Once again I say, I love Brian Phillips. Grantland publishes a good deal of crap, but Brian Phillips, Charlie Pierce, and Bryan Curtis make up for a lot.
With the World Cup having occupied a lot of my attention this summer, I have been trying for weeks to finish a post about soccer. One thing I wanted to say is that soccer players have become my heroes, my avatars of manhood, the badasses whose bravery and grace under duress I thrill to. Clint Dempsey playing with a broken nose, guys having a bloody gash glued up by the physio and then re-entering the game -- they are to me what Emmitt Smith is to Brian Phillips and his father in the piece.
I guess having a zone where I can admire "men being men" is important to me. Football used to serve that function: (See: Kellen Winslow, 1981 playoffs.) But the brutality of football has gotten to be more than I can take. The "spectacle of acrobatic violence, an endless war between shiny cartoon armies" -- I don't believe in it anymore.
Phillips starts in on the Ray Rice spousal-abuse debacle, and the peculiar kind of PR morass that the NFL keeps finding itself in:
...It has to do, I think, with the NFL’s curious, quasi-self-appointed role as the safe zone of troubled American masculinity — or, more broadly, as a kind of wildlife refuge for endangered privilege. You could glimpse the character of this role throughout the Michael Sam story, in which a background of frank homophobia was barely kept hidden by the curtain of celebration. You could see still more of it in the controversy over the Redskins name, in which the real question, for the term’s indignant defenders, has never been “Is this word acceptable?” The real question has been “Why wouldn’t this word be acceptable in football, where we’re supposed to be able to do things like this?”
Internet comments defending Rice and the NFL are — well, many of them are genuinely and chillingly misogynistic, but I think more of them are primarily concerned with protecting football from mainstream cultural norms: Don’t take this away too.
I love the common thread he finds among Ray Rice, Michael Sam, and the Washington football team nickname.
The title of Phillips's article, "Tough Talk," reminds me of my overarching theory about Republican foreign policy: tough talk is all Republicans are good at, and at some some strange juncture the tough talk takes on a life of its own, regardless of its objectives or any reasonable cost/benefit calculus. This problem can bleed over into domestic public policy too. (See: the police in Ferguson, Missouri.)
The piece concludes:
What I really want is to save football, a game that I love, from the men who think it should work like this. I want to dispel the illusion; I want that hypertrophied caricature of male prerogative to have no place in American life.
Me too; but I believe it's an illusion to think that football can be saved on these terms. Phillips doesn't even mention the issue of concussions, which is easily the toughest challenge Roger Goodell faces. To me, the answer is to eliminate the use of the helmet as a weapon. But football won't be football anymore if that happens. The players know that's true; in fact, one of the thorniest aspects of the concussion debate is that the players love the danger of the sport, are not ready to trade away the immediate thrill for their own long-term health.