Well that was a fantastic weekend of football, wasn’t it? Not one compelling Wild Card game in the bunch, though that’s not the issue here. Two of the weekend’s games, in particular, brought into sharp relief two of the major problems with the NFL and the way it’s covered by the media.
1) The Ray Lewis Hagiography
Winning trumps everything in sports (well, and pretty much everything else in American pop culture). Never forget that. And that unfortunate truth is never more present than in football, where we’re taught that the victor is the one who wants it more, who sacrifices more, who works harder and who has more heart. It’s like the entire NFL is comprised of a thousand giant David Ecksteins, and the only difference among them is who can get more Eckstein-y on any given Sunday.
The way Ray Lewis is treated by the football media is more than a little unsettling even in an average week. And this was no average week.
When Lewis announced before the game against the Colts that he planned to retire after the season, it became inevitable that the entire weekend — and more, for as long as the Ravens last in the playoffs — would become a tribute to the dancing fool.
But oh, it was worse than we could have possibly imagined. From Lewis’s ridiculous pregame, pyro-riffic dance and entrance to Phil Simms droning on about his “fresh legs” to the announcers ignoring his consistent blown coverages and sluggish movement, Ray Ray was the sole focus of a game that also featured a probable future star in Andrew Luck, a current star in Ray Rice, and of course the fact that the game would end the season for one of the two teams involved.
Ravens coach JimJohn Harbaugh (I’m tired of distinguishing between the two; they’re both basically the same person and they’re both assholes) allowed Lewis to take the field for the Ravens’ final play, a clinching kneeldown. Instead of focusing on the victory or next weekend’s game against Denver, we all got to watch Lewis dance again. Wait…I thought football was supposed to be the ultimate team sport, downplaying individual accomplishment for the good of the unit?
Peter King went on to describe the game as Lewis’s “Ripken moment.” Right. Right, right, right. There was a self-indulgent victory lap. That much is true. And it did take place in Baltimore. Also true. Just one little thing, though: Cal Ripken never obstructed justice in a double murder case. (As far as we know.)
While the NFL media breathlessly praises Lewis for his courage and heart and blah blah blah, and speculates about his sure-to-be wonderful post-football career as a TV talking head, no one seems to be mentioning that Lewis’s legacy is at least as much about the night in Atlanta when two people died as it is about big hits and spastic, idiotic dancing.
Because Lewis won a Super Bowl and outlasted the aftereffects of the bad publicity involving the case, apparently none of that matters anymore. This is a Great Man. This is a Warrior.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the killings in Atlanta, but there’s a lot to suggest that Lewis was involved in some fashion with a double homicide, or at least with covering it up (and then testifying against his friends in exchange for charges being dropped). When Lewis circled the stadium, tears in his eyes, praising the greatness of God to sideline reporters, we should have at least paused to consider that a truly great, just got might not have allowed Lewis to skate scot-free and lead a charmed life and career while those who were murdered that night still lay in the ground.
But by all means, let’s curse Barry Bonds to the heavens for taking steroids.
2) The RGIII Lunacy
Poor David Simon Cowell is beside himself right now. If there’s one thing he loves, it’s black quarterbacks. If there are two things he loves, it’s black quarterbacks with running skills. If there are three things he loves, it’s black quarterbacks with running skills on his fantasy team. So you can imagine how he felt watching RGIII’s knee bending in all kinds of unnatural directions during yesterday’s loss to the Seahawks.
We can blame Mike Shanahan for Griffin’s injury. We can blame Griffin himself. We can blame Redskins doctors. Sure, they probably should all shoulder a bit of it. But the ultimate fault lies with football culture itself.
Griffin garnered praise in the media and among teammates and coaches for “toughing it out” earlier in the season when he first sprained his knee. He came back, probably too soon, because — like Ray Lewis — he is a Warrior. He put his team’s razor-thin playoff hopes above his health, and according to the VINCE LOMBARDI RIGHT WAY OF DOING THINGS, that makes him a hero. It also makes him stupid.
There’s certainly something commendable about risking limb for your team, but there’s also something ultimately selfish about it. Griffin (and his enablers) risked a bright future, and years of winning, for a chance to go 9-7 and maybe win a divisional round game in his rookie year. As of this writing, we don’t know how serious his knee injury is, but it doesn’t really matter. He jeopardized his entire franchise’s future for short-term gain.
Unless you’re old (like, say, Peyton Manning this year) and almost done, and playing for a legitimate chance at a championship, there’s no justification to risk serious, avoidable injury by playing when you shouldn’t. Not in the current NFL, with non-guaranteed contracts and impossibly short careers. It’s not the right decision for the player or the team. It can, of course, be the right decision for a coach in danger of losing his job.
But football is built around a sacrificial, militaristic culture in which the individual doesn’t matter (unless he’s Ray Lewis). You put your head down, you suck it up, you play hurt, and then get lauded for your toughness and character (unless you’re a nameless second-string offensive lineman who Peter King and Joe Buck have never heard of).
I hope Griffin’s fine because he’s super fun to watch, but the groupthink-laden sports media laid the groundwork for this injury weeks ago by talking and writing about what a leader Griffin was for fighting through the pain.