Does The NFL Want To Be Ali-Frazier?

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From: Ta-Nehisi Coates
To: Josh Levin, Tom Scocca

That fight montage before Ravens-Steelers struck me too. It yet again evidences something Josh implicitly points out—the NFL's always-fraught relationship with violence. On the one hand they want to market themselves as Ali vs. Frazier. On the other they want to fine players for taking an Ali vs. Frazier mentality. The players seem to get the game. When Cris Collinsworth basically said all bets were off, he was pointing out that the players will take the fines and keep trucking. Some of what we call "helmet to helmet" is virtually unavoidable anyway. (Maybe that Ray Lewis hit Tom describes?) I don't really know how you play football and never have an unintentional helmet-to-helmet collision.

But the NFL deeply understands why masses of people come to watch their product—at least, most of the time it does. In the wake of Tim Tebow's quasi-redemption, it's worth thinking some about the "Good vs. Evil" marketing the league put on his game against the Lions, and this Times piece on why people tend to love/hate Tebow:

As vice president at Nielsen Sports, Stephen Master measures an athlete's endorsement potential based on awareness and appeal. Nationally, the company tested Tebow after the draft in 2010 and again before this season. Coming out of college, Tebow recorded an N-score of 141, "an incredible rating," Master said, "M.V.P.-like."

In the second test, Tebow's N-score fell to a 41, which still ranks high. His positive appeal, though, dropped to 76 percent from 85 percent, while his negative appeal increased to 24 percent from 15 percent. Under negative appeal comments, responders wrote "overrated" and "annoying" and "overexposed" and "religious nut job."

The piece mainly focuses on the "religious nut job" portion of Tebow-hate, but I think there's something else. The league is no stranger to overtly religious athletes. Indeed Kurt Warner is quoted in the piece addressing the issue. But I think a lot of the Tebow-hate comes out of his draft position and hype relative to his skills. I wouldn't pass a verdict, right now, though I'm skeptical. But I think it's worth noting that Kurt Warner won a Super Bowl before any of us knew much about him. Tebow meanwhile was making pro-life ads before he'd thrown an NFL pass. Now he is up against something more than whatever we think of his religious practices. I don't recall, for instance, anyone billing Kurt Warner vs. Jevon Kearse as "Good vs. Evil."

There's also this sense that athletes must embody some sort of deeper moral quotient beyond winning and losing. Not to steer this away too far, but you see that in Dave Anderson's piece today on Joe Frazier in which he argues not simply that Frazier was a better fighter than Ali (despite losing two out of three) but that he was actually "a better man." I don't think we've learned to separate questions of morality from questions of winning. Michael Jordan was a bit of an asshole. Ali embraced some really scuzzy racialist tactics in pursuit of winning. But there's nothing inherently noble or "classy" about sports. Let Tebow win a few games and break a few records and I think all of this will disappear. Then we'll all gladly endure the puffy pre-game features in which we're told he's such a "nice guy."

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the author of The Beautiful Struggle. Recently he's been seen sheepishly admitting to his progressive friends that, yes, he did watch the Mayweather fight.