1. In the Beginning…
“Sports are the real thing. Work is the opiate–work and revolution and politics.” — Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports
Given the chance, I’d watch the Super Bowl with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who knows about Baal and ball. Twenty years ago, in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a Liberty University Flames game, Dr. Falwell told me: “Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you’d be slow getting up after he tackled you.”
He had me at “sissy.” The rest was revelation. The muscularity of Dr. Falwell’s evangelical Christianity was a perfect fit with football, another win-or-lose game. For Americans, war hasn’t produced a real winner for more than 60 years. That’s why we need football. But let’s get back to Dr. Falwell. “My respect for Catholicism and Mormonism goes straight up watching Notre Dame and Brigham Young play,” he told me. He hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus informing the nation that “the Christians are here, we’re not meek and we’re not going to fall down in front of you. We’re here to stay.”
While we wait for his Holy Bowl to show us how to kick the other cheek, we do have the gospels, saints, and rituals of the Super Bowl, arguably the holiest day of the American calendar. Nothing in sports draws us together as surely–not elections, the Academy Awards, disasters, terrorist acts, or celebrity deaths. The Super Bowl is a melting pot hot enough for atheists, Sodomites, and Teletubbies to become one with the Saved, if only for a single Sunday. But that’s a start.
If I did get to watch the Super Bowl with Dr. Falwell this time around, I’d ask him the following question: Did God design football–and encourage it to evolve into Superbowl-dom–as a model religion for the most powerful empire on earth?
This is not some snide random note from your Jock Culture scribe. Because the entire football season is packaged as a prelude to the championship, it is easy for evangelists to pound home their lesson that life is merely a series of downs en route to salvation. Leave it to heretics to bemoan the loss of process, the idea that a well-played life has honor and meaning even if there is no trophy or ring at the end.
Dr. Falwell avowed the rules when he told me, “If ever you adopt a philosophy that winning is not important, it’s how you play the game, you cop out. This is America. If you’re not a winner it’s your own fault.”
Amen, the whistle has blown.
2. Lives of the Saints
“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.
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.
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.
3. Did Pat Tillman Die for Our Sins?
“Pro football keeps telling them you can’t be second-rate, you have to be winners. No matter who you victimize, no matter how hard you work or who you sacrifice, it’s all worth it to be No. 1.” – Dave Meggyesy.
Go Google who has been canonized into the Hall of Fame, and you will see that there have been worthy latter-day saints since Lombardi and Namath. The commissioner who followed Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue, expanded the church and filled its coffers. Pro football is considered the national pastime now and its closest rival, NASCAR, proudly proclaims it is using the NFL as its marketing model. Rituals like Monday Night Football have bloomed and faded like guitar masses. More minorities have joined the game and the black quarterback is now commonplace. For the first time, a black head coach will appear in this Super Bowl. In fact, for the first time a black head coach will win a Super Bowl, since both head coaches are black.
There have been faux rebels along the way, more adversaries or Devil’s advocates than apostates. Think liberation-theology priests. The Cleveland Browns great running back Jim Brown quit the game at his peak in 1966 to become an actor and then a powerful and positive force among Los Angeles gangs, which are merely another kind of exclusive brotherhood. The St. Louis Cardinals’ linebacker Dave Meggyesy has been a continuing progressive voice since the 1970s and recently retired after many years as a players’ union official. The running back Dave Kopay, who came out after he quit in 1972, remains a strong voice for gay athletes. He recalls that Lombardi, for whom he played in Washington, made it clear he would allow no gay-bashing in his locker room. Now that’s a saint. Of course, America’s most famous murder defendant, O.J. Simpson, was also one of the game’s premier running backs. I liked him. (That’s another story up the road.)
But my point is this: Ghetto activist, socialist, gay hero, (If He Did) It Boy, they all loved the game and somehow reaffirmed its value. I’d say three of them were minor saints and one, well, ask Dr.Falwell if Jesus could have tackled O.J. And then there is Pat Tillman. He could be The One.
He is certainly the most complex and mysterious figure in recent football history. The former NFL defensive back enlisted in the Army Rangers after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire. His story was quickly spun by an administration desperate for a hero; he was given a posthumous Silver Star for saving his unit by sacrificing himself. He briefly became a symbol of old-school patriotism. But even after the story was unspun–he was apparently questioning the invasion of, and war in, Iraq (where he had also served) before he was killed–it still made no sense.
Why had he enlisted in the first place? He was twenty-five, recently married and had just more than doubled his salary with a three-year $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals.
Was he a thrill-seeking psycho or a player who took the responsibilities of citizenship all too seriously? Did he want to make a moral statement or was he thinking ahead to his political CV?
Was his death by fratricide an accident or a homicide? After all, he had reportedly advised fellow Rangers to vote for John Kerry and, on his next leave, was looking forward to meeting Noam Chomsky.
These questions are not answered in the explorations of Tillman’s life I’ve read–Mike Towle’s hagiographic biography I’ve Got Things To Do With My Life and Mike Fish’s three-part investigation for ESPN.com last year.
And the Army has yet to fulfill its promise of a satisfactory inquiry.
Tillman–at least in what’s been written about him–emerges as a seeker and a mad-dog; a quirky, intellectually and spiritually curious young man who majored in marketing at Arizona State and graduated, with high marks, a semester ahead of his class. As a kid, he was a risk-taker; as a football player, he was bold and ferocious. Small for a college linebacker and slow for an NFL safety, he compensated with vicious hits and smart play. He seems to have had that critical gift a defensive back–and an Army Ranger–needs: He was free of moral delay, that instant of doubt that can cripple a reactive strike. Yet people who knew him talk of his compassion and his need for thoughtful discussion.
Can I lead you to the right place by telling you that he wore his hair very long and that he may have been the only NFL player who rode his old bike (coaster brakes) to training camp? (Coaches and sergeants described him as “humble.”) He gave up all that money; he put himself through the hell of Ranger training, Afghanistan as well as Iraq, and then died at the hands of brothers who had sworn the same oaths to higher authority.
You can imagine how close I was to calling Dr. Falwell. Had anyone who played the game come closer to you-know-who? Men got up slowly after Tillman tackled them.
But I had a moral delay. How could I reconcile this thought with what Paul Reynolds, a college teammate of Tillman’s, told Towle? “I would talk to him about Jesus Christ and having a faith, oh yeah. We’d talk about God and stuff. But Pat was a thinker. My wife and I would talk about it, wondering how anyone could be as driven and self-motivated as Pat without believing in God. But he was.”
So I leave it to you what to make of Pat Tillman. It’s something to think about, maybe during half-time on Super Bowl Sunday. Jesus wasn’t Jesus either until the writers got hold of the story.
And think about this, as reported by Mike Fish of ESPN.com: The Army officer who directed the first official inquiry into his death, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, told Fish that he didn’t feel driven to identify Tillman’s killer or killers, that it didn’t really matter, that there would have been no fuss except for Tillman’s celebrity and his family’s insistence, which might be traced to their lack of Christian faith.
Lt. Col. Kauzlarich added: “When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more–that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.”
4. Varieties of Religious Experience
“Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life.”–A Bobby Bare song
Over the past forty years, I’ve been to Super Bowls as a newspaper columnist and a TV correspondent; I’ve watched the game on TV alone and in a group; in the late 1970s, I even attended anti-Super Bowl parties at which we ostentatiously ignored the game, jogged, ate healthful snacks, and screened Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly films, dividing ourselves into Fred-ites or Gene-ists to compare the two, a sorry substitute for judging the finesse vs. power of, say, O.J. Simpson vs. Jim Brown. There was a certain subversive pleasure in the anti-Super Bowl parties, but not enough. It was less like the back-alley thrills of paganism in the early centuries of Christianity’s ascension than the dull rationality of organized atheism.
And it brought up an agnostic thought: If you had to work so hard to convince yourself and others that there was nothing there, maybe there was something there. Okay, there is no God and there are no Weapons of Mass Destruction, but we do need to get down on our knees and turn up the sound because there is the Church of Football.
Have faith. For all your wishful thinking and their wistful name, the New Orleans Saints apparently didn’t have enough of it–or maybe the team needed government help as badly as its Sodom of a city. The Chicago Bears and the Indianapolis Colts had faith in their quarterbacks, Rex Grossman and Peyton Manning, both prodigal sons criticized for wayward passes. And both those cities are capitals of the empire, the hog butcher and the team thief–it was only twenty-three years ago that the Colts’ former owner trucked his club out of Baltimore one night. The club is now run, of course, by his son.
Any Given Sunday is reserved for those who have been saved, who have accepted that so long as there is an American Empire, football will be its religion and the Super Bowl its Holy Day.
So relax and enjoy it as best you can until the barbarians reach the gate and make us watch soccer. Pop the beer, dip the chips, and be a pew potato. At the end of the last day, all that counts is the final score.
As Dr. Falwell, George Bush, and their coach, the Devil, agree, Just win, baby.