Thursday, January 04, 2007

Review: Adam Gopnik's "The Unbeautiful Game"

Adam Gopnik, a superb writer (Paris to the Moon is a splendid book), has an article--"The Unbeautiful Game: What's happening to football?"--in the New Yorker's January 8 edition [No link yet]. I'm an admirer of Gopnik's work and some of his observations about watching football on TV vs. in the stands, and his takes on fandom are dead-on and well worth reading, but the premise of his piece is shaky. Gopnik argues that "partly what drains the joy from the inner game of pro football these days is the same as what drains the joy from much of American life: there's a lot of money to be made by a few people, and a lot less for everybody else." Errr, there is a lot less money for everyone but I don't think economics has anything to do with any recent joy or sorrow in pro football...baseball, on the other hand...

In the article, Joe Namath makes an appearance at a Texans vs. Jets game and the New York reporters flock around Broadway Joe, ignoring the game (it is the Texans vs. the Jets) being played in front of them, and try and crow-bar a controversial statement out of the guy known by many youngsters as a drunk person wanting to kiss sideline reporter Suzy Kolber. Sounding like an old-timer in a rundown tavern talking about the glory days of yesteryear, Gopnik uses Namath as a metaphor for when football was fun. "There's no laughter now," he laments, and cites recent tomes about Brian Billick and Tom Brady (with Bill Belichick playing a role) as examples of the loss of hilarity. C'mon, Billick, Belichick and Brady are great and everything but they are the three musketeers of dull. (Even Charles P. Pierce, one of the best sports writers out there, couldn't make Brady exciting, Gopnik concedes.) There are still interesting players on the field and off, the authors of the books cited just didn't pick them or didn't get good access, and didn't pull off the excellence, and originality, of a Paper Lion or a Semi-Tough. Gopnik quotes John Feinstein regarding the "here-today, gone-tomorrow" culture in the NFL, which is true, but that's nothing new: it has been the same thing for ninety years. Joe Namath's swinging era was a blip in the history of the NFL (and the country), certainly entertaining but not the norm. Moreover, football might be athletically "unbeautiful" when played by the heady and gutsy and AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year Chad Pennington, who is the opposite of flashy, and Eli Manning, wonderfully described by Gopnik as "the Giants' talented, inconsistent quarterback [who has] an unfortunate wide-eyed, golly-gee look for all occasions, like Opie, on the old Andy Griffith show, if he were to see Floyd the barber in Halloween mask." But what about Eli's brother Peyton? Or team-mate Tiki Barber? Or, LaDanian Tomlinson? (See Lee Jenkins' New York Times article on LT's family background...Reg. Req'd) Or, Reggie Bush? Or, fun-loving Brett Favre? Hardly "unbeautiful" players.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Gop. He misses the obvious solution...which Poole is on to. Selection of plays. The game may as well be played robots unless the NFL mandates the use of 3 plays from either "the old days" or even other sports.

Stature of Liberty
Drop Kick
Flutter kick
Push and Tickle

Introducing uncertainty is the thing they can both agree about.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I agree with you – Gopnik took a weirdly cynical view of the whole thing. I mean, who said football wasn’t fun? I’d like to think that I watch because it’s fun, and not because I’m perversely seduced by the NFL’s marketing machine. Granted, athletes aren’t as much “regular guys” as they used to be, but does this really deprive us of the joy of watching them perform? And were they ever that “regular?” Isn’t Joe Namath a complete asshole?

But as you point out, the article is still extremely worthwhile. I especially liked one of its last paragraphs, after talks about that Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht character and then summarizes his points thusly:

“In other words, when we watch Joe Namath or Chad Pennington or even Eli complete a pass what we feel isn’t pathetic and vicarious but generous and authentic: we give up a bit of ourselves in order to admire another. We’re broadened, not narrowed, by our fandom. Our connection with our heroes is through an act of imagination, and the act of imagination, not the connection, is what is worth savoring and saving.”

10:45 PM  

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