Sport

End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLillo

By posted at 6:00 am on June 7, 2013 1

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1.
I teach a course on sports literature and culture at Rutgers-Newark, and we will have a lot to talk about this summer. Unfortunately, our subject will be close to home. The continuing debacle at the New Brunswick campus saddens me. I have stopped revising my syllabus: I simply cannot keep up with the hourly developments. A school that is home to Nobel laureates, National Book Award winners, dedicated faculty, talented students, and nationally recognized programs has become a punchline. The Providence Journal’s Jim Donaldson quips that we are rightfully the Scarlet Knights, since we should be “red-faced with embarrassment.” NBC Sports calls our athletic department a “disaster.” Even Inside Higher Education, a publication devoted to the academic and administrative sides of university life, calls the recent developments “downright shocking.”

Yet former governor Tom Kean says politicians should “shut up” about Rutgers. Governor Chris Christie claims “absolute confidence” in Rutgers President Robert Barchi, who in turn assures that Julie Hermann, the controversial incoming athletic director, is the right person for the job. They all need to watch a replay. The recent athletic drama has been nearly Shakespearean: Mike Rice, the basketball coach with an abusive style, was merely suspended rather than fired. That is, until video of his actions were televised on ESPN. Athletic director Tim Pernetti resigned, but is now championed to return by loyal supporters. Replacement basketball coach Eddie Jordan, advertised as a Rutgers alumnus, did not actually graduate from the university. And Julie Hermann is haunted by her own coaching style, which caused her entire volleyball team to write a scathing letter of criticism. That letter led to her resignation from her position at the University of Tennessee.

That would be enough for the final scene of Hamlet, but not Rutgers.

Members of the search committee for the new athletic director have voiced their concern with the rushed process, which included a $70,000 background check that failed to check Hermann’s background. They missed her role in a 2008 sex discrimination lawsuit during her tenure as a senior athletics administrator at the University of Louisville. Now the university has spent $150,000 on crisis communications to deal with this mess, and Hermann arrives at campus this week. Rutgers is set to join the Big Ten conference, the final step in a decade-long ascension to the national athletic scene. More importantly, the university is in the midst of the largest merger in the history of American higher education, as Rutgers joins with the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey. And yet Dick Vitale is right: we have become a national “soap opera.” I certainly will not claim that I predicted this, but I think Don DeLillo did.

2.
cover“Hit somebody, hit somebody, hit somebody”: a refrain spoken by Emmett Creed, head coach of the Logos College football team in End Zone. Don DeLillo’s metafictive, surreal novel has always been the central text of my sports literature course. It is a wild story, with an overzealous, abusive coach who leads his team to victory at all costs. As I re-read passages in the cement-walled classroom of Conklin Hall, my Rutgers students know that I love this book. There is a tension in loving and writing about sports, and football exploits those opposing pulls, particularly in the hands of a stylist like DeLillo. His prose pops with the terse language of the gridiron, and these words are blasted through a bullhorn from a tower high above the practice field. Other coaches, and even the linguistic-majoring players, appropriate Creed’s words and cadence. His influence is not surprising. An archetypal leader in the tradition of Amos Alonzo Stagg and a former B-27 pilot, Creed was born “in either a log cabin or a manger.” After a brief career with the Chicago Bears, Creed coached at another college before he broke the jaw of a second-string quarterback who “said or did something he didn’t like.” He was famous, though, for “creating order out of chaos”; for resurrecting programs and careers.

End Zone is a metafictional satire in the DeLillo tradition. Absurd scenes are paused with parenthetical asides. Americana is skewered, and DeLillo, even in 1972, recognized that football had replaced baseball as our nation’s metonymic sport. Yet for all his sarcastic snipes, DeLillo sounds in love with the “autumnal rhythms” of football. He prefaces the reader with a critique of extended game sequences in fiction before devoting nearly 30 pages of End Zone to a play-by-play of a game against rival Centrex. Such self-awareness is certainly a hallmark of metafiction in the style of John Barth, but it is done so lovingly. DeLillo, it seems, wants it both ways.

coverAs do I. One of my goals in teaching the sports literature course is to help students unpack the culture of sports in America. Reading DeLillo helps them examine the economic inequalities within Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, which in turn causes them to reconsider how the bodies of collegiate and professional athletes are owned by their coaches and institutions. Yet DeLillo’s novel shows why sports are so complicated: it is easy to bemoan and simultaneously enjoy the world of athletic decadence.

Coach Creed cancels a Friday workout before his team’s all-important game against rival Centrex. He “suggested” that the captains lead a “beer party” that night, with simple parameters: “no coaches, no females, no time limit.” DeLilllo eschews even a paragraph break before documenting that night’s action. Beer pounding led to fights, “mass vomiting,” and group singing. A defensive end punches his way through a door while others compete in a “pissing contest,” going “not for distance but for altitude.” Men wrestle, jump, spit at each other’s shoes, eat hamburgers, and chug ketchup. Gary Harkness, the novel’s sarcastic, self-aware narrator, admits the party “was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent.”

Yet such debauchery was decreed by the team’s patriarch. End Zone is a hyperbolic novel written with the care of a writer in love with elements of football, yet who clearly sees that culture’s surreal moments. The party was a night of male bonding without female distraction; women can be cheerleaders, they can be conquests for postgame parties, but football is a man’s world. DeLillo gives a window into this absurd boys’ club, but fogs the glass with his metafictional prose.

Another, later scene also appears soaked in hyperbole, but actually reveals DeLillo’s care in representing the minutiae of pregame pageantry. The Centrex game is now a reality. Nervous players feel out the Centrex stadium during an easy morning workout. They have an early meal of beef consommé, steak, and eggs before returning to the stadium. They warm up, mimicking the short and controlled bursts they will later employ in the game, and then convene in the locker room. The players smack each other on the helmets, grunting “Awright” and repeating mantras: “We hit, we hit.”

The chants are broken by a request for silence, and Coach Creed, arms crossed over chest, hand solemnly holding a baseball cap, avoids a long pregame speech. He instead delivers a single sentence: “I want the maximal effort.” The team explodes out of the tunnel, making “hard fast rhythmic sounds” as they are born to the audience: “Americans on a Saturday night.” The fans, the band, the cheerleaders, the uniformed young men on opposing sides, the football waiting to be kicked: they all compliment and channel the charged moment. Helmeted, these players are anonymous, yet dynamic members of a honed, single unit. I might smirk at DeLillo’s metafiction, but I am right there with him, with them, ready for this war.

3.
I have never played football, but I have lived football. My father was an All-American in high school and a running back for Holy Cross, playing against Jim Brown; my brother Mark was a fullback for the University of Delaware, and my brother Mike was recruited by Syracuse and Yale before an injury sidelined his career. They were never the type to volunteer replays drenched in nostalgia, but I asked to hear stories about long August double sessions with no water, blocking drills where they pushed players into the ground while churning their own cleats into the grass, and Gatorade-dumps on shocked coaches.

My father was the apex of all this football folklore. People in northern New Jersey know my surname because of my father, and still remember his rushing accolades at Dover High School in the early 1950s. Middle school janitors asked him, already a fully-grown man, to help move furniture; in high school he was the unofficial bouncer at our family’s bar and restaurant. He was fast, strong, and played both sides of the gridiron.

Yet my father has never fit any of the stereotypes about tough male athletes. He is caring and compassionate, and never once pushed any of his children to play sports, although he supported us every moment we participated. Now in his 70s, his biceps are still like rocks, but he is a gentle soul, more interested in building a ramp for my shed than bragging about past touchdowns.

By not playing football, but instead experiencing it through story and observation, I was able to cultivate a personal mythology of the sport without seeing the darker sides. I ran post patterns in my backyard, diving to catch Mike’s well-timed passes. I rushed into an imagined end zone bordered by bushes. I created notebooks full of imagined Saturday afternoon collegiate results. But I never played a second on the football field. My brothers attended a local Catholic school, but I went to a public school, where soccer was king. The football team struggled. The main draw of our Pep Rally was the soccer team’s shutout streak, not the football team. I’d seen photographs from my sister’s years at the school, when Pep Rally ended with a bonfire that smoked to the clouds, the football players flexing in front of the flames. That past seemed so distant it felt fake. I wonder if it felt the same way even then.

4.
Most would not consider what is happening at Rutgers a “football” scandal, but it is football that has driven Rutgers to pine for national athletic glory. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was our savior, but when the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers poached him for the big time, we thought Rutgers athletics would survive. It was our time. We would become national power at football, but the exposure and money would seep into other sports and programs, and, God forbid, our academic departments.

On the surface, the Rutgers scandal is certainly different than the sexual abuse nightmare at Penn State. Yet the subject of the scandal is not often the key to understanding: rather, hyperbole is endemic to top-tier collegiate sports. In the world of Division I athletics, the unreal becomes real. Football is the center, the epitome of this world. Football is a sport centered on masculine bodies: the collision of those bodies, the dynamic movements of those forms. Football is men — often large men — moving at high speeds, making quick cuts, threading passes between the outstretched hands of cornerbacks, kicking long field goals under incredible pressure. Regardless of the tongue-in-cheek attempts of NFL Films and their slow-motion, Sam Spence scored game panoramas, football is a game grounded in control.

The coaches at Logos College want nightly prayer sessions, but Gary realizes that “people don’t go to football games to see pass patterns run by theologians.” These attempts at emotional control are only in service one endgame: victory. In DeLillo’s novel, Logos College loses handily to their rival, Centrex. The next day, the university hires an energetic sports information director, Wally Pippich, who admits that he doesn’t “know squat about football.” But he claims to know about entertainment, and about money. Pippich tells the novel’s troubled narrator that he’ll stick up for him, no matter his mistakes, because “next season we make it big.” No athletic sin is without the penance of victory. Although Logos College is full of brilliant students, sports are king on that campus. I wish this was fiction; instead, the novel is a microcosm of Division I college athletics at their worst.

I can poke fun at Pippich. I can note how Gary Harkness describes the man’s voice as “an animated cartoon,” a fake whose “mouth seemed to invent the words as well as speak them.” But the machine of college football, of American athletics as a whole, would not exist without people like me: people who complain about the world of sports, but who still play. People like me, who forgive the sins, who forget the scandals, because of innocence, ignorance, or both.

5.
My wife and I run at a local trail system. Running together has been a tradition since we met on the Susquehanna University track team. We usually wait until evening, but the summer sun still heats the air. We part after stretching: she runs distance for speed, and staying with her would be a miracle. I go to sprint. After a short warmup, I stretch again and ready myself for accelerations or hill repeats. A middle distance runner in high school and college, I don’t have the mental endurance for distance. I like short bursts, knowing that rest and recovery are near.

I love running in the heat. My muscles warm quickly, unlike those miles in cold where I feel stiff. I run myself drenched, and then I do a cooldown along a shaded, cinder trail that leads to the parking lot, where I am again baked in sun. I take a towel to the treeline and do push-ups and sit-ups until my stomach and shoulders tighten, and then I sit for a few minutes until my wife finishes her run.

I do this to stay healthy, but some days, especially the hottest ones, when my mind is massaged into imagination rather than reality, I think about playing football. After a sectional race in 1999, on the long bus ride home, one of the high school football coaches asked if I wanted to play wide receiver for the team the next year. A throwing coach, he didn’t realize I was a senior. He shrugged, but I was more disappointed: I wanted to play football. Not for wins or cheerleaders or other short-lived glories, but because my father and brothers played, because I ran down-and-out patterns against imaginary cornerbacks. Even then, I had compartmentalized football into manageable, safe parts. I like a good hit, but I love an open field run, a pattern cut to perfection, or a quarterback’s decision to leave the safety of the pocket. I can do that, because I remain on the outside of the sport. If I am so fascinated by a sport, a game, a culture of which I am an ancillary member, what of those who train and play it?

I don’t want to re-enroll in high school and play football. Something else is happening: the ritual of football culture, of athletics, has settled into my soul. I am a 32-year-old man sprinting down the hot roadway of a state park, and I have safely appropriated elements of football into my own mythology. I might do this with my idiosyncratic Catholicism; I suspect everyone does it with some element of their lives. We mold our beliefs into palpable forms, knowing that we fear their uneven shapes. I think about this now, but under the heat that weighs on my shoulders, I am thinking of sneakers pounding on asphalt, of some athletic burst that exists in a world where sport is pure and pain is temporary. It is only afterward, walking back to my car while sweat cools me under the wind, do I wonder if we are all fooled into racing toward our own end zones.

Image Credit: Wikipedia





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One Response to “End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLillo”

  1. Jack M
    at 12:45 pm on June 7, 2013

    Very nice essay, Nick. I’ll check out your other work. Thanks.

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