Never before would I have thought that “boo hoo” and “hue and cry” would come together so seamlessly, much less over something in one sentence combining sea hawks, meat packers, and prayers interceding the virgin Mary that reads in perfect syntax to any American. Or that two such otherwise diametrically opposed figures as Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin state Senator Jon Erpenbach — who almost ran against Walker in the recall election — would be on the same page about something that pertains to unions, workers, and contracts. Then again, it’s not much like me to opine my two cents amongst the inflated currency of the vox populi over a topic in which none other than my own ignorance can rival my actual interest: football. But the occasion is much too infrequent for when I can scribble about Samuel Beckett and the Green Bay Packers in one shot, so here goes…
(And if this doesn’t discount that I have at least a modicum of interest in pop culture, then “call me maybe” a stuck-up snob.)
As has been mentioned elsewhere, the Green Bay Packers are the Sunday church for us Wisconsinites. Even during the bare knuckle knockdown drag-out fight of the recall elections in Wisconsin, citizens could reliably come together about one thing: the Packers. I am not exaggerating when I say that once, when collecting signatures during door-to-door knocks in a town I don’t live in, a grumpy old guy paused from berating the hell out of me for being one of those union thugs, etc., in order to watch the play on the TV behind him, in his living room: Aaron Rodgers back in the pocket, looking, waiting, dodging, then finds Donald Driver in the end zone, touchdown! And we both gave each other ecstatic high fives — he who hated me a second ago, and I who thought him an old fart voting against his best interests. He still wasn’t going to sign my petition to recall the governor, but we had at least that simulacrum of civility between us. That’s the Packers.
So it was no surprise that come Tuesday morning, all Wisconsin was abuzz and still cussing at that stupid ref who blew the call Monday night. If somehow you haven’t seen it, or just want to watch it for the millionth-and-one time, here it is:
One thing I found particularly amusing was there was an open mic forum on public radio at 10:00 am for callers to suggest topics for future shows — or bitch about what happened to the Packers last night. That in spite of the fact that, come Wednesday morning, not even 24 hours later, on that same public radio network, an entire hour-long show was going to be given toward the relief ref crisis in the NFL. But if you couldn’t wait til then, you could call in now. And in true Wisconsin form, the phone lines were flooded with thoughtful folks who did suggest future topics or guests — and then chimed in about how the Pack got robbed. Whether you’re black or white, liberal or conservative, poor or wealthy, woman or man, the Packers unite us all. It’s one of the more weirdly endearing phenomena of Wisconsin culture.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I’m curious about the breaking points in human nature that get us off our escapist couches or bar stools in the la-la land of vicarious distractions and out into the mean streets of direct action…or, failing that, firing off incensed email to the NFL or commissioner Roger Goodell from the pissed off comforts of our personal computers, tablets, iPads, and smartphones. And while I am quite possibly the least qualified person to delve into this topic, that’s seldom stopped me before. Since I have a penchant for adopting rather unpopular attitudes, let me start here.
On the surface it seems like the replacement referees issue smacks of scab workers caught in between the age-old labor conflicts of capitalists and proletarians, owners and workers, I find it difficult to respect myself five minutes after adopting that view. First off, we’re talking about sports, about boy-men who are exceedingly, if not indecently, endowed with a spectacularly useless gift that does very little for society other than entertain us the way that bread and circuses did back in ancient Rome. If this were a true labor issue, then where the hell are the players standing in line with their brethren referees? Nowhere. Doesn’t this make the professional players themselves at least a little scab-like? They’re going on without their complements, the referees. There are no drawn lines in the sand, no solidarity.
Today I received an email — one of many with this in mind — from none other than Richard Trumka himself, head of the AFL-CIO, asking that I sign on to his petition to end the lockout of the refs, demanding a “fair deal with the union referees.” Fair deal? I’m sorry, but it’s difficult to sympathize with the select coterie of prof. refs, who make a cool $150,000 for what is very part-time work. Their absence the last three weeks of bad calls and debacles underscores that they are clearly quite good at their jobs, but let’s put all of this into a sense of propriety. They work how many hours once a week for how many months? From Labor Day to Christmas, basically, a few hours only on Sunday afternoons. Big deal! Symbolically speaking, it does concern me that the owners want to turn their pensions into 401Ks. How many Republicans can you name in ten seconds or less who wish to do much the same? That part’s not lost on me. But let’s be real: these men (and they are men) have real jobs in the post-season, you know, the other 3/4 of the calendar year that does not coincide with football. My guess is that their nest eggs rest not exclusively in the clumsy, capricious hands of stockbrokers or investment bankers.
Speaking of the GOP, it is fascinating that someone like Scott Walker, who nearly got teary-eyed two years ago when he “dropped the bomb” (his words) about ending collective bargaining in the very state where it all began 30 years after Reagan’s summary firing of the air traffic control workers in 1981, would suggest siding with the referees union. He’s probably pandering, but it becomes public interest as soon as he tweets it. But perhaps that’s simply the difference between pubic and private employees’ unions; for Walker and his supporters targeted only the public sector unions in Wisconsin — you know, those who broke the state’s back by getting lavish annual salaries the likes of $47,000 a year for driving a bus or teaching physics — or even coaching the high school kids who may someday make it to the NFL. Despicable parasites when compared to those poor referees…
Whether or not this truly is about labor, it is incontestably about greed. What’s at stake between the refs and the owners is $30 million over 7 years — or roughly the cost of one 30-second Super Bowl ad. Considering that the NFL nets in $9.5 billion per year — who wants to do the math here? — this is stupidly disgusting.
Another concern cited by Trumka (and others) is players’ safety. Even a very credible Aaron Rodgers had this to say the following morning: “We put so much into this, and we put our bodies and livelihood on the line, and you can’t possibly tell me that the way things are going right now that player safety is being held to the same standard that it was, and the integrity of the game wasn’t what it was.” Now, unless I’m looking at this all wrong, this argument sounds pretty disingenuous. You might even call it “cavil.” You need union refs to prevent players from unduly injuring each other? That strikes me as a little odd. Isn’t that like a husband saying he needs his mother-in-law living at home to keep him from slapping around his wife? As far removed from football as I am, even I know that the game has gotten more violent lately, which is saying a lot, considering that football is little more than watching dummies in car crashes punctuated by periods of boring committee meetings. Wasn’t it just last year, all that shit about the Saints getting paid extra for intentionally injuring rival players? So let’s quit the false piety and pity. It’s players who are hurting players, not the lack of union referees. Perhaps the players are receiving those orders from upstairs, i.e., the owners, but so what? That just makes the players look more like the overpaid tools for corporate profit that they are.
“Safety” in football is either (a) oxymoronic or (b) the rare occurrence when a player on the offensive side is tackled in his own end zone, resulting in the opposing team receiving two points plus possession of the ball. The players themselves are decked out like the progeny of Colosseum gladiators and cartoon Transformers. Safety? The defense blitzes the offensive line in order to sack the quarterback. These are not casual terms; they refer explicitly to warfare: Germany blitzed the Allies, and Rome was sacked by Visigoths. Whoever has the ball is to be attacked — tackled to the ground. Football could be no more seeped in violence than if the players had tazers or could lob grenades or shoot poison arrows at one another. Safety, seriously? Maybe we shouldn’t have a game where gross aggression is inherent in it…
And then there is the integrity of the game. To be fair, there are some superstar athletes who are capable of mindbogglingly incredible feats of athleticism and sheer physiology par excellence, an amazing amalgam of angelic grace and brute Viking horde-like violence. But so is Gabrielle Giffords recovering speech and motor control after being shot in the head by a lunatic assailant. Or somebody rendered developmentally disabled after being struck by a drunk driver who after years of physical and occupational and speech therapy manages to hold down a job and rent an apartment. Shit, I don’t think Evil Knievel got paid half as much as a second-string linebacker. Or, Jesus, let’s talk about our armed troops, if we’re going to talk about heroics and courage. They risk their lives — every single day! — and don’t get paid close to what a ref does for blowing a fucking whistle three hours once a week for no more than four months, much less namby-pamby field goal kickers or even quarterbacks — the so-called “field generals” — who are so goddamned lucky to be doing what they’ve loved to do since being kids without having to grow up and work real jobs like the rest of us poor schmucks! Give me a break. What integrity to the game? That it induces in our popular culture a tribalistic identity cult where instead of smearing war paint and animal blood before we head into combat with our clubs or swords, we wear the colors of Lions, Tigers, and Bears, oh my — or Steelers, Falcons, Cowboys — yes, even Vikings — and the rest of the romper-room nonsense? Let’s get a sense of proportion here.
You know what’s an insult to the game? Faking an injury to kill the clock. Or grabbing a face mask. Pushing someone down as pass interference in order to catch a ball, which is exactly what Seahawks receiver Gordon Tate did before wresting the ball from MD Jennings, who made the interception. Or, for that matter, the shameless spectacle of that Seattle stadium celebrating their nominal victory, even though everyone had to have known that they did not earn their win, up to and including their coach jumping up and down like a child cheating on a final exam to avoid summer school. Or that the same effect would almost certainly have happened had the game been held at Lambeau Field and the win gone to the Packers.
Enough shrill chivalry, please.
And if you are a fan so concerned about the integrity of the game or safety of the players, here’s a crazy idea: boycott. It’s not like the players are going to strike on behalf of their union brothers, the refs, but you as not only the quality-demanding fan but also the person who shells out hand over fist your hard-earned money for tickets or t-shirts or stickers or sippy-cups or posters or whatever-the-hell-everything that has your team’s insignia emblazoned on it. Just don’t do it! It’s that simple. If money talks and bullshit walks, then remaining in the Sunday thrall of the tight-assed filthy rich owners by giving up hours of your own day off attending the game or watching it on TV will accomplish as much of a shit as the owners themselves give about the refs or coaches or players or you and me: zilch. But as soon as they begin losing enough money, they’ll pay attention; it’s the only damned thing they pay attention to in the first place. Without direct demand (no pun intended) and actual action on behalf of what drives this in the first place — us fantastic fanatics — then nothing will change, again and again, just like in “Godot.” If I were a betting man in Vegas, I’d put my money on Vladimir; Estragon makes too many personal fouls.
Postscript: Packer-backers unite! We are the one sports franchise anywhere of any game owned by the public. My 12-year-old nephew owns a share in the Packers — and he lives in Massachusetts! We have a rich opportunity here. Since we the public own the Packers, let us boycott this debacle in unity. No other team can do this. It would be nice if the actual players joined us, but that’s probably not going to happen. I credit the team for showing up for the pro forma extra point kick to a touchdown that should never have been on Monday Night. It takes grit and integrity to know you have been robbed but nonetheless go through the motions out of respect for the game. That’s sportsmanship. But that was Monday night. If this issue is to be dealt with justly, it’s going to require real action on behalf of the fans and ideally the players (who would lift more of a finger than pussyfoot on their Twitter accounts). If this is a real issue, then take it seriously and act on it. It’s gonna take balls, to be completely jocular and jock-strapped about it. Or it’s just business as usual, which may well be all that the NFL is anyway. Whether you are a Packers fan or owner, why not contact the team and tell them not to put up with this amateurish travesty any longer? At the very least email Mark Murphy, President and CEO of the Packers. Ted Thompson, Executive VP and General Manager, and coach Mike McCarthy — why not? If anyone has better contact info, feel free to share it. And if you like signing your name to a petition, here’s one now.
PPS: To my father who has coached football longer than I myself have been alive, I mean no disrespect, of course. Football has its time and place, and I will forever remember fondly playing catch with you in the field across from your place when I was a kid.
And now I will shut up.