The Brutal Sport
by George Plimpton.
Harper & Row. 362 pp. $5.95.
There are worse ways of getting to know about a country than through its sports, and since America’s two major national sports have been rejected by almost the whole of the rest of the world, they serve as an especially intriguing paradigm. The Japanese play baseball and play it badly, having produced just one major league player in sixty years—though on every other Tokyo street-corner, a baseball thuds monotonously into a baseball glove. Canada alone has taken to that strange amalgam of ritual and brutality which is American football. In writing about it from the inside, a literate and observant Walter Mitty, George Plimpton tells us much about the game, much about the United States, and a certain amount about himself.
Before exegesis, a confession is in order. I am an appassionato of soccer, who has always marveled at and deplored the fact that the United States has passed it by. I have never been drawn to rugby football, let alone to its robust child, American football, and though Mr. Plimpton is, at his best, a beguiling writer, he has not, in this book, even begun to convert me.
It has always seemed to me that the charm of soccer lies in two qualities which the American game does not and never will possess. First, it is physically democratic; the greatest footballer in the world, Pelé of Brazil, stands five feet eight inches, and weighs 150 pounds. Secondly, though it’s a game of infinite complexity, soccer has a marvelous surface simplicity, resembling, in this sense, a great work of art. Mr. Plimpton presents us with a game which has very few of the attributes of a game—unless it be one of those with sinister, sadistic undertones, so often to be found in the works of Harold Pinter.
His footballers, with their ubiquitous playbooks—snatched away from them as soon as they are discarded by their clubs—their endless lectures, their infinitely complex and static strategies, seem to be preparing for war rather than for sport. We know, of course, that every game is a form of sublimated aggression, but in American football, the sublimation hardly seems to have taken place. Let me quote a passage or two from Mr. Plimpton’s book:
At the base of it was the urge, if you wanted to play football, to knock someone down, that was what the sport was all about, the will to win closely linked with contact. Wilson [the Detroit coach] told me that his teammate Jumbo Joe Stydahar once shouted at a losing team when he was a coach: “No wonder you guys get kicked around. Every one of you’s still got his teeth.”
. . . On one of the teams, Green Bay, the same ritual took place between Dan Currie and Ray Nitschke, except that in their case, after the blows to the shoulder pads, they would give each other cuffing, open-palm slaps to the face, hard enough to twist the head abruptly. They would glare at each other, and then take the hate, which they had generated like clicking on a switch, out onto the field.
American football, then, is a game of violence and hatred; or so it appears in these pages. Nor, since Mr. Plimpton is an accurate reporter with an excellent ear for dialogue and a fine feel for a situation, does there seem the least reason to doubt him. Half the excitement of his Mitty-like participation in practice matches and the public “scrimmage” lies in the frisson of physical risk. By normal standards, he’s a large enough man; by football standards, he is the merest sapling. When the 300-pounders come bearing down at him, it is like Chichester braving the towering waves in a sailing boat. Every moment, as Joyce once had it, might be his next.
At his best, there is no more satisfying sports writer in America than Mr. Plimpton, precisely because he is, first of all, a writer. Though American sports journalism has given us, in its time, Ring Lardner and Runyon, it is passing through a bankrupt era—the death of Liebling and John Lardner, the loss of a New York platform for Red Smith, has left it largely barren. There is, however, little in Paper Lion to compare with Mr. Plimpton’s bravura piece, published in Sports Illustrated, about the attempt of Cassius Clay and his trainer-acolyte, Bundini, to find restaurant service on a highway in the South. This is, I think, because the very nature of his enterprise implies a dichotomy; a need to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.
It is certainly to Mr. Plimpton’s credit that he should have undertaken his task without a vestige of patronage, as “one of the boys”; so much so that the footballers came gladly to accept him as one of themselves, wanted him to play in the public exhibition match against the Cleveland Browns, despite the management; repeatedly ask him back to training camp, even use him to represent them at player-drafts.
But Mr. Plimpton is not one of the boys, otherwise he would not have been able to write this book. He is a sophisticated literary gentleman with a boyish passion for sport, and the two qualities are constantly, in this book, pulling him in two different directions. Thus, there are tantalizing passages when he abandons his crisp, journalistic style of short, functional sentences, and takes wing. A passage toward the end evokes the scene out at the training camp as he leaves for home, passing two girls, youthful and pretty on the tennis court, while the sad, despairing cry of the Lions players wafts over the trees.
This is fine, and this is literature. But when Mr. Plimpton is exchanging wisecracks with the players, coming down—without condescenscion, it is true—to their jocular, jockstrap level—then he is inevitably diminished.
The book is loose and long, bearing the signs of its origin as a series of magazine articles, so that its more distinguished passages tend to get buried in straightforward reportage. But the picture of a professional footballer’s world, however unsympathetic, comes out four square and three dimensional. Not that Mr. Plimpton means, for a moment, to be unsympathetic; he clearly likes most of what he sees. But the persisting adolescence, the hazing and the hierarchy of it all, are reminiscent of the nasty army world with which we have been familiarized by James Jones.
Much of this is attributable to the pernicious system of the draft, the annual influx of rookies. At the beginning of each season, every club brings in a troop of college footballers, who might laughingly be called amateurs. The veterans are thus immediately confronted by a series of challengers for their positions—and react accordingly. Mr. Plimpton shows us how they not only behave to the unfortunate rookies like bullies at an English public school, but studiously withhold the benefit of their experience, enjoying rather than correcting the newcomers’ mistakes. It is, as I have said, the system which produces the situation, but systems do not happen by accident; they grow out of a country’s character, its unconscious demands and aspirations.
I found myself comparing this unhealthy scene with the world of English soccer, where players are transferred, not en masse, but one or two at a time, where it is customary for gifted boys to join the so-called “ground staff” of a club as apprentice professionals, straight after leaving school, at the age of fifteen. I remembered, in particular, the story of Tommy Lawton’s arrival at Everton, an infant prodigy of a center-forward, still barely seventeen. There he was greeted by the burly and formidable Dixie Dean, the Babe Ruth of his era, a prolific goal scorer. Dean went up to him, shook him by the hand, and said, “You’ve come to take my place, son. Good luck.”
Of course there are rivalries, jealousies, and every sort of swinishness in the soccer world; soccer players, too, are human beings. But the built-in resentment and suspicion, the endemic competitiveness, are something that one does not find. Again and again, one meets younger players who pay grateful tribute to the older players who helped them.
American football seems, like so many American folk-phenomena, hung-up on violence and a doubtful concept of masculinity. It was Christopher Isherwood who wrote, in Lions and Shadows, that for the genuinely strong man, there is no test; he merely sits at home while the weak man makes his moral way round by the killing Northwest Passage. All this Mr. Plimpton shows us with great clarity, though without manifest intention.
He also shows us much which interests and even delights, presenting us with a wonderful gallery of grotesques, a glorious catalogue of hangers-on, exotically superstitious players, eccentric managers, peculiar fans. In Alex Karras, he gives us what must surely be one of the most extraordinary athletes in the world, a superbly bizarre figure with his fantasies of other incarnations, his self-disgust, his tearful love of the game. Followers of other professional sports will be familiar with the fan who dutifully and obsessively eats unpalatable meatball sandwiches, dresses in the same worn clothes, follows the same compulsive route to the same compulsive seat, in order to make his team “win.” But few other countries, few other sports, could produce such rich grotesques as Mr. Plimpton’s dotty hanger-on in his broken-down car, his strange photographer who persuades the players into poses that never were, neither on land nor on sea.
Mr. Plimpton’s book deserves its popularity, satisfying as it does the fantasies of a million men in the stands, in prose and with an eye and ear which none of them could match. For the literary, it must be a tantalizing book, giving, as it does, so many evocative glimpses of how well Mr. Plimpton can write, how impressively he uses simile and metaphor, especially in passages like the one which describes the crowd’s invasion of the field at Yankee Stadium.
He is a good writer; too good, one feels, for so antipathetic a game. May its life be nasty, brutish . . . and short.