Bryan Joiner

Why then I

Category: Football

Chuck Klosterman hawks snake oil

In his recent essay on football, Chuck Klosterman writes:

So here’s a low-grade thought experiment: Try to think of something that is (or was) highly controversial and increasingly popular at the exact same time. It won’t be difficult. Here’s an abbreviated list: the rise of Howard Stern, the Beastie Boys in 1986, 2 Live Crew in 1989, Herman Cain last October, Basic Instinct, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Andrew Dice Clay, salvia, Scientology, Dennis Rodman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Answer Me!, gay marriage, the Sex Pistols, and laying in the middle of the freeway because you got loaded and watched The Program.

With the possible exception of salvia, what all of these have in common is that these things are not, in and of themselves, dangerous. Or rather, The Program is not dangerous, but lying in the middle of the road because of it is as needlessly dumb as, say, watching CNN for fun.

Klosterman’s trying to draw a connection between the “controversy” surrounding football and its popularity, but that straw man never had life. There is no controversy about football right now. A few vocal people are upset that older players are dying and are just starting to raise their voices. They are, in fact, the complete opposites to the “controversies” above, each of which was manufactured. If you don’t think football’s critics have a leg to stand on, you’d better think they can levitate.

The fact is that no critical mass really cares about concussions, a tragic point Klosterman could have made well enough. Instead, he argues that the argument is at a fever pitch at which it will remain, in mutual orbit with this “controversy,” ad infinitum. This is not the same as saying football will always be violent. It will. If he had said that, he would have been bland but correct, the broken clock at the moment of magic.

Football will change. It will change on its own accord, not despite itself. Klosterman presupposes that the NFL/NFL Jr. would never voluntarily make changes, but they will, because they are in the business of making money and dead people equals bad business. Helmets will get better and brain trauma will be treated better and years from now we’ll look back at the game today as barbaric as we look at the game of the 1970’s. The process will repeat itself. That’s what he’s trying to say, I think, but he could have done all of us a favor by saying it.

Oh, and: “Imagine two vertical, parallel lines accelerating skyward — that’s what football is like now.” He actually wrote that. As far as analogies go, this is the singular one that has been stamp of the fourth-rate snake-oil salesman for more than a decade. Watch your wallet.

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Junior Seau is dead. Long live the NFL.

We don’t know why Junior Seau killed himself. If we were to guess, we’d almost all guess that it had something to do with head injuries he sustained in the NFL. Sadly, those wishing to make the argument hardly need Seau’s sad case to blast the NFL on head injures. There are Dave Duerson, Ted Johnson, and many, many others. Yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates described his own conflicted feelings on the problem of being a football fan: “I now know that I have to go. I have known it for a while now. But I have yet to walk away. For me, the hardest portion is living apart–destroying something that binds me to friends and family. With people whom I would not pass another words, I can debate the greatest running back of all time. It’s like losing a language.” After hearing Chris Berman spin the news in a potentially pro-NFL way, he proclaimed, “I’m out.”

I’ve made that claim before, and I’ve refused to follow it. I suspect Coates will too. The pull of the NFL is always stronger than the pull against it once the games start, and the justifications follow quite smoothly. I didn’t stop reading fiction because David Foster Wallace killed himself, and you could make an argument that being an artist requires exploring often dangerous spaces in your own mind. There are other non-pertinent examples that will seem perfectly reasonable the second Peyton Manning is playing Aaron Rodgers or JPP is facing Tom Brady (again). If Coates is able to follow through on his claim, I will be proud, and I will be listening. The NFL needs born-again humanists leading the charge against it if it’s ever going to change.

Part of my ambivalence, which may be irresponsible, is my feeling that the NFL will have to change, eventually. The unsustainability of the current system is put on display with every tragedy like Seau’s. There are many people like me, I suspect, who want to enjoy the NFL as-is because the NFL as-is is damn near perfect television. Nevermind that it’s a terrible game to watch in-person, and the pulsing joy of the tailgate is easily and often mitigated by the lower-than-lowest common denominator side effects of a group of drunken fans of violence cooking delicious dead animals. On TV, the NFL is so unstoppably great that a game between its two worst teams is glorious and preferable to going outside, into a world without television. There’s some beauty in that, and there’s so much strategy in the game that even Bill Belichick gets rightly called out for shitty drafts by armchair bozos. There’s so much to get right, and so many chances to get things wrong, that any even moderate level of success in the game is cause for celebration. If you lined up a one-time 1,000-yard rusher with a baseball player with 300 career home runs, I bet you’d have far more questions for the running back. I know I would.

If the NFL is going to survive in its current state, it’s going to need to shuffle players out of the league faster than it currently does. The problem is that being a football player is a life-consuming endeavor, meaning that the players to whom this would apply need to maximize their playing time to earn a lifetime’s worth of wages. That’s the ballgame. Roger Goodell has overseen an incredible run of success, even by the NFL’s standards, especially when it comes to Super Bowls, which have been almost uniformly great since he took over. If he can figure out how to save the league from itself, it will blow away any other successes. The solutions that come to mind will all probably be implemented in some way: Stricter concussion testing and prohibitions, maximum age limits, increased health benefits, better public outreach. All of these things are going to happen. It’s just a matter of when they do.

I want to be on the front lines of this fight, and to make it happen quicker. But for me the NFL is still about me, and not about them. That’s cowardly, but it’s true. I’d be willing to pay more for the NFL to underwrite better treatment of players, and the endgame is that’s probably what’s going to happen. Why shouldn’t it be the billionaire owners of teams? It should be, but it won’t be, at least not exclusively. We know that, because it never is. It will fall on the fans to foot the bill for what we have wrought, and we will pay it. It’s an addiction, and if you don’t believe that just jacking the prices will work, see Bloomberg vs. New York City on the issue of cigarettes. The difference is that there’s no outlet from which to pilfer cheap NFL like there is smokes. You can’t outsource the Patriots. The injury issue aside, the NFL is an extremely progressive game, as Chuck Klosterman correctly argued a few years ago, and is 100 percent Made in America. The NFL flips this on its head by effectively advertising that it is America, and on the concussion issue it could hardly bear a stronger resemblance to the military with respect to injured soldiers. The main difference is that one political party wants to strip the government of basically all revenue to do anything to help anyone, including injured soldiers, while everyone is willing to pay more for the NFL, even if they don’t know it yet. In the end, it will be about money. It always is, always was, and always will be. The language of Tony Dorsett of which Coates speaks was always backed by the dollar, and it will continue to be, and he and I and everyone else will likely pay to keep the language alive. It’s the beauty of sports and life, and the horror of them, that we’ll be able to live with these contradictions, and that we’ve been able to do so for so long.

BREAKING: Patriots Sued by Switzerland

“F[***] neutrality,” Switzerland’s ambassador to the United Nations, Manuel Sager, tells me over the phone in more or less crystal-clear English, which I find amazing given the lather into which he’s worked himself. The mother tongue tends to return, for everyone, in moments of blind rage, but Sager sounds like he’s lived in Los Angeles (where he lives) for his whole life. He also sounds like he’s been up for hours, but it’s 8 a.m. on the East Coast and, well, do the math.

He has certainly done the math, and the math says this: Heath Miller had 97 receptions in a single half against the New England Patriots yesterday, Ben Roethlisberger 241 completions, and the Steelers put up an unprecedented 163 points against a New England team that just nine months ago was two home games away from the Super Bowl. In those nine months, the seven billionth person on Earth was conceived and born, and it’s a legitimate question to ask if the Patriots will have a pass rush before the eight billionth shows up in the form of Rob Gronkowski II.

But that question goes on the back-burner while the Patriots’s legal team—aided by that of the NFL—deal with the unprecedented litigious action of a sovereign nation against a sports franchise. Sources say employees in the Patriots’s front offices were walking around in a such stupor Monday morning that they didn’t notice Antonio Brown regularly whizzing past them on donut runs.

Their remorse won’t satisfy Sager. If the Pats’s D is more porous than Swiss Cheese, is a renaming in order? New England Patriots’s Defense cheese doesn’t sound appetizing, but it could stand to net the franchise millions of dollars in licensing fees, and Deadspin is reporting that someone with an IP address in Foxboro trademarked patriotscheese.com two weeks ago. A spokesperson for Owner Robert Kraft denied the report after it was picked up by Foxsports.com, but Sager isn’t taking any chances. An independent estimate shows that cutting the “Swiss” out of “Swiss Cheese” could put a big enough hit on the Swiss economy that it would be forced to apply for entry into the floundering European Union.

“That is NOT an option!” Sager yells, and there’s little doubt that anyone else in his house is awake at this point. “What we have here is a travesty of American, international and culinary justice.”

Anthony Bourdain, reached for comment, asked a reporter pointedly if he or she was working for The Onion and if they knew anything about the hours of the restaurant business, and what time they were calling, and the appropriateness thereof, after which point the connection went dead. A return call from what appeared to be Bourdain’s number asked a reporter to perform an unprintable act with a specific bakery item prominently featured in a digital short of a popular late weekend night variety show a few years back, at which point the line went dead.

Greg Aiello, a spokesperson for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, had no comment on the pending litigation, but told reporter via email that there was “no way those Krauts [sic] can win this lawsuit” and that the comment was “of the record.”

More on this story as details emerge.

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(Sports) Myopia

I just finished a game of Scrabble in which I was handed every opportunity to win, and I did. My opponent tends to take losses pretty hard even when he shouldn’t, and there’s no question he thoroughly outplayed me. I got three “bingos” for 150 bonus points, owing to outrageously good tile fortune, and he got only one, for 50. I won by 12. While planning for and around the bingos is certainly part of the game, the higher your score without them, the better lemonade you’ve made. I was going to write him and tell him this, but I know he doesn’t want to hear it—he just wants to win, and would take it as gloating on my part, not because it would be per se but because we’ve been over this enough to understand how he would feel about it.

I have my own blind spots. Yesterday my flag football team lost to the #1 team in the league in an exceptionally close game. We were ranked fourteenth coming in, and as recently as two weeks ago lost 38-0 in our second game. After that, though, something clicked, and we won last week. This week, we held our own and fell apart but most of the team was happy with the result. The one person who wasn’t was me, and no one could figure it out, because I had played at least (objectively) a decent game as quarterback. The only problem was I threw two interceptions on our “girl plays”—the mandatory once-per-four-down plays that must go to a female—when I vowed not to throw picks at the outset. One teammate couldn’t figure out why I was so down about it until he mentioned it to the quarterback of another team at the postgame bar roundup. “You don’t understand,” he said. “You NEVER forget interceptions.” And at that point my teammate knew that there was nothing he could say to me to make me forget them, even if it wasn’t the end of the world. It’s just one of those things.

If I felt bad yesterday, I can’t imagine what Peyton Manning is going to feel like for the next 50 years.

Football and Torture

There have been two relatively high-profile rule changes in the NFL this year. The first rule is that there are no more “incidental” facemask grapping penalties, which used to be 5 yards; all facemask penalites are now 15-yard personal fouls. The second rule is that a player can no longer be judged to have been “forced out” of bounds when trying to get his feet in the playing field while making a catch. The refs could previously judge whether or not the player “would have” gotten his feet down if he is knocked out of bounds while in air, but the NFL removed that rule this year. The rules changes have one thing in common: it takes a subjective judgment out of the refs’ hands. The goal of the rules is to reduce the number of qualitative judgments that are necessary on the field in favor of the number of quantitative judgments. It is a good system.

I have been thinking about the NFL and its constant rules-tinkering as I’ve been reading about America’s torture laws, and how John Yoo and others won’t be face penalties for writing briefs that permitted the U.S. to torture people while George W. Bush was in office. While a panel found that Yoo used “poor judgment” in creating his briefs, it found that he did not act outside of the purview of the law; he had not, then, extended executive power beyond its actual borders. This is a load of horseshit, the equivalent of ignoring what was once a five-yard facemask penalty on Yoo and excusing the harsher penalty because the intent was not believed to be bad enough. There is no room for question of intent here. It is illegal to torture. A law was broken, and the penalty must be paid, the same way NFL coaches do not get to unilaterally decree that certain rules do not apply to them. When rules are broken, people must be held accountable, otherwise the rules were not really broken.

I am flabbergasted that a judgment of “poor judgment” itself can even be rendered here. While our President strives to overturn the binary nature of our politics, this is a situation where it actually exists for our own good. What has happened here is an epic failure of our legal system, and should shake our nation to its core.

“Pass the f*cking thing”

I don’t have a lot of time today, but I’m with Nate as cited above and Matt Yglesias indicates that it’s one step closer to happening. Of course if Evan Bayh digs his heels in and tries to convince enough centrist Senators to oppose reconciliation that would scuttle the plan, and it wouldn’t even be the first time than Indiana zapped dark-blue America this week.

Bill Simmons, Heel

Bill Simmons has always been something of a heel to non-Boston Sports fans, a category I don’t belong to. They often tire of his Boston-themed columns, and if they don’t, they often scrape away enough of the good feelings that a misplayed pop culture reference finally breaks them. It’s understandable, but it never affected me. I enjoyed reading Simmons, and even as I type this, I’m enjoying his book, the absolute litany of copy editing errors contained therein aside.

But in two short weeks, Simmons has lost at least one 10-year reader and listener in the day-to-day, at least for the day-to-day. I’m sure I’ll come back some day, and it might even feel like it’s the same as it used to be, at times. It won’t be. It never is.

As regular readers of this blog know, it all started with his intellectually dishonest column about Bill Belichick’s 4th-and-2 decision; it’s not that he hated the decision that bothered me, but that he spoke so disingenuously out of both sides of his mouth. He argued that he did not take issue with the statistics showing that it was the technically correct choice to go for it, then took issue with the numbers. He argued that numbers don’t always apply to football situations, then created his own numbers, as if from thin air, and applied them to the situation. It was an argument built like an inverted house of cards—he undermined his own argument so quickly that the rest was all smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that there was no “there” there, so to speak.

That alone would have been one thing, but he preceded these arguments by engaging in a podcast whereupon he somehow argued simultaneously—as many do—that Belichick was both “arrogant” and “didn’t have confidence in his defense,” and, like many others, didn’t even attempt to reconcile the contradiction. He also repeated a theory, hatched earlier, that since Belichick is 57 years old, he is likely “losing it” and that this is the first sign of said senility, lack of energy, whatever. I wouldn’t have a problem with this argument individually, even if I don’t agree with it, but piled on top of everything else he’s written it infuriates me. On top of that, it violates his own anti-statistical code. He’s busy scouring the history books and saying that 55 is the last good year for a coach… well, if that’s true, shouldn’t the Pats be looking for a younger coach? If that’s what Simmons is arguing, he should just come out and say it. If he thought people were angry about 4th-and-2, I’d love to see the reaction to that one. It’s the smart thing to do!, he’d probably say, make a pre-emptive strike based on the numbers!

That would, for obvious reasons, make me laugh.

That’s all, and was, water under the bridge until I saw one of his tweets today, which called the Pats “dead.” Take a look at their schedule and tell me what you see. I see 12-4. You know what the Pats’ record was when they won their first Super Bowl? 11-5. You remember who they played? A clone of the Saints from this year, or the Pats from 2007. There are details of which I’m obviously aware that could mitigate this: the 12-4 Pats wouldn’t likely have a bye and the Saints looked fairly unstoppble the other night. But to declare the Patriots “dead” is something in the spirit of Simmons’ supposed arch-enemy, Dan Shaughnessy. Yes, the Pats don’t look like the best team now, but if 2007 taught us anything, it’s that you only have to look like the best team on the last day of the season for it to mean anything. Do I believe then can, even if I don’t believe they will? Yes.

That’s what it comes down to: hope. If you hope your team does well, and you see one of its biggest cheerleaders raining on your parade, it’s time to disengage. If Bill Simmons can’t enjoy first place, and yet another awesome season, maybe he needs to re-read some of his columns from 1999 and 2000 to show how far we’ve really come. Will it help him get back to a positive mindset? Maybe, for a little bit, but never completely. Like my love affair with his columns, that part of him is probably gone forever.

About last night…

Last night’s Patriots/Saints liveblog will have to serve as your post this morning, at least for now. Click through to see what two things I said “mesh like two mismatched images overlaid on vibrating overhead projector.”

Pats/Saints Liveblog

Why not?

10:57 AS MANNY WOULD SAY, TURN THE PAGE Pats starting a drive down 14 at the start of the fourth quarter. I daresay this is it, or something trending heavily toward it. I believe we used to call this Brady Time. Or maybe that was must me, or maybe no one said it. But it certainly felt like we were gonna score. Today? Maybe not so much, but a touchdown drive would be huge. After missing Sam Aiken for a bomb on the first play, the next two plays go nowhere, and the Saints easily move the ball for a touchdown to put the game out of reach with 7:49 left. It’s Brees’ fifth touchdown, and to the Pats’ credit, they weren’t out of it until it struck. But it did strike. I would have expected absolutely anything in this game, so I’m not surprised, and I still think the Pats can win the Super Bowl. Can they beat the Saints if they play again? I have no idea how they would, but if they got that far I’m sure they could find a way. Right now it doesn’t look possible, but it’s just one night. The next five teams are the Dolphins, Bills, Panthers, Jags and Texans. We’ll talk about other teams in January. Let’s see what we do with these five.

10:40 I AM NOT IGNORING THE GAME I have largely avoided saying anything, but the Saints are absolutely humming on offense. They scored in no time whatsoever after the Pats touchdown. The Patriots’s secondary is suspect, but Brees is making them look worse than Manning did. Dude just distributes the ball and keeps coming at you. Now, thanks to Sam Aiken, Brady just converted another third down. Whatever the result of this game, this Patriots team looks and feels much more like the 2003-04 bunch than the 2007 crew did. Those teams won with third down conversations, turnovers and breaks. If it’s true that you “make your own luck,” that team had it, and this team seems to have a knack for the opposite. When the 2007 Pats showed up to face the Bills, they got extremely lucky and won; now the old-school team can’t quite get a break on the road, though Ravens fans might disagree. It is unclear if this game is coming down to breaks or execution, but we’re probably a wash on the first and behind in the second. There’s still time, but if the Saints get the ball without the Patriots scoring it could get late out pretty early here, and stay late out very late in New Orleans.

10:22 THERE’S THE MADDENING PART On the flip side of halftime, Laurence Maroney fumbles on the first play because he bowled someone over to get an extra yard. I mean, the Patriots lost to Colts game because he fumbled on a 1-yard run that would have been backbreaking to the Colts, and no one cared. No one in the national media, that is. Sammy Morris replaced him the backfield, and I expect that might last for a while. Morris favors the unspectacular philosophy of “run forward, avoid defenders, and hold onto the ball” that tends to serve Patriots backs fairly well. Maroney may be a good or even great running back, but his style and that of the Patriots’ mesh like two mismatched images overlaid on vibrating overhead projector. Meanwhile, the Pats recovered a subsequent fumble on the same play—with Maroney the strip—and continue to drive, earning a 1st and goal after some nifty Brady footwork kept him alive long enough to find Moss on a 40-something yard catch. It was a broken play, and the Patriots seem to be up against the wall right up until they execute. The Saints are relentless, but Maroney just popped it in from three yards out. That’ll happen.

9:45: WHOA Laurence Maroney just got knocked well out of bounds while he was running full speed, fell down, and scrambled back to his feet like he was still running. He hit his head pretty hard on the play; did he think he was still in bounds? All the evidence says no, because he smiled and walked back to the huddle, jawing with the Saints. But isn’t the problem that concussions are so prevalent that even stopping the completely obvious ones doesn’t prevent many of the problems? It’s either that or Maroney is so jacked up to play that he literally couldn’t stop his legs, which is kind of awesome. Maroney is just a bizarre player. I’ve never seen anyone so unafraid of contact be afraid of the line. It’s like getting to the line is one problem, deciding where to go is another one (hence his legendary happy feet), but going there is not a problem—except maybe for you. He’s absolutely punishing tonight, and he’s seeming to get stronger every game. After all the hype about what he could be, he’s turned into a fascinating, occasionally maddening player who ages like a decent bottle of wine: still fairly good, but slightly different from year to year and a better complementary piece than a show-stopper. But there is time yet. The Patriots have less time. Brady just missed Watson on a 3rd-and-10 and the Pats don’t score going into halftime, and are trailing 24-10.

9:09 IT WOULD BE HARD FOR ME TO PROPERLY REGISTER MY DISGUST WITH THAT BRADY INTERCEPTION So let me get this straight: we stop the Saints around midfield, return a punt to their 40, and on the first play Brady throws across the middle, on the run? That is a baaaaaaaaad decision. On the bright side, I can buy a phone that “trades hairdo for can-do” and is has a name that is licensed to Google by George Lucas. While trying to figure out how to follow this up, the Saints had another 4th-and-1 inside the 20 and went for it, and got it. Good job. They had done something cool with the aforementioned punt, lining up in a standard formation on 4th-and-4 near the 50, then rotating everyone to the punt formation. The idea, I’m guessing, was to keep the Patriots’ punt team off the field, but a) If the Saints didn’t take 4th-and-1 earlier, why would they go crazy with 4th-and 4? and b) Their punt team allowed a 60-yard return, so maybe the moving around messed their concentration. Still, I like the call, and the decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 again. That the decision worked and the punt one decision doesn’t make wrong and one right.

I can’t think of anything to follow that up, so we’re on to the next one

8:51 OBSERVATIONS PRIOR TO NOW THAT PROMPTED THIS: a) The Saints should have gone for it on 4th and 1 on their first drive, and b) Smart play by Darren Sharper to dive for Maroney’s legs while running beside him; shows that he knows Maroney’s signature move is the stiff-arm and was able to recall it so quickly. Also, Maroney did it once prior to that on the drive. And also, Sharper did it five plays later, only this time he was coming right at Randy Moss, and could have easily sent his kneecap into the stands. Geez. The Saints are pretty much hitting the #### out of the Patriots… who are still driving. They are amped up. I didn’t buy the “Superdome Craziness” argument they were pitching before the game, but seeing as this is the biggest game in their history, I think it was just a difficulty to adjust, on my part. The Saints’ D has the energy, but even on offense, the Patriots are hitting back. Kevin Faulk just ran down the sidelines for 15 yards and instead of going out of bounds, he ran smack into the man in front of him. Then Laurence Maroney bounced off three people on a 2nd and four. Yesterday was billed as the old school, phsyical matchup, but this game is far harder hitting so far. And now the Patriots have 4th and 1 inside the 10. And they’re going for it. Gotta love that symmetry.

Football Picks

Every week I submit football picks for a mixed college/NFL poll on Cleveland Frowns. It is, for various reasons, called the Cheddar Bay Reality Football Extravaganza (alternately, Invitational). I make six picks per week, one of which is worth three points, and at least one of which has to be chosen in each league (NCAA/NFL). It occurred to me I could reproduce them here at absolutely zero cost to anybody.

TCU -44.5 vs. New Mexico* (3-point pick)

I don’t read all that much about college football, but I read somewhere this year that New Mexico may be the “worst team in college football.” They’re playing at the number four ranked team in the last week before conference championship games start? I would take any line on this game. To me, 44.5 is a gift.
Saints -1.5 vs. Patriots

I discussed the line with a friend before it came out, and I settled on opening at 3, dropping to 2.5. It opened at 3 but briefly went up, which could be a case of the wiseguys hitting it. It’s now down to 1.5, which means the public is bringing Patriots money. I honestly think the Patriots are going to win the game, but based on the numbers alone, the smart play is the Saints here.

Vikings -11 vs. Bears

Have you noticed the Vikings tend to cover at home? And on the road?

Navy -9.5 at Hawaii

So let me get this straight. Navy travels 5,000 miles and six time zones and they’re still giving 9.5 points? I’m going with the “They’ve gotta be freaking good” angle rather than “Wow, that’s a lot of points” angle.

Notre Dame +10 at Stanford

DO IT FAH CHAAAAHLIE

Flordida St. +25 at Florida

I’m really feeling a 24 point game here.