Football Aphorisms and analogies usually leave me cold -- such "life lesson" clichés seem designed to pacify an already somnolent population of television-addicted zombies.
Even as a football-loving kid, I suspected there was something truly screwed up about Vince Lombardi's celebrated phrase, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." And when Dave Meggysey's powerful exposé of pro football, Out of Their League, was published, in 1970, I became a confirmed pigskin skeptic (nonetheless dutifully reporting to the practice field for "two-a-days" in the sweltering August heat).
And yet, while I haven't watched a game from beginning to end for at least a decade, I just can't help resorting to my own football analogies to describe the gravely ill American political system. I suppose that deep down, I still take football very seriously.
It's old news that a destructive commercialism has taken over organized sports and the country as a whole. (It's hard to believe there was a time, in 1961, when Ohio State actually refused a Rose Bowl invitation, to play down the university's reputation as a football factory.) Even the dimmest spectator senses that professional and major college football games are played for the sponsors as much as for the players and fans -- that the TV timeout is a display of contempt by the football establishment toward the mob that pays the bills.
Similarly, even the least enlightened voter understands that he's a spectator in the political process -- he senses that the two major political parties and their corporate sponsors view him with, at best, indifference. Just as corporate money rules football through TV contracts, corporate money dominates politics through PAC contributions and TV advertising.
Granted, the money corruption of sports and politics is a bad thing. But my football analogy concerns the playing of the game itself -- the unthinking top-down conformity of contemporary football, and its parallels with the sheep-like conformity of a people that votes automatically for largely indistinguishable, slickly packaged Democratic and Republican candidates. And this notion (if you hate football analogies, please be patient) was driven home for me by the recent Oklahoma State-Oklahoma game, which I happened to hear on the car radio.
It's been a long time since I played JV quarterback at tiny North Shore Country Day School, but just the sounds of the crowd in Norman brought back some of the excitement -- and terror -- I used to feel when I lined up behind the center to take the snap. And despite the vast difference in the caliber of play, not to mention the stakes, I felt acutely the dilemma, and the pain, of Oklahoma State quarterback Al Pena. Filling in for the injured starter, Bobby Reid, and playing for the clearly inferior squad, Pena was very much behind the eight ball.
But I think Pena's greatest handicap was his lack of freedom. As was noted repeatedly by the Sports USA Radio analyst, former USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson, the beleaguered QB was taking instructions from the bench until the last possible second on the line of scrimmage. According to Robinson, the coaches on the sideline bench were signaling a predetermined play A or B to Pena after an OSU coach in the press box scouted the defensive alignment -- a tactic that might work in a computer simulation, but one that permitted Pena virtually no initiative in the actual chaos of a football field.
Without the chance to call his own plays, or to know the play even a minute before the snap, how could Pena surprise the other team, or, for that matter, himself? Not surprisingly, the OSU offense stalled from the outset; Oklahoma opened up a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and wound up winning big, 42-14.
Probably none of this would matter much to me if I hadn't played football for Martin J. "Mac" McCarty, a coach who considered excessive sideline intervention anathema to his idea of education. Call it quaint, but Mac sincerely believed that football built character in adolescent boys -- that is, if you let the boys play the game. We ran a very simple offense (with some audibles), and with few exceptions Mac insisted on his quarterbacks' calling their own plays in the huddle.
I wasn't particularly good, but Mac pushed me for reasons of his own, or maybe just because he thought I needed it. As freshmen, we suited up with the upperclassmen and he soon threw me into a varsity game in which we had a safe lead. I'll never forget my fear, but also my sense of empowerment, when I trotted out on the field, took over the huddle, and called a play -- a hand-off -- that I thought I could execute without looking incompetent. I'm not positive that I called all of the next three, but I do recall feeling quite daring to be rolling right on fourth and a few yards, and throwing an incomplete pass near our opponents' end zone. I wasn't really disappointed; on the contrary, it felt great to take a risk, which I think was Mac's essential goal for me. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that Mac's lifetime record in football, over 40 years, was 207-114, with 6 ties.
After he retired, in 1988, Mac would call me occasionally to chat. Sometimes our conversation would turn to the degraded state of modern sports and society. To his horror, even North Shore football had changed for the worse: His young successor was calling all the plays from the sidelines, in total contravention of Mac's mantra of independence and initiative. "Jeez," he would say disgustedly, "the whole point was to learn how to think for yourself out there." And not just me. The talented guy who beat me out for quarterback my sophomore year, Mark Wollaeger, is now a very thoughtful James Joyce scholar and professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
All this made me wonder: Would the great college and pro coach John Robinson agree that something bad had happened to football, and, by extension, the American body politic?
"It's robotic what they do to the players," he told me by phone from his home, in Arizona. Yes, defenses are more sophisticated than in the old days, which requires greater pre-game planning by offenses, even to the exent of creating computer models. But in Robinson's opinion, the programmers have gone too far: "It's okay to tell the quarterback what to do [overall], but he should take over the huddle, so that when it breaks, the whole team is running the play. That's how you get an edge; that's how you build morale and esprit de corps. It offends me to see the whole team looking over to the bench waiting for instructions. And it denies the quarterback the opportunity to be assertive from a personal standpoint. You should let the players play."
In the pros, Robinson said, the lone exception to the no-initiative ethos is Peyton Manning, quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, "and the coaches get mad at him" when he changes the play at line of scrimmage.
So is the top-down control of football an apt analogy for the political arena? To be sure, said Robinson. "It's part of the culture. I'm sick to death of the [overly scripted, overly managed politician] not answering the question. But the media deserves the blame, too, because they tear down anybody who says what they think."
Which led Robinson to President Bush and his latest advertising campaign: "I pick up the paper the other day and there's Bush and the 'Plan for Victory' in Iraq." The old coach laughed, then added, with some irony, "I wish him well -- but the Plan for Victory in Iraq?"
I think the plan for victory in Iraq, like the plan for victory at Oklahoma State, would have Mac McCarty turning in his grave. I hope Al Pena, the quarterback and the citizen, can understand why.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© 2005 Providence Journal