning of ‘Humble’

In a feature on basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar which appeared in the New York Times Magazine, author Jay Caspian Kang reminds us of certain historical, sociocultural aspects of how humility plays out in sports:

For a black athlete to be accepted by the sports media, especially during the early years of Abdul-Jabbar’s career, he had to appear humble and deferential and continually thankful to the white world for giving him a chance to become rich and famous. 

Like so many other things in the racialized stew that is American culture, the meaning of ‘humble’ becomes ambiguous and even turned on its head. Being deferential and submissive in order to satisfy the hubris of others doesn’t seem like much of a virtue. It was Ali (and to a lesser extent Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and others) that broke with that model, and were initially despised for having done so. 

But in the end Ali has been one of the most revered individuals (not just an athlete) in the 20th century in spite of a public persona that was the antithesis of humility. His popularity overshadowing figures such as Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens who behaved more faithfully to the model of comportment that many seem to prefer, perhaps because their humility may have carried a bit of a stench of coercion and underlying disrespect. 

Humility bought at the price of dignity and courage has a different resonance. And it would be hard to assert that Ali was driven by selfishness. His stance cost him arguably the best years of his career, his heavyweight championship title and nearly landed him in jail. 

Also, one might argue, the era of Ali happened to coincide with the rise of the television driven sports entertainment complex, and that his personality was perfectly suited for that emergent reality. And the shift didn’t just open the door to behavioral changes. Prior to the early eighties most professional athletes could hope to earn a middle class income at best.

Show Me the Money

The first football player I ever met was Cannonball Butler, a running back for the Steelers and later the Atlanta Falcons. He was working as a substitute gym teacher at my elementary school because most NFL players had to take other jobs during the off season to help make ends meet. 

As player compensation came more in line with the stratospheric levels of the high end entertainment industry, could that also mean that another type of individual was attracted to the game? Like the pre-med students in the beginning of this piece, if denied access to the league would they continue pursuit of their football dreams in Canada, the Arena League, or say, semi-pro ball, or would they redirect to some other area of the entertainment industry such as sports media, music, film or another high revenue sport such as NBA basketball? 

I don’t think this is a trivial or insignificant set of questions. ‘Old-school’ (sport oriented) and ‘new-school’ (entertainment oriented) thinking may not be so easy to reconcile. This could have major ramifications for the ability of teams to effectively coalesce.

I remember an interview conducted on the NFL Network with the late Hall of Famer Deacon Jones. Most decidedly an old school guy, Jones was asked how he would deal with a player like Terrell Owens, who was still playing at the time and I think would qualify as ‘new school.’ 

“We’d break his legs.”

I don’t think he was kidding. 

In recent interviews, older players express concern about the leadership challenges involved with conveying the attitudes and habits of successful teams to younger players who are more self-centered and money focused. Nor, I would quickly add, is this just an issue with the players. Might these conflicts and contradictions of values also explain some of the disconnect among groups of fans, members of the media, and even owners as well? 

While many of us manage to integrate or at least ignore the dissonance created by the sports/ entertainment business marriage, fans of the sport and entertainment consumers may find their differences over matters such as fantasy football or whether they are entitled to demand team employees be fired may be too great to be understood, much less resolved. 

I think it is safe to say that much of this plays out beneath our conscious understanding. 

A covenant driven fan and a more contractually oriented consumer may both claim to ‘bleed black and gold’, but the meaning of this phrase is very different to each. Indeed, they are two different paradigms altogether. One the few times that we see things clearly is when players embody the contradictions. Only we don’t completely accept what we see, and then, of course, we criticize the players for accurately reflecting the muddle that this is. 

Functioning Neanderthals 

A good example of this comes from the latter portion of my interview with Randy Grossman published earlier last week, in concert with a piece I wrote concerning the Michael Vick controversy. To distill things to their essence, the concerns of those who opposed the Steelers obtaining Vick was that he represented those athlete/celebrities who were so spoiled, entitled and amoral (if not in some cases criminally immoral) that they thumbed their noses at the social standards and agreements that govern the society. 

In the midst of that particular conversation a reader shared with me that while a student at Virginia Tech, Vick had not bothered to show up for a number of classes. Such a revelation buttressed the idea that, at best, Vick was behaving like an entitled jerk, but there was some collateral damage as well. The University administration, the athletic department, a good chunk of the faculty and student body, and perhaps boosters, alumni and the local media had to be aware that this was going on. Some of these people were allegedly responsible adults who courageously looked the other way because…well, because winning the Sugar Bowl sure would be nice. 

So…how do you think an immature kid from the Tidewater region of Virginia got it anchored in his head that he wasn’t accountable to community standards? And just to be clear, it doesn’t excuse his behavior and responsibility one bit. But we must acknowledge that there was support for his pathology. 

Dovetailing nicely with this theme is conversation I had with Grossman about Myron Rolle. You may recall that Rolle a safety from Florida State who did training camp with the Steelers was a figure of controversy because he was selected for a Rhodes Scholarship and then had to gall to actually take advantage of the opportunity. He was then accused of abandoning his team. 

Misplaced priorities. Obviously.

And, as Randy suggested, it is unlikely Rolle would have been accused of abandonment if he had dumped to Seminoles for say, the Patriots instead of Oxford. 

There are times when the written word is totally inadequate to describe a mood. Having just pointed out that “Its skilled physical labor. You don’t need a degree to play professional athletics,” Randy started riffing on the Rolle situation. Some things reach such a level of absurdity that you can’t believe that the words coming out of your mouth don’t result in some sort of wormhole to another dimension opening up. We were just about there. It was at this point that he began talking about “functioning Neanderthals” and how Rolle’s value as a player went down because he was probably too smart. 

Then we get exasperated and feel insulted that many players don’t seem to be all that respectful about academics. It is now that we need to regularly remind ourselves that the players haven’t set these standards. Their crime is that they are following them. And if we are honest many of us share some complicity in this as well. 

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