As I sit down to write this essay, we are one day out from Super Bowl XLVIII. To sit down and write about the Super Bowl has become much more an exercise in socio-cultural behavior than athletic endeavor. If my memory serves me, this would be the 5th time I’ve written about an event that has become perhaps the most galvanizing moment on the American calendar. With the exception of the essay “Super Bowl XLIII”, where I consciously decided to play the role of a sports writer, every other foray into the subject matter has been made with broader, more universal intentions. An event of this magnitude has philosophical meaning beyond The Game and sport itself.
As the countdown to kickoff 2014 enters its final day, what most stands out for this writer is the raw, almost hysterical popularity of the sport in question. In making a detailed inventory through the voluminous storehouse of what has become a long lifetime of experience, I cannot remember anything having grabbed the American psyche in such a passionate, overwhelming way. No fad, no trend, no food stuff, pop star, musical innovation, diva, no cinema crapola, product, clothing line or whatever else might pollinate and spread through a group of people with a cultural identity, has ever aroused the American mindset in such a continuous, emotional and widespread way. It is almost embarrassing to think that one point of focus could render the bulk of the population so helplessly devoted to it. Football’s popularity has almost made everything else seem trivial and irrelevant. Such massive, hypnotic subjugation to such a single source of passion could almost be called “provincial”.
When something so fanatically and universally adhered to grabs hold of a culture, it cannot be considered an innocuous or neutral force. It creates an experience people are affected by. In a subconscious way, like termites invisibly and stubbornly undermining the integrity of a house, it bores into our behavioral patterns and influences who and what we are. The question I ask is the following: is this almost pathological subjugation of the American people to this game of football a healthy force in our development? Is it leading us in the right direction?
Before expounding upon such themes, I’d like to give the reader a short history of my athletic prowess. Let’s start by describing myself as a genuine American “jock”. Undoubtedly, my earliest doses of ego gratification were the result of my athletic ability. In an attempt not to mislead anyone, it’s pertinent to say I was never talented enough for any kind of professional consideration, but I was always one of the best in the neighborhood. I eventually played on some good baseball teams at a large university and although my protagonism was modest, I made my contribution and was able to play at that level. I also played on some undistinguished high school basketball teams in an area where the high school basketball is quite good. Later on, as my body grew into maturity, I became a fixture in some of the best schoolyard environments in both New York and Philadelphia. I mention all this not as a means to glorify an athletic background that, when put into its proper perspective, is far from noteworthy in a global sense, but more as a way of having the reader understand that the upcoming remarks are not those of some condescending academic-intellectual looking at the world of sport from outside its borders.
Perhaps because of a tall, spindly body not generally conducive to football, but probably more the result of a middle class upbringing lacking the more ferocious elements germane to being a good football player, I never played this sport on a serious level. But, as a genuine American “jock”, I’ve followed it and know football. Anyone interested in verifying that fact can go read the essay “Super Bowl XLIII”.
It is ironic that a genuine American “jock” has begun to lose his passion for the sport of football at a time when it has conquered American culture like perhaps nothing else ever has. What I’ve come to dislike about it is the spirit with which it is played. As mentioned in the essay “The Super Bowl Revisited”, it has lost much of its nobility. Although I do not object to a governed form of physical aggression, the football format has evolved into a reckless, ruthless exercise with virtually no empathy for anything beyond the 10 men on your side. Its attitude has become an almost pre-historic exercise in hunting where everyone becomes prey and predator at the same time, as if we were playing this sport at a time when more organized, sedentary human life had not yet come into being. Football has become a Darwinian quest for survival akin to what might happen on the plains of the Serengeti. Other then the refined strategy of the game, the only other exclusively human behavior left in the sport’s “modus operandi” is the way in which opposing players taunt and mock each other. The football industry is selling a lower form of homo sapien, but it sells.
This Super Bowl has found a poster boy for this kind of behavior in one Richard Sherman, a heretofore semi-anonymous cornerback on one of the Super Bowl teams. Sherman’s interview directly after the game which put his team in the Super Bowl ripped through our culture like a nearby grounded thunderbolt. It was a vicious, vindictive diatribe meant to humiliate a named opponent, as well as a declaration describing himself as the greatest football player since the inception of the forward pass — or so it sounded. Compounding the obnoxious quality of its message was the shrill, screeching, lunatic way in which it was delivered, a presentation that could even draw Sherman’s sanity into question.
Whatever happened to the modesty we so admired in our heroes? Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?
Sherman offended — and rightly so — a good part of America with his tasteless outburst. And yet, for the 2 weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, I had to listen to an endless medley of rationalizations, excuses and justifications for his behavior from not only the most important elements of our sporting punditry, but from socio-political commentators of all kinds. Most disheartening for me was to see how the progressive segment of our journalistic community, the segment I most identify with, was the most vociferous in defending Richard Sherman.
One learning that Richard Sherman is a cornerback in the NFL also knows, without ever seeing, hearing or knowing of him before, that he is also a black man. The liberals who came so stridently to his defense played what the conservatives like to refer to as the “race card”. His left leaning defenders claimed he was being persecuted unfairly by those who just can’t accept a successful, self confident, brash black man. They claimed the word “thug”, used by so many of Sherman’s critics, was just a code word for the “n” word.
There are 2 black men I find relevant in this discussion: Barak Obama and Muhammad Ali.
Let’s start with Obama. It would be naïve to not believe that much of the personality critical of this historic president has been shaped by his genetic make up. The nature of this criticism has taken on a tone and modulation different from what political opposition has been before in our nation. To suggest that Barak Obama being the country’s first man of color to be our Commander in Chief has had no bearing on the quality of the behavior of many who oppose him, is to deny reality itself. There is a “race card” to be played here and those of us of good will should not let such retro thinking go unchallenged.
But Richard Sherman plays in the NFL. The product in the NFL is an overwhelmingly black product. We are used to black men in this venue. We accept it and glorify success here regardless of its color. Like a stubborn weed in an otherwise beautiful lawn, there is a racist element that will always exist, but the vast majority of us who were offended by Sherman’s outburst were offended as human beings, not racists. The progressive pundits that brought race into this equation have crossed a border into knee jerk behavior they should have given more thought to.
Ali enters this story for the following reason: it is not unreasonable to suggest he was the originator of this kind of behavior. But he differs from the Richard Shermans of the world in 2 fundamental ways. 1) Ali delivered his rants with a kind of “panache” that was almost disarming. We heard him, we listened, he had his effect, but we were not, regardless of how we viewed him, deeply disturbed or disgusted by him. He was not some kind of boogeyman we cringed from or feared. But even more importantly, 2) whatever it was Ali was trying to do had parameters far beyond his persona. I’m not sure how he actually saw or described himself, but, in essence, he has to be considered an activist and a civil rights icon. He had a cause to fight for and he did it in a way that was as necessary and relevant as what people like Martin Luther King did. Much more than a boxer, Muhammad Ali is an important figure in history.
Try putting people like Richard Sherman, or buffoons like Terrell Owens, whose performances serve no purpose beyond their own self aggrandizement, in that kind of league.
With the publicity Sherman reaped from this incident, we’ve gotten to know him better. One thing we’ve all learned is that he is not a “thug”. Quite the contrary, he is an articulate, intelligent, impressive young man. And that seems to be a further indictment of the NFL and the sport it represents. It has created an environment where even intelligent young men like Richard Sherman are turned into boorish ogres while under its influence. It has created a subculture that promotes our lower instincts more than our noble ones.
If I had the opportunity to talk this over with some of the progressive commentators who came to Sherman’s defense (and one of my absolute favorite political pundits led the charge in defending Sherman), I’d ask them this: if you had been plopped in front of your TV with your 10 year old son watching Sherman’s infamous tirade (or daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, cat, dog or house plant), is that the kind of behavior you’d want him to emulate? Is that how you’d want him to relate to his opponents? Is that how you’d want his opponents to relate to him? Is that how you’d like him to relate to the world in general? Is that the kind of world you want him or anyone else to live in, a world where we simply compete and squash each other without compassion?
And that is why I don’t like football anymore. If something as powerful as this is not setting a healthy example, it can be dangerous.
I quote from the essay “The Super Bowl Revisited”: “The NFL is Iraq; Iraq is the NFL”.
I began writing essays in the early 90’s, the collection “Because You Never Asked” being a fractional but representative cross section of an output that is still in progress today. I restrict their content to anything that may be relevant since the dawn of time to the end of eternity. They’ve given me a kind of therapeutical way to voice my objections to the paradigm of our culture and the negativity it is leading us into. All cultures attempt to inculcate their constituents into someone’s narrow minded, self serving version of reality and this book is an attempt to translate these subterfuges into the truth. Although a number of my earliest essays are included in this collection, the vast majority of them are more contemporary. Regardless of their chronology, they should all still be pertinent to whatever is happening at this moment.
To order you copy of “Because You Never Asked” by Jerome Grapel click here.