Robert Lipsyte, The Empire Bowl is Super!

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers:  If you live in the vicinity of Santa Fe, I’ll be in your neighborhood this week. I’m appearing on stage at a Lannan Foundation-sponsored series of readings and conversations at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, February 2nd at 7pm.  I’ll read and then converse with Jeremy Scahill, author of the groundbreaking book Blackwater.  Check the event out by clicking here.  To order tickets, click here or call (505) 988-1234.  Tom

My father took me to Ebbets Field for my first football game — in the snow — in perhaps 1950.  The Brooklyn Brooks of the old American Football League were playing some team I no longer remember.  In fact, I have only the haziest memory of that moment.  Still, I was hooked.  The Brooks weren’t long for this planet, but football’s New York Giants and baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers pretty much sum up my childhood fantasy world.  (My Dad came from Brooklyn, I lived in Manhattan, and in the 1950s, sports still had a neighborhood quality to it, which is undoubtedly why, to this day, events like the Super Bowl have no meaning to me once New York teams are no longer involved.)

Of course, between the 1950s and today, between the Brooklyn Brooks and the New York Jets, an awful lot has changed, especially the nature of spectatorship itself and the “menu” available.  Sunday afternoon football, Sunday night football, Monday night football, Thursday night football in a preseason, season, and post-season that stretches from the dog days of summer to deepest winter, from one year to the next.  That’s the juggernaut of professional football today — and that, of course, is just the beginning of modern spectatorship.

It’s hardly news that we’ve become a spectator society.  At home, on the street, in a restaurant, in a meeting — no matter where, in fact — we can hardly bear to stop looking at one screen or another.  Never has the idea of “bread and circuses” (or perhaps “ads and circuses”) been so all-encompassing.  After all, what were the ten days of the Tucson massacre and its aftermath but a spectator event on a gargantuan scale, something that came perilously close to entertainment while masquerading piously as “national grieving”?  It’s hard even to grasp what spectatorship means when it can command our attention, our lives, 24/7 and still be called “the news.”  Consider it less than an irony that media outfits, discovering an event that will glue us to the screen for days, pour resources into it and refer to that act using the football term “flooding the zone.” 

Why, then, should we be surprised that the latest, sexiest American wonder weapon is a plane that can be “piloted” from thousands of miles away, turning even war-fighters into spectators with video screens and joy sticks?  Consider, then, the nature of that ultimate American spectacle, the Super Bowl, as seen through the eyes of TomDispatch Jock Culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, whose memoir An Accidental Sportswriter will be heading our way in May.  (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom 

You Must Watch the Empire Bowl 

If you are still passionately following football or, worse, allowing your kid to play, you may just be an old-fashioned imperialist running dog. Not that all football fans are bloodthirsty hounds feeding off the crippled hindquarters of the dying animal of empire. Some are in a vain search for a crucible of manhood that no longer exists. Others are in pursuit of a ticket out of a dead-end life.

Whatever your reason, this is the Super Bowl to watch, even if you are among those who have made an effort to disregard the game since high school jocks shouldered you in the halls.

This is the Big One. Maybe the Last Big One. Never before have so many loose strands of an unraveling empire come together in a single event accessible to those who mourn or cheer America.

Let’s start with the conceit that this game is the only super thing we have left. Super power, super economy, super you-name-it… gone. You can beat the Bushes for that, but we’re all out of super — except for the Super Bowl.  That celebration of an all-American $9 billion industry (estimated because the National Football League has never opened its books), not to mention millions more in subsidiary and dependent businesses, offers us a national holiday that has arguably superseded Thanksgiving (thanks for what?) and Christmas (electronic excess and obsolescence).

Even little Everytrader has a shot here.  Without insider connections, you undoubtedly have a far better shot at winning a football wager than gambling in the stock market.

The Big Four

Here are the four biggest reasons to watch this Super Bowl.

1. It’s Not Soccer

American exceptionalism is alive and thriving on Super Bowl Sunday. National Football League franchises are overwhelmingly owned, managed, and manned by American citizens.  Neither immigration nor foreign capital has made a perceptible dent in the game. And you and I have proudly subsidized all this. American taxpayers have built many NFL stadiums. Most American universities, with their government grants, have sports schools attached; those multi-million-dollar athletic departments (despite claims, they are rarely profitable) train the players and one of academia’s latest revenue-producing innovations — sports management departments — train the front-office personnel.

American football is barely played outside the country.  Call it a failure of colonialism (as baseball and basketball might), but it’s really a tribute to good old-fashioned protectionism. Those other major sports, even ice hockey, are increasingly being taken over by Latin American, Asian, or Eastern European guest workers. Pro football remains a native game.

The “futbol” that most of the rest of the world plays is a game that American male athletes and sports fans have never found compelling. Why? What’s not to like? The so-called “beautiful game” is exactly that, and the past several generations of American school-age girls and boys were lucky to have recreational soccer programs. But there was no room on the sports “shelf” for a game so poorly suited to commercial TV interruption and American domination.

(It’s not as if soccer is in any way effete. Its fans are famously thuggish. In fact, currently, the nationalistic Russian mobs who roam cities beating up people who do not look Slavic have taken to calling themselves “Soccer fans.”)

2. No Dogs Were Harmed in the Making of It

The controversy over allowing Michael Vick back into the select company of other NFL felons — reportedly about one-fifth of the playing population — faded after the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback showed contrition, spoke to schoolchildren, proved to be one of the most electrifying performers in the game, and then lost early in the play-offs, avoiding the embarrassment of PETA demonstrating at the Super Bowl.

At 30, Vick was clearly better than he had been before his 21-month imprisonment. He had added a previously missing work ethic and level of concentration. One wonders if the sharpening of Vick’s focus had to do with losing what might have been his primary outlet for sadism and violence: the brutal world of training fighting dogs and then killing the losers in often unspeakably cruel ways.

There is no question that violence stirs fan blood. Football players know this; they have been remarkably hostile to attempts to soften the mayhem, especially those ringing helmet-to-helmet shots, an offspring of the modern technique learned in PeeWee leagues of “putting a hat on him” (which means tackling headfirst rather than the more traditional style of wrapping one’s arms around the ball carrier’s legs and dragging him down).

Most pro football players seem to be on the side of the hats. A more careful game won’t be football anymore, they say. It won’t be the American game — even for some of the doctors watching who treat the “epidemic of concussions blazing through schoolboy football.”

3. But No Chicks

The title of Mariah Burton Nelson’s 1994 book, The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, seems ever more prescient. The so-called feminization of America (really the slow movement toward equality) is reflected in most sports, many boardrooms, and the military. Resistance is stiff, from human resources violations to rape. Conservatives keen over the suffering of the average male. It’s tough when you suddenly have to compete against an expanding talent pool that includes women who are better than you. Mr. Average Mediocre can no longer count on his members-only credential to keep him in the game. Unless, of course, the game is football.

Football is the last estrogen-free zone. No wonder high school and college teams have such bloated rosters. (College teams routinely “dress” 85 men, compared to a pro team’s 53.) This gives more boys the chance to imagine themselves in the testosterone club, even if many of them hardly ever get into a game. Later, as jock alums, they will donate to alma mater and speak reverently of how old coach taught them to be men — or at least not women.

Yes, there are girls playing in some youth and high school games, even in college, mostly as kickers. But the freakishness of it is still the story. The NFL is so relentlessly misogynistic that off-field incidents like those involving Brett Favre when he was a Jet and Super Bowl-bound Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tend to be dismissed as boys-will-be-boys antics. Unfortunately, there’s a certain logic to this: since they began playing the game, they’ve been told they can be real men, not girls, not sissies — if they submit to Coach, play hard, and play in pain. In return, their perks and entitlements will be those of conquering warriors.

4. The Faux Volunteer Army

If football really is the bread and circuses of this dying empire, the injuries suffered by the gladiators (disproportionately African-American) make the game more real, more urgent. And their willingness to take the risks absolves us from blame. After all, they volunteered. They really want to play this game, the media reminds us. These aggressive, competitive men have an intrinsic need to prove themselves to themselves, each other, and us. And where else, the media asks us, would they make so much money and find so much acclaim?

At Goldman Sachs? The Mayo Clinic? Skadden, Arps? No, no, these sturdy lads are often from the underclass and they have leveraged their skill and dedication into some college studies and a job in football. That many of these gladiators, clearly smart enough to absorb complicated game plans, feel that football is their only shot seems to be an indictment of American opportunity. What about all those high school and college football players who put all their chips in their hat and still didn’t make it to the pros?

Maybe some of them joined the National Guard.

It’s here, of course, that the entire metaphor may go offsides for you. Or at least become uncomfortable. Football — Army?  Gladiators — mercenaries? What about all the strong young men and, increasingly, women who feel that their only shot at getting an education and a meaningful life is joining the military during wartime?

The author and journalist Richard Reeves made the connection neatly when he wrote: “We have a volunteer army, the National Football League with guns, and we are the spectators.”

As spectators we rarely see the young people die in either volunteer legion. Restrictions during the Bush years on journalists filming combat deaths or even showing returning caskets kept the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at a comfortable remove until they became distant and routine. Old news. Maybe even a little boring for people without loved ones on active duty.

On NFL broadcasts, players with broken bones and torn tissues are quickly carted off lest their teammates lose heart. For those of us watching on TV, the collisions seem almost like cartoon hits. How can those players just pop back up? Is it the pride, the adrenaline, that allows them to pretend they are made of steel? Of course, the real damage, the dementia brought on by head trauma, is years, even decades, away.

It’s hard to believe how recently the concussion discussion began in earnest, as if players hadn’t been hit in the head for more than a century. It was launched several years ago by the revelation that former pro football players were being diagnosed with dementia, and even dying from suspected long-term brain trauma, at disproportionate rates for their age.  It was helped along by a number of workers’ compensation cases and the superb reporting of Alan Schwarz of the New York Times.

The concussion discussion has replaced steroids as the NFL health topic, although the issues are joined: larger players seem to be at greater risk for early death, and bulking up via steroids probably contributes to harder hits. The discussion has also raised the question of whether parents should allow their children to play the game — years of small, unreported traumas to the head can’t be good for developing brains. It even occasioned a rare but telling ESPN column on abolition.

Lest you consider this enough piling on the all-American game, labor troubles loom with a lock-out possible in March. Because the main issue is money — the teams want to share less revenue (currently 60%) with the players — the media tends to characterize the conflict as “billionaires versus millionaires.”  Actually, most owners are rich from other businesses and would not have been allowed into the NFL unless they were financially secure, while few players survive more than about three years in the league. The owners also want to increase production (adding two games to the regular season) without taking more responsibility for health-care costs.

If any of this sounds depressingly like real life, how could you not watch what might be the last Super Bowl, the endgame of empire, the two-minute warning before America finally beats itself?

Robert Lipsyte, the Jock Culture correspondent for, is author of a forthcoming memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter (May, Ecco-HarperCollins).  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Robert Lipsyte