The Church of Football | The Nation


The Church of Football

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This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.

2. Lives of the Saints

About the Author

Robert Lipsyte
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times, is Jock Culture correspondent for...

Also by the Author

Joe Hill, Joe Pa, Tebow and Wee Brains.

Jock Culture is a distortion of sports.

"Religion is a communication system that is constituted by supernatural beings and is related to specific patterns of behavior." -- H.H. Penner

I covered the second and third Super Bowls--that second one was still called the American Football League-National Football League Championship Game and only given a roman numeral retroactively--and came to meet the three iconic figures of the early church: Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, and Pete Rozelle. Back then I called them the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which was joke-y and misinformed. They were not the Trinity. They were saints of the church of pro football--hard-working, talented non-WASP products of Americanization--and role models for what a coach, a superstar, and a sports commissioner should be. I would say that's all they were until the Saul/Pauls growing the church in the late twentieth century also made them role models for the most important symbolic positions in the most powerful empire on earth.

Rozelle became the model of the charismatic politician who, while working at the sufferance of the corporado owners, could persuade those strong-willed rich men to hang together for their self-interest. Lombardi was the CEO/general who could contain and lead not only the Green Bay Packers but the state's armies by his intimidating moral power--as well as his authority to hire and fire. And Namath, the glamorous hero who could deliver the winning bomb, was the quintessential fungible youth to be sent out to fight and die.

I came to admire them each as individuals--although not the willfully misinterpreted symbols they became--in the same spirit that I would rather hoist a few with Falwell's he-man Jesus than Paul's ethereal martyr. Lombardi, Namath, and Rozelle were saints because they were believers; they loved their sport and lifted it beyond what was, until then, the national sport, baseball. (Think of baseball as the timeless, heart-breaking sports equivalent of Judaism, which had supplanted pagan boxing.) It wasn't their fault that the National Football League became a bloated, pretentious empire--it is currently penetrating both the European and Chinese markets--destroying its young with steroids, obesity (we are approaching the 400-pound lineman), and untreated head injuries. Violence sells.

The trickle-down Rozelles in sports, government, and business are now slick front men--each pretending to be The Decider--as they angle for options; the little Lombardis are bullies and tyrants who seem more interested in power as a platform than as a force for improvement. We are ass-deep in numb-nuts Namaths now, girl and boy starbabies in TV, music, movies as well as sports who learned to strut before they learned to score.

Some of them are actually amusing; a few of them are sociopaths who could jump into the stands and mess you up. (The Jock Chromosome has a bad-boy gene for which, I believe, the League now fishes, but that's a subject for another day.) Back to the original saints of an imperial church they could not have imagined. I met Lombardi first, in 1968. He threw a cocktail party for the press several days before his mythic Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders (owned by Rozelle's rival and arch-enemy, Al Davis, who was Satan) in Super Bowl II. I arrived late with a breathless question: Did Coach have any comment on Jerry Kramer's statement that the Packers had been a little flat this past season after winning the first Super Bowl because a new league alignment had brought them less challenging competition?

Squat and beady-eyed, Lombardi snapped, "Kramer who?"

"Your offensive guard," I said.

He glared at me. "He never said that."

"But I heard him on the radio."

Lombardi snarled, "Don't come in here and tell me things like that."

I hid for awhile, had a couple of drinks, and made another approach. Lombardi seemed in good spirits, holding forth on the effect of potential wind-chill factors on running, passing, and kicking. This was new thinking in football; in retrospect, he sounded like a twenty-first century Weather Channel anchor. I said something inane about how he seemed more like a New England fisherman than a Brooklyn boy.

He began to cackle, and just when I thought I had scored a social touchdown, he said, "Who is this guy? Doesn't he know New York's right on the water? It's an island, we're on the ocean, we look at the sky."

I joined the laughter: Who was this dumbo they were talking about? Later, I decided that, if Lombardi--harsh and driven and rigorous (he had once taught Latin)--were my sports editor, I'd win the Pulitzer. It was pretty much the way his players felt. It would hurt, but he could make them better.

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