From the Nation.
The Church of Football
by ROBERT LIPSYTE
[posted online on January 30, 2007]
1. In the Beginning...
"Sports are the real thing. Work is the opiate--work and revolution and politics." -- Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports
Given the chance, I'd watch the Super Bowl with the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who knows about Baal and ball. Twenty years ago, in Lynchburg, Virginia, at a Liberty University Flames game, Dr. Falwell told me: "Jesus was no sissy. He was tough, he was a he-man. If he played football, you'd be slow getting up after he tackled you."
He had me at "sissy." The rest was revelation. The muscularity of Dr. Falwell's evangelical Christianity was a perfect fit with football, another win-or-lose game. For Americans, war hasn't produced a real winner for more than 60 years. That's why we need football. But let's get back to Dr. Falwell. "My respect for Catholicism and Mormonism goes straight up watching Notre Dame and Brigham Young play," he told me. He hoped that, someday, Notre Dame and Liberty, his evangelical college, would meet for the national championship, thus informing the nation that "the Christians are here, we're not meek and we're not going to fall down in front of you. We're here to stay."
While we wait for his Holy Bowl to show us how to kick the other cheek, we do have the gospels, saints, and rituals of the Super Bowl, arguably the holiest day of the American calendar. Nothing in sports draws us together as surely--not elections, the Academy Awards, disasters, terrorist acts, or celebrity deaths. The Super Bowl is a melting pot hot enough for atheists, Sodomites, and Teletubbies to become one with the Saved, if only for a single Sunday. But that's a start.
If I did get to watch the Super Bowl with Dr. Falwell this time around, I'd ask him the following question: Did God design football--and encourage it to evolve into Superbowl-dom--as a model religion for the most powerful empire on earth?
This is not some snide random note from your Jock Culture scribe. Because the entire football season is packaged as a prelude to the championship, it is easy for evangelists to pound home their lesson that life is merely a series of downs en route to salvation. Leave it to heretics to bemoan the loss of process, the idea that a well-played life has honor and meaning even if there is no trophy or ring at the end.
Dr. Falwell avowed the rules when he told me, "If ever you adopt a philosophy that winning is not important, it's how you play the game, you cop out. This is America. If you're not a winner it's your own fault."
Amen, the whistle has blown.
2. Lives of the Saints
"Religion is a communication system that is constituted by supernatural beings and is related to specific patterns of behavior." -- H.H. Penner
I covered the second and third Super Bowls--that second one was still called the American Football League-National Football League Championship Game and only given a roman numeral retroactively--and came to meet the three iconic figures of the early church: Vince Lombardi, Joe Namath, and Pete Rozelle. Back then I called them the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, which was joke-y and misinformed. They were not the Trinity. They were saints of the church of pro football--hard-working, talented non-WASP products of Americanization--and role models for what a coach, a superstar, and a sports commissioner should be. I would say that's all they were until the Saul/Pauls growing the church in the late twentieth century also made them role models for the most important symbolic positions in the most powerful empire on earth.
Rozelle became the model of the charismatic politician who, while working at the sufferance of the corporado owners, could persuade those strong-willed rich men to hang together for their self-interest. Lombardi was the CEO/general who could contain and lead not only the Green Bay Packers but the state's armies by his intimidating moral power--as well as his authority to hire and fire. And Namath, the glamorous hero who could deliver the winning bomb, was the quintessential fungible youth to be sent out to fight and die.
I came to admire them each as individuals--although not the willfully misinterpreted symbols they became--in the same spirit that I would rather hoist a few with Falwell's he-man Jesus than Paul's ethereal martyr. Lombardi, Namath, and Rozelle were saints because they were believers; they loved their sport and lifted it beyond what was, until then, the national sport, baseball. (Think of baseball as the timeless, heart-breaking sports equivalent of Judaism, which had supplanted pagan boxing.) It wasn't their fault that the National Football League became a bloated, pretentious empire--it is currently penetrating both the European and Chinese markets--destroying its young with steroids, obesity (we are approaching the 400-pound lineman), and untreated head injuries. Violence sells.
The trickle-down Rozelles in sports, government, and business are now slick front men--each pretending to be The Decider--as they angle for options; the little Lombardis are bullies and tyrants who seem more interested in power as a platform than as a force for improvement. We are ass-deep in numb-nuts Namaths now, girl and boy starbabies in TV, music, movies as well as sports who learned to strut before they learned to score.
Some of them are actually amusing; a few of them are sociopaths who could jump into the stands and mess you up. (The Jock Chromosome has a bad-boy gene for which, I believe, the League now fishes, but that's a subject for another day.) Back to the original saints of an imperial church they could not have imagined. I met Lombardi first, in 1968. He threw a cocktail party for the press several days before his mythic Green Bay Packers beat the Oakland Raiders (owned by Rozelle's rival and arch-enemy, Al Davis, who was Satan) in Super Bowl II. I arrived late with a breathless question: Did Coach have any comment on Jerry Kramer's statement that the Packers had been a little flat this past season after winning the first Super Bowl because a new league alignment had brought them less challenging competition?
Squat and beady-eyed, Lombardi snapped, "Kramer who?"
"Your offensive guard," I said.
He glared at me. "He never said that."
"But I heard him on the radio."
Lombardi snarled, "Don't come in here and tell me things like that."
I hid for awhile, had a couple of drinks, and made another approach. Lombardi seemed in good spirits, holding forth on the effect of potential wind-chill factors on running, passing, and kicking. This was new thinking in football; in retrospect, he sounded like a twenty-first century Weather Channel anchor. I said something inane about how he seemed more like a New England fisherman than a Brooklyn boy.
He began to cackle, and just when I thought I had scored a social touchdown, he said, "Who is this guy? Doesn't he know New York's right on the water? It's an island, we're on the ocean, we look at the sky."
I joined the laughter: Who was this dumbo they were talking about? Later, I decided that, if Lombardi--harsh and driven and rigorous (he had once taught Latin)--were my sports editor, I'd win the Pulitzer. It was pretty much the way his players felt. It would hurt, but he could make them better.
Lombardi probably didn't originate the saying, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing," but he did allow himself to be identified with the phrase, both because he was vain and because, in football, it's true. More important, he never connected it to the larger culture, to social climbing, politics, or war.
The role of pro coach he helped create has, by now, been transformed in ways that would be unrecognizable to him. Autocrat is no longer enough, now that the coach isn't an unquestioned father-figure for white farm boys from nuclear families. Contemporary athletes demand "respect" and need coaches who pretend to be "working with" them. Most of today's successful coaches are mind-bending manipulators who make athletes believe they alone can make them winners. Lombardi could be a bully but he treated athletes individually and humanely; current bullies tend to treat the athlete as an interchangeable piece in their own intelligent designs.
There was a lot that Lombardi, good as he was, didn't understand. While dying, according to David Maraniss' splendid biography, When Pride Still Mattered, Lombardi shouted out in his sleep, "Joe Namath! You're not bigger than football. Remember that."
Forget that. For a few shining hours, Namath was a lot bigger than football, and one of the reasons why football got bigger.
more at: The Church of Football