Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz, “Throw It Up”
One summer when I was about 10 and staying with my grandparents in Selkirk, Manitoba, I had an experience so out-of-character that it stands out in memory with a weird luminosity. It began from the basement shelves full of books my dad or my aunt had read as kids in the 1950s. I don’t recall the title or author, but it was about a teenaged football player in some American town and followed him through the ups and downs of his high-school and college career.
I was riveted by the descriptions of the games, especially the colour from the commentators’ booth, and read obsessively that afternoon and into the evening, struggling to put it down when my Nana called me for dinner.
What I normally read back then was science fiction. Gobs of it shoveled into my maw, at about a book a day. And none of the creatures I found there were as alien to me as football was. And remains: If I accidentally watch a play or two, usually I don’t even figure out who has the ball before all the robot hulks collapse into heaps, a whistle blows, and something else incomprehensible begins.
So what was it that mesmerized me that summer afternoon? I think it must have been the David Lynch-like ambience of hyper-normality, of middle-American life so aggressively self-contained that it burns with a kind of manic fire, to which I was drawn like a dumb and hapless moth.
I am not averse to all sports stories. I’ve seen plenty of baseball and boxing movies, and even some about hockey. I draw another line at golf, which is as dull as football is scary.
Yet that tween gridiron idyll never recurred. This weekend, as Americans and America-fans set the feasting tables of six-packs and chips and, who knows, organic artisanal dips for the Super Bowl XLVIII between Denver and Seattle—which takes place for some reason in New Jersey—my only interest as usual is who is playing the half-time show (Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and whether they’ll give anyone the finger like M.I.A. or pop out of their clothes like Janet Jackson.
In fact, I instinctively avoid entertainments if I am informed they have something to do with football. And sure, this has spared me from seeing The Blind Side, but it also has made me skip Friday Night Lights, which the whole universe will tell you is a great TV show that will make you cry, and I probably enjoy crying even more than I dislike football, so I am missing out. (The same famously goes for the climax of Rudy.) After two episodes I also had to tap out of The League, a series with a cast made up almost entirely of actors and comedians I like, because the activity that draws the characters together is fantasy football.
I am not averse to all sports stories. I’ve seen plenty of baseball and boxing movies, and even some about hockey (the Canadian film Goon is worthy, and of course Slap Shot). I draw another line at golf, which is as dull as football is scary, though Pat and Mike gets the automatic Hepburn-Tracy pass. Yet with football, I haven’t even brought myself to see the Marx Brothers’ college-ball comedy Horse Feathers.
My friend Jacob, who, as a writer, theatre director and live radio-variety show producer, is every bit the hetero artfag that I am, is nonetheless a devotee of the Chicago Bears and a fantasy-football fanatic. He believes that this restores balance to his boho-pinko soul, and will even argue that as a community binder and (due to the NFL’s unusual ownership and fee structure) mass socialist activity, football offers at least allegorical lessons.
I retort that he’s just nostalgic for his childhood, when he got into football out of haphazard ignorance. But if I take a deep breath I have to admit he’s right. Allegory, after all, is the secret engine of sports—the overcoming of death with feats of physical exertion, the camaraderie of the team, the comfortingly linear narrative of victory and defeat, the local and tribal allegiances, and the dazzling mental survival calculus of strategy.
But I resist finding that drama in football. I’ve classified it as the national pastime of bullies, a cesspool of drunken brawls and date rape, which (while not without foundation: see Steubenville, Vanderbilt, Richie Incognito) of course is still an immature defensive stereotype, as becomes obvious the second I run through a list of the football watchers I know. (As long as I leave out Rob Ford.)
There are other barriers to making good art about football. As director Ron Shelton, who’d made movies about baseball, basketball, and golf (Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, Tin Cup), told the New York Times in 1998, “I like to see the characters I’m writing about. … In football, they are so buried in cages and gladiator wear that I have nothing to identify with. It’s corporations and systems against corporations and systems.”
The article also quotes George Plimpton (who wrote his own football book in 1966, Paper Lion): “The smaller the ball, the better the literature.” Yet a football is smaller than a soccer ball, and there’s plenty of great European art about non-American football. Ultimately, the problems are less practical than associational: that football—with its militarism, patriotism, and corporatism—is perceived as the societal opposing team by us artsy types. No wonder the most famous football player in literature is likely Tom Buchanan of The Great Gatsby, that attractive but unsympathetic brute.
Allegory, after all, is the secret engine of sports—the overcoming of death with feats of physical exertion, the camaraderie of the team, the comfortingly linear narrative of victory and defeat, the local and tribal allegiances, and the dazzling mental survival calculus of strategy.
The main cultural exceptions are telling. The greatest is A Fan’s Notes, the 1968 novel/memoir by Frederick Exley that portrays a messy, alcoholic, sometimes institutionalized life that is brightened mainly by the narrator’s fandom for New York Giant Frank Gifford, whom he sort of knew in college (and whom I otherwise know only as Kathie Lee’s husband and the cuckolder of Johnny Carson):
Where I could not, with syntax, give shape to my fantasies, Gifford could, with his superb timing, his great hands, his uncanny faking, give shape to his. It was something more than this: I cheered for him with such inordinate enthusiasm, my yearning became so involved with his desire to escape life’s bleak anonymity, that after a time he became my alter ego, that part of me which had its being in the competitive world of men; I came, as incredible as it seems to me now, to believe that I was, in some magical way, an actual instrument of his success.
Suffice it to say that being the hero of the protagonist of A Fan’s Notes is at best a bitter share of glory.
Robert Altman’s MASH (1970) comes to its kind-of-climax with a football game between rival military doctors’ units in the Korean War, rife with gambling, cheating, and dosing. It’s a capper to the film’s general thesis about masculine selfishness and stupidity as the roots of both war and football—as underlined by the gunshots:
Some of the most moving football moments in the arts rely on the figure of the high-school star whose life is all downhill from there, as in Irwin Shaw’s short story “The Eighty-Yard Run”:
The high point, an eighty-yard run in the practice, and a girl’s kiss and everything after that a decline. Darling laughed. He had practiced the wrong thing, perhaps.
It’s a scenario that has a ring of truth but could equally be the creative geek’s revenge fantasy. It also indicates, perhaps, the mode that’s most native to the sport. You could argue that every sport has its natural genre. Hockey, for instance, because it’s played on ice, an unnatural place to be running around, and therefore by definition always on the verge of skidding out of control, lends itself to farce. Baseball, with its slow cooperative progress and inevitable reversals, suits the quixotic epic. The back-and-forth of tennis is almost too perfect an allegory for romance. The punishing nature of football—like boxing, but without the individualized tragic nobility—puts it in the key of pathos.
There’s a nice (if fairly predictable) twist on the trope from the much more football-friendly precincts of Nashville, in James Otto’s minor 2002 hit “The Ball,” which seems at first to be a guy lamenting how he fumbled his life:
There’s at least a little empathy mixed with the irony in The Mountain Goats’ “Fall of the Star High-School Running Back,” part of John Darnielle’s song cycle All Hail West Texas, in which an injured player turns for succor to drug dealing:
But selling acid was a bad idea, and selling it to a cop was a worse one,
And new laws said that 17-year-olds could do federal time—
You were the first one.
So I sing this song for you, William Stanaforth Donahue:
Your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland
But you made a bad decision or two.
It reminds me of the This American Life episode about Penn State, “#1 Party School,” where college football and bad decisions seem to go hand in hand.
The poet James Wright, in “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” thinks in generational terms, too, but more bleakly as well as more erotically, with the pain of the parents battering the flesh of their children:
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home,
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
Then there’s Randall Jarrell’s poignant ode to NFL player Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who “found football easy enough, life hard enough/ To – after his last night cruising Baltimore/ In his yellow Cadillac – to die of heroin.” Not exactly the stuff of tailgate parties.
There’s plenty of music made to order for those parties, too, of course—lots of it country, such as Hank Williams Jr.’s famous “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” (a.k.a. “Are You Ready for Some Football?”), Kenny Chesney’s “The Boys of Fall,” Brantley Gilbert’s “Friday Night,” etc., but hip-hop too (this is a game mostly played by black men today), including that Lil Jon pounder up top as well as Lil Wayne’s Green Bay Packers tribute or Nas’s classic (if only lightly football-based) “Halftime”—
—or the unclassifiable Mojo Nixon proclaiming that he loves his baby, JUST not as much as he loves football:
Rarer, though, are works like Otto’s, Exley’s, and Darnielle’s, which neither sneer nor cheer. One fascinating tightrope journey is that of B.D. in Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury. Modeled on a real football quarterback who played at Yale when Trudeau started the strip in the student newspaper in the 1960s, at first he is mainly a foil to the wimpier and more countercultural characters—the scenes with Zonker smoking dope in the huddle or players having philosophical discussions there are pretty all I know about huddles—but over the decades (almost never removing his helmet) he becomes one of the cartoon’s most complex characters, partly due to his greater conservatism and patriotism.
B.D. served more than one tour in the military and, in 2004, he lost a leg in the Iraq war. He then became the focal point for an investigation of veterans and PTSD that in many ways realigned the voice of the long-running liberal satirical strip, making it at once more compassionate and more deeply angry. So B.D.’s story is inflected with the pathetic impulse of football, but not in any kneejerk way.
In fact, Doonesbury’s use of football suggests a different arc for football stories, as multilayered studies of social mores and manners. There’s probably more out there in that vein if I would give it a chance.
So while I’m not prepared to go so far as to watch the Super Bowl this weekend, in honour of that unusual pigskin-besotted day so many years ago in Manitoba, I’ll meet the sport halfway this weekend by firing up Friday Night Lights on Netflix. While the fans are waving their flags and foam fingers, I’ll be clutching my tissues. And depending how the coin toss falls, perhaps we can make a few conversions.
(See, Jacob, I even cracked a football pun. … There’s hope yet.)
The News in Art publishes every weekend.