Roasting the Goose, Part 3
By Ivan Cole
Several years ago, the ESPN NFL pregame show, “NFL Countdown,” decided to add Rush Limbaugh to its lineup. It wasn’t long thereafter that Limbaugh offered, in his humble opinion, that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated (Okay, so far, so good, opinions of all kinds are allowed), because (Wait for it), he was placed in his position because of affirmative action.
The reaction was nuclear. Limbaugh left ESPN not long thereafter. At the time, I couldn’t believe that Limbaugh could be that stupid. Yes, that was his schtick, but how could he not understand that this was a broader audience who came to sports to get away from that sort of thing, at least for a few hours?
Over the years I have come to change my opinion about this. I no longer believe it was Limbaugh’s idea, though I could certainly be wrong. To my thinking it is more likely that someone high up in the ESPN/ABC hierarchy thought that marrying Limbaugh’s controversial politics to football would provide a great ratings boost. That’s how broken sports media is today.
Reconciling the differences in values between entertainment and sports (or politics for that matter) is fraught with dangers. Sports (and politics) has been on the losing end of this game for some time now, and the negative implications have been coming home to roost. The entertainment value and drama inherent in the game itself is not enough. It is viewed as an entertainment ‘product’ that is being constantly tweaked (distorted) and milked to yield a maximum value and profitability.
Repeating the theme of this series, producing golden eggs is no longer good enough, the goose much be roasted and served with a duck sauce as well, with absurdly tragic results. It is my understanding that Limbaugh is a Steelers fan, which should give us at least one thing we could agree on. It would also explain how he, retired CIA Director Michael Hayden, Snoop Dogg, Hank Williams Jr., and others from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives can come together to collectively celebrate or suffer over the trials and tribulations of Rooney and Company.
However, unity and harmony are not nearly as interesting or profitable as controversy. So, let’s pull the pin on the hand grenade and introduce, in the example cited above, white resentment. Which makes this as good a time as any to address Homer J’s point about Colin Kaepernick.
The first reasonable question would be, why is this even a thing? I don’t recall a lot of people rushing to make it to the stadium or their television sets so to not miss the national anthem. And, of course, in the case of television, they would likely be disappointed in that the networks usually choose the insipid commentary of their talking heads over broadcasting the ceremony, unless the league can profit from it in some manner, or present it as an entertainment extravaganza.
This, of course, raises the interesting question as to why this is receiving any attention at all. Just another hand grenade. If the highest value is to attract eyeballs and clicks, all attention, positive or negative, the more dramatic the better is a good thing.
The Kaepernick thing commenced, conveniently, at just the right time to distract from the revelation that the league was charging the Department of Defense for the salute to America-type ceremonies that are all the rage. Hard to decide what is more off putting, the league contriving yet one more way to get their hands into the pockets of consumers, or the DOD for agreeing to pay.
For me, pimping or dissing patriotic symbols are equally problematic. But both are profitable and beneficial from an entertainment perspective. But, as Homer most eloquently points out, there are unintended consequences.
“Sportsmanship is defined as ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in a game or athletic event…is gracious when he loses…” This is the covenant that is at the core of the relationship with sports as participants and as fans. Terms such as “ethical”, “polite” and “fair” have real meaning and value in, perhaps, one of the few arenas in our cultural life where such things are (or were) taken seriously.
But how strong an argument do I have to make to demonstrate that this covenant has and is being continually broken in service to a different set of values? Let’s just take a few of the countless possible examples.
On one level, we all get it. We’re missing star quality, etc. True enough, but it’s deeper than that. Undertaking physical risk and suffering injury can be a tragic but noble consequence of the pursuit of a high ideal, such as the soldier who falls in battle in defense of his or her country. But what if all we are witnessing is a gladiator being sacrificed for the sake of spectacle and entertainment? It becomes an exercise in vulgarity.
Worse still, a spectacle has no meaning without spectators. Whereas a true sporting event could be meaningfully conducted without witnesses, the spectator is essential to the spectacle, meaning that we are also complicit in it.
I suspect one of the reasons that some of us are opting out, at least partially, is because it is becoming harder to spin this as being ‘ethical’. This is what makes the head trauma issue so difficult for some. Not just because of the horrific wreckage that it creates, but that for so many within the business and among the fans the players are increasingly being viewed not as noble warriors, but disposable commodities whose incapacitation inconveniences our entertainment and gambling experience and nothing more.
In a true sporting environment there would be little room for flamboyant displays. But for an entertainer, despite the protestations of our friend Greg Hill, there are definite professional advantages to such behavior. The secondary market of endorsements and other inducements that can prove more profitable than salary compensation is friendlier to the Odell Beckhams and the Rob Gronkowskis than to the Art Monks and Heath Millers. So much for ‘polite’.
A special word here about the black athlete. Backlashes are usually a two-way street. And what we have come to call the backlash is a response, often imperfect and lacking in self-awareness, to a perceived threat or actual injustice. In this context, the flamboyant displays of Muhammed Ali and others were reactive to the demand that black athletes conduct themselves in a servile (as opposed to self-generated humility) manner. Scratch ‘fair’.
But over a generation removed from the cause of the backlash, and with entertainment values more firmly entrenched, it is probably harder to make the case that these behaviors are acts of noble defiance rather than mundane showmanship.
But one of the clearest indicators of the broken covenant of sportsmanship is within sports media.
Many of us who either write in or visit this space had a strong previous relationship with “Behind the Steel Curtain.” The rules of engagement as established by founder Michael Bean were highly compatible with the respect and high ideals that characterize sport at its best.
If the model had failed, that would be one thing. But not only did it not, it was remarkably successful, as were any number of quality efforts to serve the game and the public. But viewed through the lens of greed it wasn’t enough. It’s never enough.
The most reliable path to more is to, as they say, go low. In youth sports, the idea of everyone getting a trophy isn’t such a bad idea at the youngest levels. Everyone having the opportunity to have the experience is a good thing to a point. But eventually following the path of fidelity to the least common denominator makes a mockery of the pursuit of mastery that sport at its highest levels is supposed to represent.
As the pursuit of excellence is polluted, so is the science and art of its appreciation. Replace the ethic of level headed thinking with the sensibilities of a middle school playground across the board. The loud mouths, bullies and know-nothings dominate, heat is mistaken for light, spectacle for competence, ignorance is knowledge, love is hate. It’s happening in politics too.
Today it is a struggle everywhere to resist a rising tide of impoliteness, the cynical cultivation of controversy to incite rage or generate clicks, for anger, resentment and contempt to function as the currency of the realm. Sites such as this one are viewed increasingly as being anachronistic.
The NFL and its partners are like a philanderer who, on one hand, is assuming that their spouse, the loyal football fan, will exhibit more integrity than they have managed and remain faithful to a badly broken covenant. On the other hand, they are also betting upon the continued loyalty of a fickle mistress, the casual entertainment oriented fan.
For their part, the spouse appears beginning to come to terms with the possibility of the situation being hopeless and beyond repair. They are beginning to see other people (fall afternoons on the shore of the Delaware River, for instance,) and are reluctantly contemplating divorce. The mistress’ inferior appeal becomes more obvious in the absence of the spouse, and when the relationship no longer serves they will leave quickly without even a glance over their shoulder in regret.
The current downturn in viewership may well be temporary, at least for now. But there is real rot occurring here. There are two things that I feel confident about, based upon my intuition and on anecdotal information. There are at least two sets of fans who are not of equal value to the long-term viability and success of the National Football League. There is evidence indicating that the ‘spouse’, the more loyal fans of the game, are becoming increasingly discouraged and are quietly, incrementally disengaging from the game. When this trend becomes obvious and measurable to everyone it will be difficult, and likely too late to salvage the situation in a meaningful way.
Whether the league survives long term depends upon whether it can muster the awareness, the desire and the will to spare the goose.