Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Touchdown for the Man

"But it's all part of being alive, man. The pleasure and the pain. You can't have one without the other."
-- Quarterback Seth Maxwell

What is it about football that is peculiarly American? Is it the intricacy of its strategies? The use of padding offering the illusion of controlled violence? The peculiar use of slang coloring the insiders' lexicon (fumblerooski, slobber-knocker, pooch punts)? The utilitarianism of every player on the field to some designated responsibility? The celebration of heroes and roasting of scapegoats? A harmonious association with High School memories? That it is best pleasured with mass quantities of beer?

Of the three great sports the U.S. has produced, only football has failed to create an international following-- it seems it will never qualify as an Olympic competition. If a character in a film once said, "Football is a game of inches," giving the sport a sense of delicacy and precision, a real-life coach also said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." The latter quote more accurately explains the game's ferociousness and the human capacity to brutally subjugate common sense and physical pain to the more immediate attainment of victory. When one considers the sacrifices your average American makes in compliance with his country's values-- substandard health care, comparatively little vacation time, the costs of extraordinary consumption, and most importantly, a fetishism of work and income as the definition of a man's worth-- then it seems we would expect our athletes on the gridiron should rally to that ideal as well.

In the early 1970s, a second-string flanker for the Dallas Cowboys named Peter Gent retired from the game and wrote what is perhaps the best novel ever written about the sport, North Dallas Forty (produced in 1979 into a mediocre comedy with Nick Nolte, all the nuances of Gent's themes stripped in favor of dumb jock jokes). The novel takes place over the course of eight days in the life of a wide receiver named Phil Elliot. Elliot is the team's joker but also a thinking person, who does not go for Vince Lombardi's philosophy on the merits of winning, hoping only to perform with enough aplomb as to guarantee himself more playing time and better pay. His logic, to wit: "Reading a contract is vastly more important than reading a blitz. A great negotiator makes much more money than a great running back." Of course, if money was what it was all about Elliot would be much more careful about toeing the company line but as he is, he cannot abide by any regulation or philosophy that marginalizes the individual. Through confrontations with management, players, and the society that celebrates the group effort of winning, Gent dramatizes this theme of the individual vs. the collective.

Winning means a number of adjustments on the players' parts. In fact, it seems that the only way the team can come together on Game Day is through liberal use of a psychoactive and pharmacological cornucopia. Injured players (particularly Elliot) pop Codeine like candy to combat the pain and linebackers swallow handfuls of Dexamyl (a once popular methamphetamine "upper") in order to reach the proper psychological level where body and mind can be properly tuned to a level of violence required to destroy opponents. Elliot self-medicates with "grass" on his down time and team parties are rowdy and debaucherous. The human body has limits but the devastating toll is tomorrow's problem: "The body wears out quickly but with training and chemicals the mind is conditioned not to notice." In this sense trainers and physical therapists are as essential to a team's well-being as a solid coaching staff. Without the ingenuity of team doctors, careers would be cut short and playing levels suffer. In the end, it's the player's responsibility to bear the pain as his body is not of his own but is contracted out to the sports franchise: "Don't worry about health; after all the body belongs to the club. Deal in pain thresholds and analgesics, amphetamines and anesthesia. Short circuit that bothersome equipment that communicates pain, numb it, bind it, but get the property back to work."

This idea of belonging to the club not as a person but as a thing is a vision unique to Elliot. The patriotism that affects Americans worshiping the flag is the same fever infusing team loyalty. In spite of claims as to being part of a "family," the team is a corporation and a person is a commodity whose value is conditional to his usefulness:

"We're just the fucking equipment to be listed along with the shoulder pads and headgear and jockstraps. This is first and foremost a business, with antitrust exemptions, tax breaks, and depreciations. And all the first and tens, all the last-second touchdowns, and ninety-five-yard passes, are just items on a ledger to be weighed along with the cost of precooked steak and green eggs..."

Coach Tom Landry: Gent's coach in Dallas

Of course, this fulmination against systems is not unique to football and the rules of the market apply just as boldly to the American worker, many of whom desperately cling to their jobs for mortgages, health insurance and overall livlihood. In the the event of downsizing or a family illness, the catastrophic loss of home, health, and savings is of no concern for a company concerned with its own financial welfare. As Elliot puts it so bluntly, "The past was worthless, the present anxious, and the future impossible." The player as a metaphor for the worker, this is American life, love it or leave it.

Although Elliot can clearly see the faults in the system, in no way does he desire to leave it. It may be a job but it does have its intangible benefits, particularly glory, fame and associated perks. "I'm a contemporary folk hero," is how he explains his profession to a group of stoned college feminists (who assume from his banter that he's a musician rather than an athlete). Men want to shake his hand and women want to bed him. He really is a contemporary folk hero, the kind whose efforts you can watch on television or read about in newspapers and the pleasure of being so well-regarded by friends and envied by enemies is intoxicating, even for someone as level-headed as Elliot.

But the team is not propelled forward by success, by wine and women nor by bold print and statistical averages, motivated instead by a more primal urge: "Fear, man. It's fear and hatred that supply us with our energy. They're what keep us up." Fear is in the newspaper headlines and the radio bulletins: this is Dallas, Texas in the early 1970s, a city suddenly wealthy on petrol profits, yet still mired in racist ideology that prefers apartheid to progressivism. The Vietnam War is ratcheting up the body count numbers and there are always typical, localized catastrophes: "A young housewife was found dead with her throat slashed." This is a society negotiating the delicate route between violence and fear. When these become our only alternatives, the consequences are terrifying. As Elliot puts it, "I am a man who has learned that survival is the reason of life and that fear and hatred are the emotions. What you cannot overcome by hatred you must fear. And every day it is getting harder to hate and easier to fear." Worded in even starker terms is an invective posted on the locker room's bulletin board by Thomas Richardson, a black fullback benched for his political views:


Elliot's closest companion on the team is Seth Maxwell, the team's star quarterback (who enjoys possibly one of the best hagiographic introductions in literature: "There wasn't a pass he couldn't throw, a team he couldn't beat, a pain he couldn't endure, or a woman he couldn't fuck, given the right time and combination of pieces. That was how he lived. Time took care of itself; he collected the pieces.") Elliot's conversations with Maxwell on the conflicting values of individual vs. team success are the framework of the novel. In the end, Elliot has the last word on what it means for the individual once the game ends and the party's over:

"There is a basic reality where it is just me and the job to be done, the game and all its skills. And the reward wasn't what other people thought or how much they paid me but how I felt at the moment I was exhibiting my special skill. How I felt about me. That's what's true. That's what I loved. All the rest is just a matter of opinions."

Not everything: the only thing!

These provocative ideas are woven into a novel with a very grounded and well-tested framework: the team has a big game in New York and Elliot hopes to perform well. The author, Gent, is clever in his mingling of politics within the narrative. North Dallas Forty is never preachy though it is tragic. The determination of Elliot's fate has nothing to do with his talent, his marijuana, or the fact he is caught sleeping with the team president's woman but everything to do with the following mindset, a logic that should figure Phillip Elliot as a major (however under-appreciated) character in modern American literature: "There is no team, no loyalty, no camaraderie; there is only him, alone."

1 comment:

  1. I wish I were in Dallas to get the feel of the city in order to properly comment here, but I am in Denver, another haven of the gridiron retarded where Elway's host still reigns supreme, despite his racist Mel Gibson-esque post-heyday medai controversies: "this is American life, love it or leave it." Or something similar: You are either with us or against us. Buy the ticket. Take the ride. Never get off the boat. Get on the bus.