Another NFL Sunday and the Fabric of Pro Football Frays Some More

Incoherence: The outcome when a system’s parts fail to stick together.

In one corner, we find the Ray Rices, Greg Hardys and Zeke Elliotts of the pro football world, bad actors looking for redemption. In another corner, we find the protestors, aiming to speak for those without a voice. Look around some more, there are fans in all sorts of nooks and crannies, some of whom gave Ray Rice a standing ovation just a few years ago and others who hold nothing but disgust for the protesting players. The owners, twisted with what to do about it all, find themselves cornered, truly. Except for Jerry Jones, who will head in whatever direction best suits his brand. My guess is that Roger Goodell and the NFL Players Association are elsewhere, spending more money and energy fighting over due process for pro players than they do supporting the victims of domestic violence. And the media stays tangled in the hottest take it can find.

What a mess. Yes, pro football is a lot like America.

Of course, I don’t have answers, other than the stab I took a couple weeks ago. Still, I offer a partial explanation for the growing incoherence in pro football, which seems apt to bring the sport to its knees.

What we are seeing play out is the difference between incoherent gestures and concerted action. Gestures are symbolic, meant to send a message. When the gestures are fragmented, the substance of the communication is lost. Some players sit. Others kneel. Some lock arms. Sometimes with the owners. More often without them. They stand in tunnels. They stay in the locker rooms. The media keeps score. How many this Sunday? Where and what did they do? Heck, even the executive branch of the U.S. government got into the gesturing.

And to what end?

Contrast where pro football finds itself today with the story of the 1951 University of San Francisco football team, one of the most accomplished college football teams in history. That team finished their season undefeated before sending eight players to the NFL, three of whom would eventually become Hall of Famers (Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson, and Bob St. Clair).[1] Against the odds as a small school, USF was invited to play in the Orange Bowl. But there was one stipulation. The team couldn’t bring its two black players, Matson and his backfield running mate, Burl Toler. The team meeting took less than five minutes for the players to render a unanimous rejection of the Orange Bowl bid. The school’s loss of the Orange Bowl revenue forced them to shut down the football program altogether. Talk about team-wide sacrifice.

Where the concerted action of the 1951 USF story ended, the NFL’s current dilemma of incoherent gestures began. Because as righteous as Colin Kaepernick’s intention might have been, it was an unannounced solo performance just as his teammates were preparing to take center stage on the football field. That’s not concerted action grounded in teamwork at the foundation of football. Moreover, neither Kaepernick nor his fellow NFL protestors are making the kind of voluntary sacrifice that the entire ’51 USF team made. Sure, Kaepernick is paying a price, but it hasn’t been voluntary. He supposedly promised to stand this year, and has now filed a grievance to get back in the game. Coherent action?

As I wrote in my first Medium piece, I’ve been damn steeped in pro football all my life. Right now, I’m a lot like the NFL and the nation: divided, tense, angry and disappointed. I’m behind the cause; I’m just not down with the incoherence. We need — I need, anyway — to reclaim the soul of football, now more than ever.

The kind of team work football exemplifies is not a panacea. It’s a pain in the ass to accomplish. But it’s more indispensable than ever.

Best regards,

Michael McCormack, The Born Fanatic

[1] “A lesson in doing the right thing: 1951 USF Dons.” Bruce Gallaudet, The Davis Enterprise, August 11, 2011.

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