Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

GREEN MACHINE

Brian Thomas Gallagher on Mark Maske’s War Without Death: A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football’s NFC East

Brian Thomas Gallagher


(There is a tendency to represent sports, especially football, in bellicose terms. From the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, perched high upon their steeds in the iconic photograph, to the storied Steel Curtain defensive line of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers, with its cold-war-ish nickname, the chatter around football revels in combat vocabulary.

In War Without Death: A Year of Extreme Competition in Pro Football’s NFC East, Mark Maske, the Washington Post football guru, continues in this vein: “Violence sells,” he writes. “Football’s natural breaks in play make it the perfect sport for TV, true, but it is engrossing as an athletic metaphor for war. It’s about grand acquisition and aerial attack. It’s about covert intelligence. . . . Most people cringe, and rightfully so, when players liken themselves in locker room interviews to soldiers heading off to war. . . . But really they are on to something.” In other words, it is an insensitive and self-important metaphor, but we’re going to run with it anyway.

It’s not long, however, until the reality of modern professional sports intrudes on this reverie. Notice that Maske can’t help but mention that the cadence of a football game lends itself to the television format, which is to say there are ideal spots in which to intersperse commercials. It’s no wonder professional football has surpassed baseball in revenue and viewership and become America’s game. And whatever metaphor you want to overlay, the bottom line remains. The kind of money the National Football League makes tends to defy metaphor.

While Maske might not agree entirely, he is not ignorant of the financial vagaries of professional football as it is practiced today. To this point, War Without Death is being billed as the Moneyball of football. It isn’t really. Michael Lewis’s 2003 examination of the way the underfinanced Oakland Athletics managed to field a competitive team was about a specific phenomenon in baseball. But inasmuch as finances now seem to be the salient object of coverage, we may as well just call every book about professional sports Moneyball. In fact, every major sport could conceivably be called moneyball. This particular brown, oblong moneyball seems to be faring rather well.

From January 2006 to January 2007, Maske tracked the NFC East’s four powerhouse teams, Washington, Dallas, Philadelphia, and New York. According to him, “the Redskins, Cowboys, and Eagles had been estimated to have franchise values of greater than $1 billion each in the latest Forbes magazine survey and the Giants soon might surpass them all.” These are large numbers, and they are not exclusive to these big-market teams. The terms under which the NFLis structured dictate a profitsharing arrangement that either benefits or hinders each team in the league, depending on whether the team you ask is being benefited or hindered at that moment. Nevertheless, the upshot has helped propel football’s popularity, since all teams are reasonably competitive, and each has a chance on “any given Sunday.” As Maske succinctly puts it, “The entire sport is set up to be a regression to the mean. Every team is dragged back toward average. . . . Maybe that makes for a diminished quality of play, but that is a difficult thing for the average fan to ascertain. That fan only knows that his or her favorite team is competitive with everyone else in the league and that is enough.” Everybody plays, and everybody wins. Recently negotiated television rights alone will bring the league “$3.7 billion per season . . . or roughly $117 million per team annually, up from about $2.8 billion in the 2005 season under the old deals,” and football’s annual revenue is now in the neighborhood of $6 billion.

War Without Death chronicles both the “pay season”––when all of the trades, contracts, and free-agency deals are done––and the “play season,” when the teams see whether these moves pay off. The proportions of this coverage are noteworthy. Most of the book’s attention focuses on the preseason horse trading. The recruitment and scouting machines are formidable, and Maske chronicles them meticulously. For instance, we hear that Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato and his scouting staff evaluate “every player on every NFL team. For every player in the league the Redskins had a file on a computer with the player’s height, weight, and speed, plus summaries of his strengths and weaknesses and his potential value. The Redskins assigned each player a letter grade. A grade of A– or better signified a good player worth pursuing if he was available; a B was a backup. . . . Once the Redskins’ season ended the team’s pro scouts met with Cerrato and went over all the players league-wide who were eligible for free agency that spring, both unrestricted and restricted, plus players with voidable contracts who could become free and players who might be cut or traded.” This is football as procedural drama.

The on-field action doesn’t begin until chapter 20, two-thirds of the way through the book, and in a sense it is academic. Performance in particular games is always described in terms of how much players are being paid and what deals were made to secure them. In this sense, Maske’s book is characteristic of the game it chron icles. Depending on your area of interest, this can be a negative or positive evaluation. To me, it—the sport or the book, take your pick—lacks the drama and personality that sport at its best promises. It’s hard to say that the game of football isn’t as good as it’s ever been, but it sometimes seems that all the spirit has been MBAed and PRed out of the NFL.

Consider Jerry Kramer’s classic book of 1968, Instant Replay, which Jimmy Breslin called “one of the rarest things—a sports book written in English by an adult.” On the cover, Kramer, a smashmouth guard for the Vince Lombardi–led Green Bay Packers jugger naut, is shown on the bench, in full pads, muddied and exhausted. It begins, “I drove downtown to the Packer offices today to pick up my mail, mostly fan mail about our victory in the first Super Bowl game, and as I came out of the building Coach Lombardi came in. I waved to him cheerfully—I have nothing against him during the off-season— and I said, ‘Hi, Coach.’” If this sounds more like a real person than any football player you’ve heard recently, that’s because he was more like a real person. To wit, in 1967, Kramer, a star on the league’s dominant team, asked that his salary be raised to $27,500 per year. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $185,000. The minimum salary in the NFLtoday is $285,000.

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If this smacks of romanticism, who cares? Sport is a romantic endeavor, meant to produce romantic characters. It seems the only “characters” now are troublemaking sideshows like Terrell Owens and Randy Moss and criminals like Michael Vick and Adam “Pacman” Jones. If you outlaw character, I suppose only outlaws will be characters. So here again, war metaphors do not suffice. When one thinks of soldiers, ideally, one thinks of honor, courage, stamina. These men are for the most part just very rich dullards, who can do one thing particularly well—like read pass coverage or hit a hole on a sweep.

The thing about metaphors is that they don’t simply occur, they are devised, and while war may be a tempting and romantic analogue for football, the story Maske tells is reminiscent of something else. Maybe it’s time for a new metaphoric schema, in which we acknowledge that sustained profit, not conflict itself, is the point, in which the major players work together to preserve both their authority and their bottom line. This sounds less like the drama of war than the banality of the military-industrial complex.)

Whatever. GO GIANTS!

Brian Gallagher is a writer based in New York.

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