Embracing The Power Of Spite

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From: Nate Jackson
To: John Koblin, Barry Petchesky

Yes, those were the Jets, weren't they, throwing a brick through the window of the New York media? Funny how that happened.


One lesson from yesterday: Preseason games are phantoms. You can't trust them to gauge how a team will perform in the regular season—not just the wins and losses, but the feel of a team, the look of its offense and defense, and the fire within. The team who will win a Super Bowl in five months has no more idea than we do about who they are yet.

Preseason games test a coach's ability to circumvent them. He wants to fine-tune his machines without putting any wear and tear on them. He would like to try out some concepts, but also not show the other teams what he's trying. He would like to beat the shit out of someone, but also leave the impression that he can't beat the shit out of anyone.


The coyness makes analysis futile. So how will the media respond to the Jets' performance? Sycophantically, no doubt. But there's another instructive point from yesterday: Spite is a great motivator. Praise is a great catheter. When the New York media gets harsh on the Jets, the Jets respond with a dominant performance. When the media celebrates them, their excellence drains away.

Perception is powerful in sports media, and especially so in New York, where the media writes the script by being wrong. The Giants have won two out of the last five Super Bowls, but you wouldn't know it. And that's how they did it.


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The Dallas Cowboys are very similar to the Jets in the way their play fluctuates based on how they're perceived. When the Cowboys are on the decline and their window is closing and all is lost, they respond with solid games. When they are America's Team again, and Tony Romo is pouting his lips for a camera he's pretending he doesn't see, then they're back on the slide.

Keep your head down, everyone, and go to work. Do not listen to their praise. Listen to the complaints, if ye must—Buffalo Bills, Michael Vick, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton—and feed off of the detractors. But RG3, keep your head down and your headphones on. Do not listen, Peyton Manning, when the slurping gets deafening (Peyton has slurp-proof earplugs by now). And you too, Niners. Keep it moving.


The NFL is a war of attrition. The video loops of the highs and lows, the hyper-neurotic media coverage, is a display for the consumers. When the entertainers hitch themselves to the narratives, looking to the media to define their teams for them, teams end up married to the storyline for better or worse. Usually for worse.

How many teams carry a narrative all the way through the season and ride off into the sunset? I can't think of one. Not in today's NFL, at least. (The Super Bowl Shuffle now reads as an artifact of the era before the coverage became all-devouring.)


Meanwhile, where perception meets reality, we have the NFL's new Heads Up program, marketing safe tackling to young players. It seems to me the height of grandiosity to assume you can trick people into believing that running into other people at high speeds can be made safe. We've gone over in extensive detail the reasons why it's impossible not to hit with your head on the football field. And the first week of games, college and pro, saw its fair share of players lying motionless on the ground.

The human body, moving forward at high speeds, does not travel perpendicular to the ground. It naturally leans forward, and the head is at the forward-most point of that natural lean.


To ask the body, while traveling at that speed, to crane the neck up and back, in defiance of physics, is a fool's errand. A body trying to bend that way simply will not achieve the goal inherent in a football block or tackle, which is to apply maximum force to the opponent.

Adding a coaching seminar with youth football players to the opening day programming was shamelessly disingenuous. Not only because it's ergonomically difficult to use that technique effectively, but because not one player on the field in the real games was using it. This is the NFL. The way those men play the game is the way that boys play the game.


And its not just the boys who are watching. The dads are watching. The youth football and high school coaches are watching. Those men shape the game by positively reinforcing hitting styles that they find pleasing and effective. So who's going to be the first one to implement an experimental technique that gets your players run over, doesn't reduce injuries, and makes you finish the season 0-10? Especially when the permeating industrial standard is that every season, every game, every practice, and every play is of military-grade importance. There's no time for experimentation.

But Roger Goodell isn't interested in logic. He's in a war of attrition too. All he has to do is stay on message: The game is safe if .... —and he can fill in the blank. Like any good politician knows, its not the little lies they'll believe; it's the big ones.


Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about life in the NFL, to be published by HarperCollins.