The Sociology of Sports-Talk Radio (9-6-21)

Bud: “Luke, because your intro to Carl Schmitt, I no longer believe in Democracy, Human Rights or the Constitution. You should be kvelling with pride!”

Perhaps a thru-line to some of what I do is to create a little more space between people and their favorite stories. Ask: Why do I love this text? This interpretation? This story? Why do I hate this competing narrative? Why do I need to ignore all alternatives to my story? Why do I cling to my story?

From the 2015 book How Postmodernism Explains Football, and Football Explains Postmodernism: The Billy Clyde Conundrum:

* Mark Bowden’s account of superstar lineman Jerome Brown tragically captured another example of the way the seemingly infinite rewards for aggressive, antisocial behavior on the field represent a powerfully mesmerizing influence on players’ behavior beyond the field, too often blurring if not erasing the lines between the two. From high school to the NFL, Brown was a dominating player who could change the flow of a game almost by himself, and he reveled in the way that talent enabled him to cruise through a life of “breaking the rules, staying out late, skipping class, juggling girlfriends, drinking too much, driving too fast,” as Bowden depicted it, “blasting his music through the center of town, . . . vanishing off into the thick Florida veld to loose up his collection of high-powered automatic weapons, and partying, partying, partying, rolling in snatch.” Brown lived that all to the hilt till the summer day when he crashed one of his six sports cars into a Florida palm tree and died at the age of twenty-seven.

* In the stories of those young men so richly rewarded and exalted by football society we see the seductive way that the more successful one is at the game, the more challenging it can be to remain conscious of the line between what is socially acceptable and what is not—or to even believe that there is such a line for them. It is a powerful dynamic of commercial football, the way that the violence and excess and general antisocial behavior that the game so incalculably rewards on the field inevitably cannot but help be a material factor in identity formation for the game’s participants, especially the best ones. An almost ceaseless
chorus of coaches, players, fans, and video-highlights exhorts football players to tune out instincts that might inhibit committing violence and antisocial acts on the field. In countless ways, the message flashed, shouted, pounded home says to shut off those signals, to give oneself over to the reckless abandon that can endanger the bodies and minds of others and even one’s own—and vast renown, riches, and recreations of the flesh will be yours without end. How can we even imagine such conditioning will influence the way one plays football but only that? How can we imagine that in the complex, tangled process through which an individual’s sense of social reality is constructed that being immersed in the otherworldly reality of talented young football players cannot help but play some role of consequence?

Certainly, not all who play the sport of football will come out of it with a diminished sense of social accountability. It has of course over time produced real-life Merriwells and continues to do so. But it was one of
the most preposterous notions imaginable to have ever even pretended that that would be the only sort of personality turned out by regularly engaging in an endeavor fundamentally structured to advantage players and teams that most effectively inflict sanctioned acts of violence against their opponents. The Merriwell model could be just as well referenced as the Merriwell fantasy, which of course is exactly how the concept began life before being appropriated as a highly effective public relations tool. A more accurate representation of football’s effects on its participants would be candidly encouraging acceptance for the game as a tradeoff—one that would never stop stirring antisocial, Billy Clyde behaviors but would flourish commercially and sometimes produce at
least a few Frank Merriwells or Roger Staubachs.

We can find many examples of the way the game shaped its participants in one direction or the other, often among those who played right next to each other. Tackle Merlin Olson and end Deacon Jones were such dominant players for the Los Angeles Rams that both made the NFL’s Hall of Fame. They played side by side, with Olson always able to isolate his aggressive impulses to the momentary requirements of the game, while Jones maintained long after his playing days that he was driven by hatred of his opponents on the field and that the hatred never left him. Roger Brown, a former teammate, recalled, “Deacon would say, ‘Get out of my way, I’m going to kill you.’ Merlin, after he knocked you down, he’d help you get up.” Jones himself concurred, fiercely so, even many years after retirement: “I ain’t helping you up off the ground. I’m going to step on your hand.” In an interview with Phyllis George, Olson elaborated: “I think it’s possible to separate the game on the field from the person off the field. I’m not a violent person by nature. I detest violence in many ways. But my job requires me to do certain things.” In a relatively recent interview for an NFL Films documentary, Jones is sitting with Rosey Grier, another former teammate, talking about quarterbacks he hated, when Grier commented with a smile, “He doesn’t really mean that.” But Jones growled back, “Yes, I do.”

* So finally we come to the point of more fully proposing just how postmodernism explains football. In one sense, as we will see in the next chapter, postmodernist theory suggests we always need to be questing for deeper understanding—because it holds that our assumptions about what we think we know too often are grounded in unreliable stories. But it also doesn’t promise to provide us with answers so much as it encourages us to seek more stories, to rely more on a multiplicity of narratives than on grand explanations that offer more than they can ever deliver.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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