Commentary Magazine


A Season in the Stands

Football is not only the most popular sport it is the most intellectual one It is in fact, the intellectuals' secret vice Not politics, not sex, not pornography, but football, and not college football but the real thing, pro ball, is the opium of the intellectuals Few intellectuals have written about it, and this is because vices and addictions are difficult to write about, particularly when there is no literary tradition for doing so To write about the kind of perversity that is regarded as normal by most people requires the confessional ingenuousness of Rousseau, or the all-consuming vanity of a de Sade, who ground all his experience into his obsessions, or some 19th-century pornographer who wrote about his vices in the form of an anonymous boast

The few writers who have written at all about sports have been popular writers and they have usually created, like Ring Lardner, just a more stylized kind of journalism Most recently the only sophisticated writer able to write about football has been George Plimpton, and he has done this by living out, as it were, his story Nevertheless, what strikes one most about Paper Lion is the general tone of awe and hero-worship, as though Plimpton were indulging in a secret childhood he could not suppress

So when I decided to write about my secret passion, the New York Giants, I had that uneasy feeling that comes from trying to act normally in an abnormal situation, like watching a pornographic movie for the first time Unless we are faced with a new experience for which there is no readymade form, we tend to forget how much the act of writing depends on the styles and forms we make our own but which are originally handed down to us This is why, for example, most students reproduce at best the latest platitudes when they are asked to write about their “experience” Only in undergraduate courses in exposition is writing taught as the description of some happening that is interesting or important, instead of the imposition of one's style on a subject, in a medium Norman Mailer's accounts of political or sports events, for example, are really Mailer's way of surrounding a subject, the way an amoeba surrounds what it eats

Most sportswriting has its own style and its own conventions, but it is rarely a sophisticated style, and its conventions come mostly from a blend of ordinary sports-talk and the newspaper feature story This is why, I suppose, most sportswriting is full of jazzed-up commonplaces made to look like inside stuff The style is usually a kind of quickie journalism, a strange mixture of “expertise,” locker-room gossip, and “human interest,” a running put-on of itself And worst of all, the endless flow of copy manages to give very little real information Reversing the formula of high-class journalism, which hides its emptiness behind skilled prose, sportswriting substitutes snappy clichés for fact and original observation One of the best of recent football books, Seven Days to Sunday, a blow-by-blow account of a week with the Giants, is full of images like that of Homer Jones “driving as though his body were made of frozen steel” and generalizations like “To perform the impossible, that is the stuff of heroes To possess an awesome talent that defies definition and leaves one staggered to see it”

It is not just a question of writing In general, the trouble is that football seduces us by appealing to feelings that the modern intellectual has learned to scorn—and which much of the nation is now beginning to question On the surface, the football boom is, of course, a product of TV and shrewd promotion But much of its popularity is due to the fact that it makes respectable the most primitive feelings about violence, patriotism, manhood The similarity to war is unmistakable each game is a battle with its own game-plan, each season a campaign, the whole thing a series of wars Football strategy is like military strategy, the different positions, each with its own functions but coordinated with the rest of the team, are like the various branches of the armed services There is even a general draft And one is loyal to one's country—according to geography and the accident of birth There is also a parallel to Vietnam, in the support of teams in foreign cities by local fans, which is considered as a hang-up, if not as treason For intellectuals, particularly—but also for a growing number of people generally—these are feelings they would ordinarily be ashamed of, so pro ball legitimizes their untamed feelings the way Evergreen accommodates voyeurs All sports serve as some kind of release but the rhythm of football is geared particularly to the violence and the peculiar combination of order and disorder of modern life Baseball is too slow, too dependable, too much like a regional drawl Basketball is too nervous and too tight, hockey too frenzied, boxing too chaotic, too folksy Only football provides a genuine catharsis

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So I went Sunday after Sunday for my periodic emotional depletion at Yankee Stadium But watching the Giants also provides certain fringe frustrations The game has been streamlined but the facilities are underdeveloped The VIP pressbox though unheated is at least glass-enclosed and centered on the fifty-yard line But a reporter from COMMENTARY sits in the open near the goal posts, overdressed but chilled, constantly trying to decide whether he can see better with or without field glasses The glasses give a close-up of a small field of action, like some of the line play, but as in television shots you lose the action as soon as the ball is snapped, and your eyes scurry frantically all over the field to keep up with the play (If we can send back pictures of the moon, why can't we have television cameras and field glasses that take in the whole scene the way the eye does?)

Even more frustrating, however, is watching the sloppy, unpredictable, soft play of a team that has been permitted to run down Like the nation as a whole, the Giants give the impression that while ev-everything is there, something is missing Occasionally, of course, and sometimes for a good part of a whole game, which is when they usually won, the team was high and strong But on analysis this was usually due to some of the men lifting their game to compensate for the let-down of the rest of the team—or perhaps the lethargy of the other team served to inspire the Giants And sometimes it was just Fran Tarkenton's one-man show that made up for the breakdown of the offense or the defense, which took turns in collapsing Watching the Giants was like what I imagine many Frenchmen felt every time they had to fight the up-to-date German army

The state of the Giants is very much like that of America as a whole full of past accomplishments but unable to cope with modern problems Also, too much affluence at the top I suspect the Giants have been permitted to run down because they can fill Yankee Stadium week after week with almost any kind of team Hence the Maras, who own the club, didn't spend enough money on players or build up a modern scouting apparatus to compete with the other ambitious, hungry, and efficient teams, like the Packers or the Cowboys or the Jets or the Colts, and they didn't bother to compete with the new League when it was lavishly and ruthlessly building up its war-plans The story is a familiar one Year after year the Giants waste most of their draft choices, and don't pick up enough gifted free agents Hence they do not have enough overall talent, and they rarely get any superstars who can hop-up the rest of the team or break open a game Occasionally they draft someone like Tucker Frederickson or Ernie Koy, who would be good enough if some of the other men were first-rate, or Willie Young, who is strong but not overpowering enough to solidify the left side of the offensive line (Besides, I imagine he would make a better guard than a tackle, especially because he is quite fast for his size, if the Giants' other tackles were good enough to release him for guard) Also, a smart trade was made when Lurtsema was picked up from the Colts, but again he is not as overwhelming as Olsen or Lilly or even Page, or some of the other top defensive linemen

As one looks over the roster of the Giants, one gets the feeling that the team has been put together by some kind of managerial and coaching ingenuity—the way little magazines manage without enough money And the sportswriters who might have served the function at least of prodding the Giants' management into keeping up with the development of the game have been either too timid or too lazy ever to write concretely about what's wrong with the Giants as a whole For example, the weakest spots for the last few seasons have been the ends, yet there have rarely been more than a few hints about this in the sports pages of the Times, the Post, or the News Only when the Giants made two ends, Dryer and Vanoy, their first two choices in the last draft, did the sportswriters let on that the ends were porous (And now the loss of Vanoy to Canada indicates the same old sloppy pre-draft intelligence) It is hard to tell whether the sportswriters' retroactive wisdom is the result of ignorance or caution

The rest of the team has the same kind of uneven, middling talent, just enough for a fairly good game most of the time, a brilliant one on occasion, especially when the opposing team breaks down, and a sloppy one often enough to keep the team on an even keel of mediocrity To get back to the ends, Katkavage is too slow, too small, too old, too dependent on age and savvy—indispensable to an outfit that has to live on its memories Anderson, like so many of the other men, almost has it he is just not quite quick enough or massive enough or smart enough Hence he sometimes gets around or over his blocker spectacularly and then on the next play gets sucked in or knocked down easily, particularly when he is hit low Willie Young, as I suggested, might be devastating if he were four or five inches taller, as it is, he is able to take out all but the very rangy, fast and strong ends Because his center of gravity is low he usually is better on a rush than on pass-blocking In a way, Young is a symbol of the Giants' fate drafted as a chance find, he turned out better than expected, and the sight of him bulling and outstepping an end like a pudgy ballet dancer is both reassuring and disappointing Wright is steady and uninspired, the kind of tackle who keeps the team from doing either too well or too badly The guards are weak Case is competent—some say underrated—but not too big, Dess highlights the generation gap on the team, and the other guards are undistinguished, picked up at the bargain counter To complete the offensive unit, the tight ends are quite ordinary, Crespino is above average but not fast enough, nor is he a first-rate blocker or pass-receiver, Wilson made the trade for him look good only in the collapse of Morrall in the Superbowl game Of the other ends, Homer Jones of course is a stand-out The rest are either fading or not blooming, though Thomas can be flashy at times Larsen is steady, though declining, and it is time to develop a replacement, but Chuck Hinton's performance so far has tended to be self-effacing One might note that almost all the men fall somewhere between outstanding speed and outstanding power, which might be the definition of the average, competent, unspectacular player (And in the offensive back-field the Giants also could use at least one spectacular back to return kicks and kick-offs of the kind so many other teams in both leagues seem able to acquire)

Of the defensive tackles, Lurtsema is the best The others are always on the brink of coming through, and it is hard to tell whether the chaotic development of the team has not permitted them to grow up Silas never came on strong, after being traded And so on The linebackers show flashes of talent—Crutcher is tough and Avery determined—but they are small and undependable, and Davis plays like someone from whom you expect everything in the future, very little right now Possibly the best unit is the defensive backfield, though it needs one more good back-up man

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If I sound like the frustrated manager inside every fan, satisfied with nothing but a winner, magnifying the team's failures, dreaming of sensational trades all winter long, it is because it is hard to invest your competitive feelings in a team that's a success when it wins more than it loses. Imagine living in a country that insists on fighting every week but doesn't know whether it will win or lose. This is what it must be like, I suppose, to be an Egyptian or Jordanian. But the Giants are all I have, so there I sat in the stands at the weekly lose-in, nursing my anxieties and discomforts, hoping this time the defense wouldn't fall apart, and the offense would coordinate sufficiently for a few sustained drives and few long gains, enough to win if only by a single point.

My morale was, however, propped up slightly by the spectacle of Allie Sherman after losing a game suffering even more than I did. A couple of times at the press conferences after the game in the locker room, I was shocked to see the fallen coach slumped like a man who thought he had nothing to live for. He was white, could barely talk, his eyes were lifeless and unfocused, and I felt the only thing that kept him from breaking down was his impatience with the foolish questions of the reporters. I had always suspected that only the professionals knew what was going on on the field, but the innocence of the reporters in the locker room left no doubt about their permanent amateur status. For example, in answer to an uninformed question about an uncompleted pass, Sherman whispered matter-of-factly it was simply a busted play. None of the other questions was either probing or embarrassing. I remember a game the Giants lost mainly because they could not keep out one of the opposing defending ends, yet none of the sportswriters was ungracious enough to bring this up. Nor was there any reference to this fact in all the expert accounts and rehashes the whole next week of what “really happened” on the field. Even the Superbowl, which one would expect to be reported more exactly, was covered sloppily. One of the main reasons the Colts couldn't get an offense going was that Sam Ball couldn't hold Gerry Philbin; yet the sportswriters managed at great length to keep this pertinent piece of information secret. Another cause of the Colts' breakdown was the depressed play of Earl Morrall, an uninspired quarterback, whom the sportswriters kept overpraising all season. Why? The only reason I can think of is that like most experts, they ride the going trends. Their own contribution is to embellish the official, public-relations version of what is happening at any given time. If the Colts are winning, then Morrall is a strategist, a leader, a “pinpoint passer”; as soon as the Colts lose, the sportswriters forget about him and start rehabilitating Unitas.

In the locker-room sessions, I was too timid to ask questions of any of the players, particularly since I was not equipped with pencil and pad and felt sure I did not look like a reporter. The questions asked by the “other” reporters had a professional air but they never got to the performance of the individual players or the team as a whole on any given play or sequence of plays. What they were after, it soon became clear, was the kind of answer that could provide newspaper copy: like Tarkenton saying—half in earnest, half with standard athlete's gallantry—he should have been sharper, or on a play that didn't work that he had to take the chance, and all the blame. In fact, once when Norman Podhoretz came to the game and down to the locker room with me, we both noted that the players made up a separate world which the bustling reporters pretended to be a part of, like old liberals at a youth conference. The players were quiet, remote, businesslike, unromantic. It was the reporters who because they had to write a dramatic story made a romance of the game. The players had simply done a day's work. Both Norman and I also noticed that the Giants were not oversized or particularly muscular, though some were tall and others chunky; they did not look as though they were made for the kind of mythic battles one reads about in sports prose.

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But for a true fan the only question is the future of the team. What are the prospects of the Giants? So far as I can make out—and here I must plead my own amateurism—Sherman is a smart and resourceful coach, if not, like Lombardi or Landry, a great team organizer. But it is hard to tell where exactly the blame lies for the lack of better material, since the problem these days seems to be not so much a matter of grabbing a few stars as of building a football machine constantly feeding potential stars into every position. It's an industry run just inefficiently enough to provide some fun—not altogether unlike the publishing business.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with the Giants that probably couldn't be cured by a few defensive ends, a big, fast back, another defensive tackle, a couple of guards—to begin modestly. How hard is this to do? I don't know.

The collapse of the Giants does seem to typify the breakdown of New York City as a whole, the way a failing army signals the decline of a state. But if the fate of the city might be out of control, still it might be possible to revive the Giants. Nor, given the unevenness of history, is there any reason why even a dying city should not for a time have a live football team. Of course, there are the unmentionable Jets, but they are late-comers, with the improvised spirit of a pick-up team, and their new breed of fans is like a ragged army of internal refugees, whose attachments and loyalties and enthusiasms are neither stable nor predictable. The myth of the Giants is identified with the myth of New York, and only the Giants can supply that element of tradition and allegiance and security that is disappearing from every aspect of American life except sports. Only the Giants can arrest the galloping alienation of the intellectuals. And if, as in the reversals of sex, the vices of the intellectuals are the virtues of other people, this is just another example of the contradiction lying at the heart of all popular culture.

So what have I to look forward to but another cold season in the stands, with my ragged Giants, wrapped up in the illusion that my own life and that of my city has something to do with whether the Giants win or lose.

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