The Church of Football | The Nation


The Church of Football

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Lombardi probably didn't originate the saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," but he did allow himself to be identified with the phrase, both because he was vain and because, in football, it's true. More important, he never connected it to the larger culture, to social climbing, politics, or war.

This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch.

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

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The role of pro coach he helped create has, by now, been transformed in ways that would be unrecognizable to him. Autocrat is no longer enough, now that the coach isn't an unquestioned father-figure for white farm boys from nuclear families. Contemporary athletes demand "respect" and need coaches who pretend to be "working with" them. Most of today's successful coaches are mind-bending manipulators who make athletes believe they alone can make them winners. Lombardi could be a bully but he treated athletes individually and humanely; current bullies tend to treat the athlete as an interchangeable piece in their own intelligent designs.

There was a lot that Lombardi, good as he was, didn't understand. While dying, according to David Maraniss' splendid biography, When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi shouted out in his sleep, "Joe Namath! You're not bigger than football. Remember that."

Forget that. For a few shining hours, Namath was a lot bigger than football, and one of the reasons why football got bigger.

While Lombardi was beatified by the establishment and reviled by the counterculture, Namath, as Broadway Joe, became a swinging symbol of rebellion, disdained by the establishment (except those making money off him) and idolized by the young (who somehow missed his work ethic, his loyalty to teammates, and his deeply conditioned submissiveness to authority.)

Legend aside, Namath was no bad boy (not even as wild as some of the Packer stars Lombardi winked at) and his vices--consensual sex, whiskey, facial hair--seem quaint compared to those of today's felon-athletes.

But he outraged the traditionalists with his price-tag ($400,000 paid by a new owner, a music impresario), his white shoes (meant to alert tacklers, I'm convinced, not to break those franchise legs), and his 1969 boast that his upstart American Football League New York Jets would beat the old NFL's Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. (Lombardi privately agreed.) It was that victory which validated the merger of the two leagues.

In those days, access to athletes was easy. The biggest obstacle to interviewing Namath during Super Bowl Week (while he was lounging at the hotel pool) was the huddle of children and old ladies he was entertaining. Namath was a nice guy: decent, polite, thoughtful.

"People don't know what they're seeing, reporters don't know what's happening in a game," he said to me pleasantly once. "I throw a pass that's intercepted and people blame me when it was the fault of someone who wasn't where he should have been. I throw a touchdown pass and I get the credit when it was under-thrown and only a great catch made the play."

So much for journalism. But I knew he was right. And the kind of hero you'd want to block for.

Still, there was a lot Namath didn't understand either, including the church's willingness to sacrifice him for its image. Commissioner Rozelle ordered him to sell his part-ownership in a Manhattan saloon called Bachelors III because some of his co-owners had alleged underworld connections. Nothing seemed more threatening to the League than the possibility of a fixed game. For awhile, Namath, a loyal stand-up guy, refused to walk away from his friends. He even threatened to leave football if he had to, but eventually--inevitably--he submitted, publicly and tearfully.

Rozelle always seemed to get his way, but then his way always seemed to be for the greater good of The League. He did not appear to have an ego. He had been a public relations man, and was invariably appropriately smooth and tanned.

I met Rozelle during my first Super Bowl week. Another New York Times reporter, Bill Wallace, led me aboard a yacht bobbing on the Intracoastal Waterway. There, in the stern, sipping cocktails were Rozelle and his friend and mentor, Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys. I've met most of the commissioners of my time from baseball's thin-skinned patrician Bowie Kuhn to basketball's brilliant smart-ass David Stern, but none had Rozelle's combination of bonhomie and noblesse oblige. Even then, he knew. He acted glad to see me, but this was clearly an audience with a prelate of a church on the rise.

Later in my career, recalling the scene, I thought I should have made some crack about kissing his Super Bowl ring. But, of course, there wasn't one yet. So we drank, chattered, considered the sunset. I remember two things vividly. He asked me not to mention that he was living on the yacht for the week; he didn't want to give working-class fans the impression that he was an elitist. It was just that he sometimes needed to hide out and work. He didn't actually make me swear to keep his secret, to put the meeting on deep background. I had the feeling he really wanted it to leak out, along with his explanation, to give the impression that this arriviste sport actually had class.

And then he launched into his larger vision of a future in which the two leagues would be formally merged. Everything would be done to give teams a chance for parity. "On any given Sunday," he said, "any team in the league could beat any other."

It was nonsense, of course, but thrilling. The same message that had moved so many others elsewhere: Any kid can grow up to escape poverty, racism, sexism, and become President of the United States. It was about Hope. What more can a leader offer? No wonder so many of those self-made powerhouse owners were willing to subjugate their egos and their immediate wants and needs to Rozelle's version of the greater good. He inspired. And I knew he would never hold it against me for mentioning the yacht, which I did, so long as I also mentioned "on any given Sunday."

Rozelle was no more the perfect commissioner than Lombardi was the perfect coach or Namath the perfect star. He chain-smoked, a sign that his preternatural calm was no deeper than his tan, and he never won his battle against the League's fallen angel, the renegade owner Al Davis, who bedeviled him with provocative declarations and litigation intended to sow disorder.

Davis was the commissioner of the upstart American Football League when it challenged the NFL by raiding its players. He opposed the merger and quit as commissioner, continuing to build the Oakland Raiders into one of the most successful franchises in sports. He promoted it as a kind of outlaw organization; its silver and black colors more gang than team. He reveled in rehabbing bad boys cut from other clubs. He won three Super Bowls and an anti-trust suit when the League tried to stop him from moving to Los Angeles. Then he moved back to Oakland--and kept right on suing.

Al Davis' own vision was as simple as his slogan, "Just win, Baby." No egalitarian any Sunday for anyone, but "Just win, Baby," for just me, just now.

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