You don't call Mike Francesa's radio show unless you are upset, and probably also otherwise damaged in some way. A person who is doing fine, thanks, does not run some avant-garde hear-me-out-Mike trade—Nothing crazy, just Eli Manning for a couple of first-round picks and a couple of second-round picks—past a disdainful sentient mortadella in a fleece pullover.
And so of course this caller was distraught, because distress is what brings these callers to this distressing man. He was upset about five members of the St. Louis Rams, and how they took the field at the Edward Jones Dome in Week 13. How do you explain this "hands up" thing, he wanted to know, to the children?
An immense and drowsy hauteur ensures that Mike Francesa approaches every caller's question as a rhetorical one, but this was assuredly a rhetorical question. The caller was expressing not actual confusion, but a soul-deep pissiness at the prospect of having to think about all this—not the Young Black Men Are 21 Times More Likely To Be Killed By Police Than Young White Men thing, but the Why Are Jared Cook And Stedman Bailey Doing That With Their Hands thing. Anger is a different thing. Anger is reserved, in this world, for the front office of the New York Jets. This was more on the order of being annoyed by an inconvenience; it regarded the protest as, more than anything, rude.
It is unwise, probably, to base a broader argument on the whinging of one of Francesa's sacrificial Joeys-from-Islip; a man who would wait on hold for an hour to be interrupted repeatedly while trying to make an opaque point about Percy Harvin is finally only representing himself. But the grievance that rang through that rhetorical question is not unique to this caller. It can be found, in different intonations and accents, across the spectrum of mainstream opinion.
In variously amplified voices, from the first moments after Michael Brown's killing but with a new peevish unanimity after the Rams' hands-up entry in Week 13, the declaration has gone out: enough is enough. Not that enough police impunity was enough; or that enough unaccountable shield-thumping aspiring robocops rolling out of armored personnel carriers are enough; or that we'd at last gotten a bellyful of seeing fellow humans killed without reason or repercussion by the state. Decidedly not that.
This is more of a stern, parental Enough Is Enough, an exasperated bark from the barcalounger that the kids need to keep it down, last warning. Of all the scandals that these last weeks have forced upon us—interlaced and dreadful inevitabilities and tear gas; various brutalities written in violence and carefully expressed in press conferences; the procession of aggrieved and supremely sore winners, so salty-sour at the ungraciousness of the defeated—the thing about which both commenters and commentators have decided to be scandalized is the terrible inappropriateness, the inconsiderateness, of the people making all that noise.
The gutter is the gutter, and the hideous albino alligators down there in the dark have been saying the same awful things forever; they will cheer every misery, always, and be proud of it. Aboveground, though, in studios and respectable newsrooms, there is the sense that the elders' patience has run out.
Yes, yes, of course it is unfortunate that these black men keep being killed by police officers; to be sure, it is easy to see how some might find it frustrating that these police officers keep avoiding any accountability for these deaths. But do they really need to be so loud about it? Mike, Mike: we're just trying to watch the football game.
"In hindsight," a reporter asked Jared Cook on Wednesday, "was there a better way to show love and support for the people of Ferguson than that sign, that the police perceived as a slight?" Cook gave a long and eminently reasonable answer, but the response seems less telling than the question, which arrived amid a host of similar roundabout requests re: Cook's regret or non-regret at having offended anyone, what he would say to fans that claimed to be so incensed by the gesture that they would righteously refuse to renew their personal seat licenses, whether he and his teammates would do it again on Sunday, or whether they were, you know, finished with all that.
For the St. Louis Police Officers Association, the gesture was an unbearable affront—"tasteless, offensive, and inflammatory"—an insult that demanded "a very public apology" from the NFL and discipline for the players. For Joe Scarborough, MSNBC's Beaker-faced morning moderate, the Rams' protest was a final outrage, the thing that moved him to break his strained silence on how annoying these protests were. "Actually," Scarborough wrote in his Politico column, "it is offensive because the gesture suggests that a police officer pointed a gun and shot a black man whose arms were in the air while he said 'hands up, don't shoot.'"
Elsewhere—everywhere; in the fucking New Yorker, for goodness sake—there were warnings against imprecision, immoderation, and, as in the question asked of Jared Cook, inconsiderateness. This is bafflingly obtuse, but not incomprehensible: for those whose worldview depends and converges upon a glib and sentimental idea of consensus, it must be unsettling to see how much of that perceived consensus is based on happy and wholly false assumptions. The vast and ridiculous vein of privilege that feeds all this abstraction is unmissable and uneasy if also, finally, mostly laughable—a bunch of wealthy older men, standing at a safe distance from those in the street, fact-checking chants and clucking at misplaced apostrophes on protesters' signs.
It is bleak, just extremely bleak, seeing a discourse split between the strenuous justification of every new authoritarian excess on one side and fusty rhetoric-policing on the other. It is not exactly new, but it nevertheless feels like an apotheosis of sorts for a culture that's both abstracted and aggrieved in the most inane ways imaginable. It takes a special and singularly stupid sort of narcissism to have the predominant response to a crowd chanting a demand that their lives be taken seriously be "you are making me uncomfortable and talking much too loud." But this happens to be a particularly American type of narcissism, and so this is the response we are hearing.
It fits entirely too well that Scarborough and the STLPOA found their breaking point at the moment in which five NFL players brought even a gesture of protest into the NFL's fortress of lite authoritarianism. It has always been the purest and most babyish bullshit that sports exist somehow above or outside politics, someplace more sanctified and simpler. Stadiums are in cities, which is where they belong; the athletes are human, which is why it amazes us when they do superhuman things. But what is transcendent and transformative about sports, the vital and living thing that brings us back to the games, is always in an uneasy symbiosis with some much less appealing, much more extractive, and even predatory things. It's a business, and also it is more than that. The NFL, especially, does not exist outside politics or the rest of public life. It is a warped funhouse reflection of it.
Football games are won and lost and fueled by strength, in various dazzling guises. But everything about the NFL's pitch and broader personality is pinned resolutely to power, which is the version of strength that can be purchased for a particular price. The strength of the players makes for a complicated, vicious entertainment that is, despite or because of all the poisons in it, intoxicating in a way that other entertainments are not. The league's powerful figures, the only permanent players in all this, are as mundane and dull as the athletes in their employ are magnetic.
But the NFL has bet that the appeal of this sort of power—the impunity of soft pink men, unaccountable in their luxury boxes, signing the checks until the moment they decide they no longer want to—is even more intoxicating than the strength that moves the game. The idea is not to be Dez Bryant, as I've written elsewhere, but to be Dez Bryant's boss.
The NFL has recognized that, when it comes to selling, power trumps strength—trumps bravery and sacrifice and teamwork, trumps faith and hard work and playing the right way—and has identified in those watching something that loves a winner. What this power comes down to, finally, is the chance to say no—as often as you want and for whatever reasons you choose—to anyone, and have it stick. It is one demand after another, and the expectation that these demands will be met. It is the entitlement, always, to the last word; it is the divine right not to care.
The NFL is rotten and wracked with the effects of this addiction; it is delusional and perverse and paradoxically weak, and far sicker than it knows. As zombies go, the NFL is in pretty solid health, but in this falling-apart year, the NFL's secret cowardice has been exposed in a way that has become increasingly difficult to ignore. It makes perfect sense, in the end, that prickly policemen and priggish pundit types would be so outraged by the intrusion of the rude and ungovernable into the NFL's fantasy landscape. The NFL's dream of power—a fantasy of violence without consequence or implication, of cruel and unaccountable command—is their last safe place. They demand to watch the game in peace and quiet, not realizing that they have no real right to either.
David Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical.
Photo via Getty Images