Tag Archives: Football

Friedrich Nietzsche, football, and American weirdness

American football is about to start up again– the professional teams have already played their first exhibition games, the college teams are busy training. So it’s a good moment to revisit that eternal question, what is it with us Americans and football? I mean, it’s by far our favorite sport, while most everywhere else in the world it’s a freak-show curiosity. (The NFL tried establishing a branch in Europe, but it never caught on.) On this one, at least, American exceptionalism is alive and well. So if football is one of the things that separate us from the rest of humanity, what kinds of self-knowledge should it teach us?

Of course some of the lessons are pretty obvious. If football’s a window into American psyches, it’s clear we like violence and bright, crayola-style colors. We admire size; we like military discipline, fancy uniforms, and dictatorial leadership. No other sport gives as much power to its coaches, or so consistently tells its players to just shut up and do exactly what they’re told. Not just on the field, either. The coach in Philadelphia makes his players take a urine test every single day, to make sure they’re eating and drinking properly.

You might also think football shows that Americans believe in competition and that we take winning really, really seriously. After all, the NFL’s championship trophy is named for a guy who went around saying “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”– and (so Wikipedia teaches us) he wasn’t even the first football coach to use that line. Given American fondness for winner-take-all, everything-on-the-table capitalism, you can see how football fits in.

But here’s where things get complicated, because a lot of what goes on in football doesn’t quite track with a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Take the hiring and firing of coaches. Especially among the professionals, unsuccessful coaches get hired by new teams over and over; here in Buffalo, they just hired a guy who directed his previous team to a 48 percent winning record over six years, and he’s locally regarded as a huge catch. Meanwhile San Francisco just fired a coach who’d been fantastically successful, apparently because he pissed off the owner’s family.

Sometimes it’s the same with players. Just before last year’s Superbowl, I recounted the story of Marshawn Lynch, right now probably Buffalo’s most famous ex-resident. Lynch is a terrific player, whom the Buffalo citizenry pretty much drove out of town after a few minor misadventures. Since leaving, he’s taken the Seattle team to two championship games, while Buffalo has stayed mediocre– but I haven’t heard a peep of regret about his leaving. On the contrary, the main emotion has been complacency; you could sum it up as, “now the rest of the world will see why we didn’t like this guy.” (In fact it hasn’t played out like that, and Lynch has made it onto the list of adorable American sports stars, on the Shaquille O’Neal model– check out the videos of him gaming with another Superbowl star, playing kickball with kids in Oakland, and embracing another athlete’s mother at a celebration in San Francisco.)

Back in January, I thought Lynch’s story just showed the pleasures of moralizing. My line was, my Buffalo neighbors would rather be judgmental about bad behavior than watch their team win games. But now I’m having doubts, partly because Buffalo has just brought in several documented bad actors, without anyone getting too agitated about it. In fact the local paper ran a “he deserves another shot” column about the worst actor of the bunch.

So we’ve got something of an intellectual mystery here, and in those cases (as I’ve argued before) turning to the Great Philosophers can sometimes help. Where football’s concerned, I think we can do worse than turn to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The basic Nietzsche story, in case you haven’t encountered it before: he was a boy-genius professor of Greek, who turned increasingly to philosophical questions, became increasingly strange as he did so, and eventually went completely off the rails. Almost no one read his philosophical work during his lifetime, but that changed fast after his death, and for the last century he’s had hall-of-fame status among the Euro thinkers.

Nietzsche can help us divide the universal-human-nature layers of our football question from the what’s-with-us-Americans? layers.  On the universal side, he thought that most young men liked bashing into each other, and that we all like watching acts of violence and cruelty. So he’d say there’s nothing especially unusual about football-style games or about masses of people showing up to watch them. They express the basic human condition.

What he would say is distinctive about our football situation is the organization, and here the relevant idea comes from his 1887 Genealogy of Morals: “all utilities are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it.” Which I take to mean, more or less: “lots of social arrangements look like they’re practical means for getting to reasonable objectives, like winning games or making money, but that appearance is deceptive. Really those social arrangements just show that one group has taken power over others, and thereby taken to itself the power of defining what constitute ‘practical means’ and ‘reasonable ends.’ The real story is about the power of some people over others.”

Or to put it more crudely: making grown men take daily urine tests isn’t a means to victory, it’s just a humiliating demonstration of power. Imposing your will on others is the objective.

Super Bowl edition: Achilles in Buffalo

For anyone interested in how American culture works, it’s worth considering the case of Marshawn Lynch, NFL star and ex-Buffalonian.

Most Americans already know the story, but readers who show up at this site may be a little behind the curve, so here are some basics: Lynch played for Buffalo during his first three years in pro football but failed to impress, and the team traded him to Seattle, where he reached mega-stardom and helped win last year’s Super Bowl; largely thanks to him, Seattle is back in the Super Bowl this year, a pretty rare achievement given how the NFL now works. His playing style is old school, exemplifying the coach-speak virtues: he’s apparently fearless, loves to hit, and has carried his team through several difficult moments. The sportswriters have been seriously impressed: “arguably the greatest individual run in football history,” is the line on one performance; and about another, “it has become impossible to imagine this team without him …. Each time Seattle needed a play as the game wound down, he was there with one.”

Even the position Lynch plays is something of a throwback. Running backs like him were the big stars of the 1950s and 1960s, but they’re an afterthought in the modern, passing-centric game.

All of which ought to have made him a big favorite in Buffalo. Up here we take NFL football very, very seriously, and we’re pretty old-school ourselves. In the abstract we know the 1950s are over, but we haven’t fully processed the information; we’re still mad that glamor quarterback/21st-century archetype Tom Brady once complained about our hotels.

Despite which, Lynch irritated the locals almost from day 1, and they’ve stayed irritated in the years since. It’s the quality of that irritation that seems to me so interesting.

Of course, the story includes some bad behavior on Lynch’s part. He was arrested one off-season for having a gun in his car trunk, and another time for a hit-and-run with his SUV; this happened on one of Buffalo’s premier night-life strips, so it’s not impossible that alcohol was involved. Lately he’s toned down the nightlife, but he’s been refusing to talk to the press, enraging journalists, internet commenters, and the NFL itself. The commissioner fined him $100,000 back in November– so rather than avoid reporters altogether, Lynch now shows up and repeats the same sentence in response to every question.

And of course race looms in the background, as it always does in American football. Nowadays two-thirds of NFL players are black, while most of the owners, coaches, quarterbacks, journalists, and fans are white. That reality comes up constantly when fans discuss players, especially when they discuss player misbehavior. Spend a half-hour or so reading internet comments about pretty much any football issue; if you had any delusions about America as a post-racial society, that’s the cure.

All this helps explain Buffalo’s Marshawn Lynch problem, but it’s not enough. On the race angle, Lynch’s replacement is also black, and he’s a local fan favorite, the public face of our biggest bank. And whatever race feelings are out there, Buffalonians are desperate for a successful team– we’ve had fifteen straight years without making the play-offs, the NFL’s longest losing streak. So you’d expect some regret that we gave away one of the sport’s reigning superstars, or some wondering why the success story didn’t happen here, or whether the coaches mismanaged a once-in-a-lifetime talent. Instead, the dominant motif in the stories I read is “good riddance.”

Doesn’t anyone care about winning anymore? Marshawn Lynch cares–otherwise he wouldn’t have dragged his team to the big win two weeks ago– but do Buffalonians, aka garden-variety Americans?

Well, that’s become my new hypothesis– maybe we don’t care about winning, or at least maybe we care more about the pleasures of moralizing, disciplining, and punishing; maybe keeping everything in moral order matters more than practical success.

For evidence, I’ll just offer the example of Buffalo’s leading sports columnist, Jerry Sullivan. Sullivan describes himself as a liberal Democrat, and by all appearances he’s a thoughtful, enlightened guy; at this point his column is about all I read in the local paper. He’s also a consistent critic of the team’s management, so he’s certainly not trying to whitewash a bad personel decision.

But Sullivan’s as angry about Lynch as any internet redneck, and as obsessed. A few days ago, he asked, “How about Marshawn Lynch, the sullen ex-Bill? Will he even show up to Media Day? Will he speak, grab his crotch, scatter a bunch of hundred dollar bills on the artificial turf to pay a fine up front to the NFL, then stalk off into his own Beast Mode universe?”

(Sorry for the long quotations, but you need them to get the full flavor.)

When Lynch showed up but said nothing beyond “I’m here so I don’t get fined,”
Sullivan devoted the whole of his next column to the episode: “We tried to understand Lynch when he came to the Bills. … Lynch never let people in. He was a miserable character who shunned attention and caused trouble off the field. If he was uncomfortable with interviews, fine. But don’t cry about being misunderstood. He brought his problems on himself, and from what I can gather, he’s still doing it. He has said he shouldn’t be ‘forced’ into it. He’s making almost $8 million a year to play football. There are certain sacrifices, like being on time and practicing. He says he’s not a ‘media whore,’ as if there’s nobility in not speaking. Maybe he thinks cooperating would cost him valuable street cred.”

Talk about old school– this kind of sermonizing was already a joke when it was directed at Joe Namath back in the late sixties. Of course it’s extra preposterous now that we better understand the drastic sacrifices that football in fact demands of all who play it.

But that’s my point. The Marshawn-Lynch-in-Buffalo story tells us that American culture has changed less than we like to imagine, and that in it angry moralism still rules, leaving far behind pragmatic calculations about costs and benefits, successes and failures.

If football is any kind of metaphor for the other arrangements of American life, as we’re so often told it is, these are not comforting thoughts.