For all the danger they purport to identify in the world, conspiracy theories, at bottom, are comforting. They’re orderly and symmetrical and closed, like a square dance, matching participants 1:1 to malign intents and thus to culpability. Either you are in the conspiracy by cynical choice and sinister purpose, or you are not in it at all. A conspiracy theory is a story of human society stripped of its messiest, most complicating, and most frightening feature: stupidity.
Oh, hey, speaking of which, Authentic Licensed Official NFL Beverage Tote Peter King published an open letter from himself to NFL players—just the players—this morning, in response to Saturday night’s Steelers-Bengals game. That game notably included, depending on one’s perspective, either more than a normal football game’s fair share of reckless violence and buffoonery, or a normal football game’s fair share of reckless violence and buffoonery concentrated in high-leverage moments inconvenient to the prerogatives of the NFL’s brand. Peter King is worried, you see, about all this off-message tackling form.
If you haven’t noticed, there’s a tornado on the outside of your profession. Parents who grew up loving the game are agonizing about whether they’ll let their children play football. A movie, Concussion, is out, and Will Smith plays a doctor warning America about the long-term, inescapable dangers of the sport. Have you seen it? You should. I’ve seen it twice, and I’d go again. You should know what your football ancestors put up with to play the game, and what many of you face if you continue to play.
Let’s pause for a moment to marvel at this. Peter King thinks NFL players will learn about the important issues facing the sport of football by going to watch a fictionalized Hollywood film about an outsider discovering the horrors and dangers and risks of their own real lives. “Mr. McCain, before you vote to send more of our young men and women off to fight a murky war against an ill-understood foreign enemy on its own home soil, maybe you should sit down and watch a little film called The Deer Hunter.” Which movie do you think Peter King watches every morning before he goes to work, to make sure he understands the job of a journalist? Ten bucks says it has Will Ferrell in it.
But wait. Back to his argument. Is NFL players’ responsibility to themselves, each other, their safety and long-term wellbeing? Or to the long-term wellbeing of the corporate interest built to profit off public interest in their work? Trick question: Peter King thinks those are the same thing!
Here’s a neat little pair of paragraphs. Watch for the pivot King performs, as casually as he can, between where his concern is pointed at the beginning, and where it has arrived by the end.
Late in the season, late in the vital Bengals-Broncos game, Cincinnati’s Reggie Nelson bore down on Denver tight end Owen Daniels as Daniels tried to secure a pass. Nelson could have hit Daniels in the head or knees, but in a split second, he took care to hit Daniels in the upper torso. A very hard hit, but the right hit. I talked to Nelson. One of the things he said to me: “We have to take care of ourselves. We’re one big family out there on the field.”
Too many times you don’t look like a family. You look like you want to physically harm the men on the other side of the line. That has to end. Forget about today. Think of all the people who look at games like Steelers-Bengals and say it’s a big reason why football is a dinosaur, and our kids should be playing sports with very little contact. More games like this, and Congress will get involved. And I would be happy if Washington does, because games like that one show you’re not capable of looking out for the common good.
Players looking out for each other: good for them, and good for the sport. The sport’s image troubles: caused by players not looking out for each other. If only the players would be more responsible, their and the NFL’s problems would go away. Neat!
Set aside—but only for a moment—the unctuous paternalism of this sentiment. First, watch the Reggie Nelson hit King poses as an exemplar of responsible, family-minded football play, a rejoinder to Saturday night’s wanton helmet-to-helmet brutality.
Video credit: YouTube
This seems a good moment to point out that, although banging your head into another person’s head at high speed is never a good idea, and certainly is one way to get a traumatic brain injury, direct impact to the head is not required for a traumatic brain injury to occur. All that’s required is sudden acceleration sufficient to jostle the brain against the inside of the skull and induce rotational forces on the brain stem—sudden acceleration very much of the sort Daniels experienced on this play, when he (and his head) went from a full sprint to flying backward in a fraction of a second. If Daniels did not suffer a concussion (or damaging sub-concussive impact) because of it, Nelson’s familial impulse to “take care” of him almost certainly had nothing to do with it.
The hit follows the NFL’s rules against certain types of collisions, though! This is a meaningful distinction the NFL would prefer for Peter King’s readers to understand precisely not at all—lest those readers have thoughts about the actual value and purpose of those rules, and whose interests those rules serve and how, possibly followed by thoughts about the ultimate futility of attempts to legislate brain injury out of a sport organized around violent collisions between armored superhumans—and which, conveniently, King completely occludes with his praise for Nelson’s hit.
The NFL’s player-safety protocols do not need this blog post to reveal them as toothless half-measures primarily useful as public relations for the league itself. The point, here, is the depth and fullness of stoogery this open letter reveals, the neat inverse proportionality with which Peter King hands out blame for football’s troubles along the NFL’s gradient of power and longevity. In another illuminating bit from earlier in the piece, King lists Saturday night’s excesses of violence and poor sportsmanship, leading to this (emphasis mine):
This is what the Steelers and Bengals showed 27 million Americans about the great game of professional football. Your game. The game your coaches—from youth ball up to the NFL—have taught you to play fairly.
This was the lesson from the climax of this playoff game: Stop at nothing to win, even if it means concussing the opposition. Taunt your foes. Hit them with the crown of your helmet. Sneak onto the field to induce them into a penalty.
Anything to win the game.
Demean yourselves. Shame your former coaches and your parents. Show them if you win the game, it’s all good. All’s fair in love and football.
How casually he leaves aside the fact that two of Saturday night’s chief offenders of both rules and sportsmanship—Steelers assistants Joey Porter, who stormed onto the field in violation of league rules to confront Bengals players, and Mike Munchak, who grabbed and yanked on a fistful of Reggie Nelson’s dreads—are members of the class he credits with teaching fair play at all levels of football! How smoothly this aligns with the NFL power structure’s own preferred narrative, that the purpose and value of all its administrative and punitive bureaucracy is as a bulwark between the “jolly apes” and their own self-destructive recklessness. That all the sport’s ills and embarrassments result from disobedience; that the solution is always more authority, more paternal force brought to bear on those dang unruly barbarians; that responsibility for stewardship of the sport falls on athletes who’ll be lucky to wring six paid years out of it in their whole lives, rather than on the parties who’ve worked for decades to prevent those athletes from controlling any of it, including decisions about their own health and safety.
Your game, he keeps calling it. Four times in the text. The “great game of professional football” is “your game.” The viewing audience comprises “important consumers of your game.” “Take care of your game,” he writes. “Take control of your game again.” The “again” is a nice touch, there, implying an earlier time when the players did have “control” of the game. With which members of the readership do you think that “again” will resonate most strongly? The players, assuming any bother reading it? Or, oh, just to grab a random example, the football-viewing readership, who might formulate a body of public opinion about, say, the league’s next insistence that it needs a new level of authority over players? I have a guess.
Meanwhile, the question of exactly how Peter King would have players take care or control of their game—beyond, of course, following the rules imposed upon it and themselves by the NFL—goes unaddressed. Don’t worry! I’m sure Roger Goodell has some helpful ideas. I’m sure Peter King will praise the honor and integrity of the players who don’t run afoul of those, too. Leaders, he will call them, for obeying.
This is how the NFL puts over the steady expansion of its authority over players; how it staves off any serious reckoning with the dangers inherent to its game; how it gathers public opinion to wield like a cudgel in each next labor negotiation. With stooges in the media advancing the notion of professional football as the product of benign, pacifying institutions wrangling a bunch of anarchic, bloodthirsty savages. With its royal herald’s heartfelt plea for the players to please stop mucking up the works or, oh, jeez, we might have to call in another even larger authority—Congress!—to stop you from smashing all the nice toys we give you. With Peter King blaming players for their own brain injuries.
Right down to the basic idea that players should give a fuck about the cultural institution of football beyond their own ability to emerge on the far side of their careers with as much personal enrichment and health as they can get, Peter King is telling it the way the NFL would have him tell it. And this is where you find the temptation to spot a conspiracy, to see a cynical operator knowingly pushing the league’s bullshit by passing it off under the flimsy, degraded rime of journalistic impartiality. It makes so much sense of things, and countenances greater intensity of personal scorn for Peter King, and just feels right.
The uglier and likelier and in fact more dangerous possibility, though, is that Peter King truly thinks the players’ irresponsibility and unruliness is what ails football. That he’s the NFL’s executive transcription service not because says what they tell him to say, but because he honestly, earnestly, and independently believes these things on his own. That he is not a conspirator, but a huge boot-licking moron.
Here’s the question, though: How the fuck would you tell the difference?