TimeThe first sere leaf has touched the pavement, and the NFL season has begun anew. What this means, for practical purposes, is that from now until the beginning of February next year, I will willingly and repeatedly expose myself to some of the most horrible audio-visual stimuli known to humankind. On broadcasts of FOX NFL Sunday, I will be treated to the antics of “Cleatus the FOX Sports Robot.”1 At each of the innumerable commercial breaks that I will sit through over the next few months, Denis Leary will challenge my masculinity in an attempt to harangue me into purchasing an extended cab Ford F-150. At the end of the season, in all likelihood after my Cincinnati Bengals have made their trademark Marvin Lewis era one-and-done playoff appearance, I can witness the gruesome imposition of narratives meant to “humanize” the incoming Super Bowl teams, i.e. the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Jerome Bettis “coming home” to Detroit in 2005, or the tearful farewell tour of the Baltimore Ravens’ murderer-turned-fervent-Christian Ray Lewis in the 2012-13 season.

To this aesthetic displeasure, we can add the moral compromise that comes of supporting an indefensible bloodsport steeped in human misery. The primary emergent narratives of this young season have surrounded Raven Ray Rice and, now, Viking Adrian Peterson, both involved in off-the-field incidents of violence involving loved ones far smaller and less equipped for self-defense than themselves.2 These aren’t narratives of the sort encouraged by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his organization, and he has shamed himself in his response or lack thereof to them. Each fresh horror story involving football players joins a dossier of evidence against the game, part a larger debate which has been ongoing at least since the year 1909, when 33 human beings perished as a result of playing football—for as long as America has been fascinated by football, it has in part at least been horrified by its fascination. The hanging question is this: are Rice and Peterson just bad eggs who spoil the bunch, their ostracism thus freeing the NFL to return to its role as an organization that encourages lofty and beautiful sentiments in both players and fans, or are their actions indicative of something endemic to the game itself, which reflects the worst, most belligerent aspects of our national character?

Men, Women, & Children

Men, Women, & Children

The latter is a fairly common assumption in movies dealing in an explicit and important manner with American Life. I recently returned from the Toronto International Film Festival, where my last screening before emplaning was Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, & Children. One of the film’s ensemble is Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), a breakout star running back on his high school football team who decides not to play sophomore year, still suffering from the emotional trauma of his mother having abandoned his father and him for California. Reitman’s film is set somewhere in the vicinity of Austin, Texas, a state where high school football is king. (There is nothing in the movie to suggest that Reitman has ever set foot in Texas but, disconcertingly, it appears that the film was actually shot there.) The setting invites the memory of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which also features a football-averse young man growing up in the Lone Star State. (The comparison is nowhere else warranted by Reitman’s movie, which is startlingly awful even by his standards.) And while the dialogue of Ellar Coltrane’s Mason in Boyhood isn’t necessarily the dialogue of the movie, Reitman drops a clear sign that he’s totally “OMG fuck teh jocks” into his mise-en-scene, such as it is. Habitually harassed as a quitter for letting down the team, Mooney finally snaps and beats a classmate into a bloody pulp in the cafeteria, in a scene whose sickening, thudding detail curiously echoes the school hall beatdown in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). Mooney is sent to the school counselor’s office, which is conspicuously decorated with a poster bearing Vince Lombardi’s famous motto “Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s the Only Thing.”

Unlike Mason, Linklater was a high school athlete—a backup quarterback for the Huntsville High School Hornets from 1976 to 1978, and after that a standout baseball star at Houston Bellaire. The uneasy coexistence of team sports ethos—“Winning Isn’t Everything” and so on— and nonconformist ideals which Linklater would’ve been exposed to during these years is key to his 1993 Dazed and Confused. The film’s ensemble of characters includes Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), a football star who must decide whether to sign a pledge which attests that he won’t do drugs over the summer; like University of Texas and Miami Dolphins great Ricky Williams, Randall faces a Sophie’s Choice between smoking weed and football. Linklater has long spoken of his desire to make a film about high school football in Texas, and in the late Nineties he was in the running to direct Friday Night Lights, based on a non-fiction book written by H.G. Bissinger which follows a West Texas HS team’s 1988 season. “It’s a safer bet to make a moronic movie than one that’s real,” Linklater says, frustrated, in a 1998 Texas Monthly profile—and sure enough, Friday Night Lights finally came to the screen in 2004, directed by the awe-strikingly-pandering actor-turned-director Peter Berg, who also developed the NBC television series (2006-2011) of the same name.

Berg’s blood-and-thunder movie is a trial run for his 2013 Lone Survivor, another paean to manly masochism, with his Permian High School Panthers absorbing bone-splintering hits after every snap, and hacking up buckets of red, red kroovy in-between. Friday Night Lights belongs to a cycle of football movies released in the early years of the 21st century, beginning with Remember the Titans (2000) and carrying through We Are Marshall (2006), Invincible (2006), The Express (2008), The Blind Side (2009), and this year’s When the Game Stands Tall. Dealing in every level of play from high school to the pros, these are films in which the gridiron is transformed into a sort of moral proving ground, a space in which racial prejudice, economic imbalance, self-doubt, or some combination thereof can be confronted and triumphed over, either on the scoreboard or in moral victory, generally under the oversight of a sage coach. (Billy Bob Thornton handles the part in Friday Night Lights.)

Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights

I’d like to believe that Coach Linklater would’ve done some different play-calling. At the risk of generalizing, what one discerns of Linklater through his films is the image of someone who cherishes sport for sport’s sake, while distrusting those who would impose value systems—usually crypto-conservative—onto a game which is already complete unto itself. Linklater is an inheritor of the legacy of what I will broadly call the counterculture sports movie, even having filmed a cover version of one of the canonical texts of the subgenre, his 2005 remake of Michael Ritchie’s 1976 The Bad News Bears. Like Berg in Friday Night Lights, Linklater uses Thornton as his coach figure, but towards very different ends—his alcoholic Morris Buttermaker in Bears is a flawed, faded patriarch, as much in need of correction as the kids he’s coaching. (As of this writing, Linklater has a spiritual sequel to Dazed in the works, the early ‘80s-set That’s What I’m Talking About, which centers on hard-partying college-age baseball players.)

The counterculture sports movie rejects the causal relationship between sports and character-building. The game is an end unto itself, useless and nevertheless beautiful—or perhaps beautiful because it’s useless. It allows figures who in actual life would be considered losers a shot at glory. And at worst, it offers a counter-myth as spurious as the mainstream sports movie’s myth, as in an edifice of soaring clichés like The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a 2014 documentary which aired as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series about the Portland Mavericks, a Minor League baseball team which existed from 1973 to 1977, whose primary distinction was a lack of affiliation with any Major League franchise.

1979’s North Dallas Forty is perhaps the archetypal example of the counterculture football movie: Respectful of the sport but deeply distrusting of the institutions and bureaucracy that surround it, with more than a slight pall of existential crisis hanging over the whole affair. It is based on a 1973 novel of the same name by Peter Gent, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who, after racking up 989 career yards between 1964 and ‘68, became a man of letters. The book is a roman à clef expose of Gent’s unhappy pro stint, with the fictional North Dallas Bulls standing in for the Cowboys. Nick Nolte, who’d knocked around between various college football teams before turning to theatre, plays banged-up wideout Phil Elliott—the Gent stand-in. Singer-songwriter Mac Davis—he wrote “In the Ghetto” for Elvis—is quarterback Seth Maxwell, based on Gent’s teammate and friend Don Meredith. The film was directed by Ted Kotcheff, a peripatetic Toronto-born director who has recently enjoyed a raised profile thanks to the re-release of his 1971 Wake in Fright, an extended, shambolic, bleary, drunken nightmare set in the Australian outback. Kotcheff’s North Dallas Forty has the same interest in self-destructive masculine ritual as that earlier film. Here, this anarchy is essential to the functioning of the players, almost bohemian in their reckless pursuit of inspirational ecstasies, while their coach (G.D. Spradlin) is an unimaginative businessman who attempts to reduce the game to crunchable numbers. (The real-life inspiration is Coach Tom Landry, who oversaw the Cowboys during the period in which they began to be marketed as “America’s Team.”) The film is defined by this tension between commerce (managing) and art (playing), which snaps when one player (Oakland Raiders3 DE John “Tooz” Matsuzak) finally erupts at a coach in the locker room. This is shortly before Elliott himself walks away from the professional game, quoting an epistle of St. Paul on his way out the door: “It’s time to put away childish things.”

North Dallas Forty

North Dallas Forty

As a 33-year-old vocational film critic, putting aside things deemed childish is hardly an option—and we do need games to brighten our path through this vale of tears. It was in this spirit that, undoubtedly in a fit of Internet procrastination, I started kicking around the idea of an all-auteur football team with some other movie chat folks, who were also probably putting off actual work.4 For the purposes of the conversation, “auteur” was taken to mean “anyone who has ever directed a feature-length movie,” and any solid biographical evidence of participation in the sport at any level was taken as qualification for the team. Under these rules, John Wayne, an offensive tackle with the “Thundering Herd” of the University of Southern California and director of The Alamo (1960) counts, as does Tommy Lee Jones, director of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) and offensive guard on the undefeated 1968 Harvard squad. The five episodes of Hunter that Fred Dreyer directed wouldn’t get him aboard, but he squeaks onto the team thanks to his 2000 feature Highway 395.

Putting together such a team, you immediately feel the presence of the historical and ongoing racism of the American picture business. (While identified with liberal values as frequently as football is identified with conservative ones, Hollywood has to date failed to integrate nearly as successfully.) Paul Robeson, a star at Rutgers some decades before Rice, doesn’t have a directorial credit. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, a superstar defensive back for both the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, is the most obvious and amply qualified African-American candidate—the last of his 21 completed films is 2007’s Vegas Vampires. As much as I would like to, however, I don’t think I can in good conscience bring Jim Brown aboard on the strength of the 1999 TV movie that he directed, Keeping the Music Alive.

Elsewhere, we filled positions with names more associated with accomplishments behind the camera than on the field. At tackle we had John Ford, known as “Bull Feeney the Human Battering Ram” in the days when he helped the Portland High School team win two state championships and was twice named to the Maine all-state football team, and Terrence Malick, of the 1961 St. Stephen’s Episcopal School Spartans. Burt Reynolds seemed for a moment like the second coming of Clint Eastwood with his 1976 directorial debut Gator, but before this he was a Seminole—a star running back at Florida State.5 The wide receiver corps that we came up with was probably the smallest in the history of the sport, including John Cassavetes (Port Washington High School), Sam Peckinpah (Fresno High School), and Woody Allen (No real qualification, but I remember that he broke his nose playing football as a kid.) In order to add some size, high school quarterback William Wellman was converted to tight end to play the role of bulldog in-line blocker. Though the quarterback is not-infrequently referred to as the “director” of the game, Linklater would appear, ironically, to have little competition for the QB slot outside of Wellman. Warren Beatty, whose breakout role was that of aristocratic high school quarterback Milton Armitage in the sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and who played a backup QB for the Los Angeles Rams in 1978’s Heaven Can Wait, which he co-directed with Buck Henry, always coveted the slot, but in actual fact he’d been a second team, all-county center and linebacker at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia. Also on offense is Martin Ritt, second-string halfback for “The Fighting Christians” of North Carolina’s Elon University, where he was appalled to witness southern racism firsthand. Upon returning to New York, Ritt earned $15 a game playing professionally for the City Island Slickers, when he wasn’t otherwise engaged with the leftist Theater of Action organization. We know that Allan Dwan, Budd Boetticher, John Sayles, and John Sturges all got in some college ball, as did Robert “Le Gros Bob” Aldrich, who lettered at the University of Virginia. The degree of enthusiasm with which my colleagues and I participated in this game, I’m afraid, suggests that there is much to the argument for auteurdom as a species of boyish fandom.

Despite their difference in age, Aldrich and Reynolds actually would become teammates of a sort, briefly setting up the production company “Roburt” together. The first and last Roburt production is Aldrich’s 1975 Hustle, which was allowed for by the enormous popular success of their previous film, 1974’s The Longest Yard, for my money the greatest football movie ever made. Reynolds plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a retired NFL quarterback who, as the film begins, has been reduced to a washed-up drunken lout, seen casually brutalizing the wealthy woman that he lives with and sponges off of—it’s no Ray Rice KO, but it’s not so far from it—then taking off in her Citroen sports car and leading the police on a Hal Needham car chase. Finally caught, Crewe is sentenced to 18 months in Citrus State Prison, whose Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) happens to be a big football fan. Hazen fields a semi-professional team made up of guards, first-ranked in the Southeastern league, and has pulled strings to get Crewe under his control. Using bullying tactics, Hazen forces a reluctant Crewe to assemble a team of convicts to play a “tune-up game” against the guards, in which Crewe himself is to play quarterback. (Elements of the plot appear in Walter Hill’s 2002 Undisputed, one of the last great boxing pictures, and one of the few which doesn’t in any way rely on Great White Hope mythology.)

Hazen demands that the game have a moral dimension, one which reasserts the (law-and-)order of his worldview, where victory is a direct result of righteousness—this tautology comes naturally to a man who must believe that everyone in his prison must necessarily be guilty, because otherwise they wouldn’t be there. He is in the practice of having an assistant record his own sagacious pronouncements about football, strings of Lombardi-esque platitudes like “Young people can learn a great deal from a skillfully-played football game—offense, defense. The spirit of achievement. Teamwork. You might say the game embodies what has made our country great. It’s a great game. It’s played by great men.”6 Crewe rejects such impositions of sentiment onto football—at one point he spins a sappy yarn about his backstory for a cellblock pal, only to laugh the whole thing off a moment later. During the final game, the announcer comments that “it looks more like a prayer meeting” as Crewe calls his team in for a huddle, but he’s not one for speechifying. “Let’s do it,” is all he says.

The Longest Yard

The Longest Yard

Crewe assembles his team—their number includes the ogre-ish Richard Kiel, who passed on last week—by inducing inmates with the promise of revenge against their jailers. His bruisers call themselves the Mean Machine, and they play to cripple and maim. The big tune-up game occupies slightly more than the last third of the movie from the moment of the first snap. Presenting this final confrontation, Aldrich uses multiple images which glide across the frame at once to interlock before breaking apart again—the phrase “split-screen” is hardly sufficient for this network of sliding picture panes—a process he will develop still further in his 1977 Twilight’s Last Gleaming (discussed here). These effects taper off as the game wears on, however, and Aldrich sets aside the directorial razzle-dazzle to straightforwardly document play in action. Shortly after the Mean Machine score three points on an antique “Drop kick” call, Aldrich follows an entire play with a single camera movement, shot from an angle slightly above the level of the field. Reynolds (or some reasonable uniformed facsimile thereof) takes the snap, drops back under pressure from a blitzing linebacker (Ray Nitschke, formerly of the Green Bay Packers), pump fakes to his right side, gets off a screen pass on the left to his RB (Pervis Atkins, Jr., who spent time with the Rams, Redskins, and Raiders), who cuts back to evade two defenders, bounces off another, hurtles over a falling blocker, runs headlong into a member of the secondary, and manages to fall forward, rumbling downfield for something like forty yards altogether. A shot like this is inestimably more difficult to handle that the visceral in-the-scrum immediacy which allows mediocre filmmakers like Berg to hide their inadequacy—I was amused to watch a swath of blood disappear and reappear on the quarterback’s jersey during Friday Night Lights’ State Championship game.

With its superstars and backups, its endless rehearsals for the big show, the football movie has much in common with the backstage musical, though given the sport’s macho associations, it is more commonly compared to its other near-neighbor, the war film. “I want it to be like The Seven Samurai,” Linklater is quoted as saying of his never-to-be-made Friday Night Lights. Among the dirty plays that the Mean Machine call in the huddle is “4-3 Mau Mau”—the reference to the native Mau Mau Uprising against colonial British rulers in Kenya is significant, for it is among Crewe’s accomplishments to convince black inmates onto the team to compete against the all-white guards. In Alain Silver and James Ursini’s What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich?, discussion of The Longest Yard is relegated to a section called “The Battle and the Game,” which discusses Aldrich’s sports films alongside his war films. “In many screenings,” write Silver and Ursini, “audiences not only cheered for the convicts as they would a real team but screamed for the guards’ blood.”

Not so Nora Sayre in the New York Times, who does accede in her down-the-nose review that “Though The Yard is a terrible picture, I’ll admit to having unwillingly enjoyed some of the football practice and parts of the final game… There’s no thrill in the sport, since it’s the movie director who decides who wins or loses.” This, of course, is an alarmingly meaningless statement, even for the Times—a movie director (or scriptwriter, or studio) decides who lives or dies in any given picture as well, and if known outcomes couldn’t make for thrilling viewing, we would never return to movies at all, or watch highlights from games already played. I have watched The Longest Yard more times than I ought to say, and the first time that Crewe connects downfield, I never fail to let loose with a whoop of pleasure, similar in type if not in volume to that elicited by Andy Dalton’s 77-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green in Week One. It is such endorphin-dump moments as this that make it quite impossible to put aside this particular childish thing, this Theater of Action, as morally compromised and strewn with human wreckage as the movies themselves.



1. From the Cleatus wiki:” “Cleatus mainly appears during the intro sequence of the show as well as brief commercials for movies and TV shows. In these commercials he commonly gets attacked by a CGI character from whatever the advertisement is about. He has thus far been attacked by Iron Man, a dragon from the movie Eragon, and a T-1000 robot from the TV show Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and taunted with thrown objects by The Burger King. Cleatus is also known to hop on two feet, play the electric guitar, shake out his limbs, and dance using such moves as the swim and the electric slide; he Tebowed during the December 11, 2011 Fox broadcast of a Denver Broncos game. Games on the weekend following New Year’s Day show Cleatus sitting on a bench holding an ice pack to his head, nursing a hangover. When the MLB postseason begins on Fox in October, he will also take baseballs from a basket and hit them with a bat towards the background of the screen. After the World Series is over, he will not do this again until the next year’s postseason begins.

If a Thanksgiving NFL game is on Fox, he is usually replaced with a robot turkey.”

2. Peterson answered a warrant for his arrest in Texas this Saturday, charged with negligent injury to a child after disciplining his 4-year-old son with a tree branch. Rice was captured by surveillance cameras at the Revel Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer on February 15 of this year. Commissioner Goodell handed down a two-game suspension for this infraction after video of Rice dragging around a limp and unconscious Palmer like fresh game appeared on the website TMZ. After yet another video “leaked” to the public, in which Rice’s blow can be seen connecting, his contract was terminated by the Ravens, who of course could have seen the damning footage at any time. He was abandoned by his last remaining sponsor, Nike, and EA Sports eliminated him from Madden ’15.

The emergence of this physical evidence, of course, materially changed nothing about the nature of Rice’s transgression—given that we’ve already seen him dragging an unconscious woman around, we can reasonably surmise that she was dealt a whopping blow at some point in the very recent past, probably by the man who is rag-dolling her body around. (For further reading, I recommend Drew Magary’s Deadspin piece on the subject, “Here’s Why the NFL is Full of Shit.”) Such is the power of the image.

3.The Raiders, a bunch of infamous ne’er-do-wells, were the most counterculture-identified team of the Seventies. In Arthur Penn’s 1975 Night Moves, it is perhaps significant that Gene Hackman’s private dick Harry Moseby is an ex-Raider. When Moseby’s wife asks “Who’s winning?” of the game he’s watching, he offers an existentialist rebuff by way of scriptwriter Alan Sharp. “Nobody,” he says. “One side’s just losing slower than the other.” (I have quoted this irresistible passage before in writing about another Sharp script, this for Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid). The search to restore lost purpose to play is seen in Tooz’s locker room meltdown (“When we’re dead-tired in the fourth quarter, winning’s gotta mean more than just money”), and parodied in a recent Onion News Network skit: “Pre-Game Coin Toss Makes Jaguars Realize Randomness Of Life.”

4. Participants, as best I can recall, included Bilge Ebiri, R. Emmet Sweeney, Eric Hynes, Victor Morton, Justin Stewart, and Brendan Bouzard.

5. The Tampa Bay Bandits, one of the 18 teams who played in the short-lived (1983-1986) United States Football League, were named after Reynolds’s Smokey and the Bandit films—Reynolds was a general partner and minority owner of the team. The USFL, which played a spring/summer schedule, was one of several organizations to unsuccessfully challenge the NFL’s monopoly on professional football—as Roburt was one of Aldrich’s many attempts to secure his independence from Hollywood.

6. With his omnipresent tape recorder, Hazen uncannily recalls another football fan obsessed with self-documentation, Richard Nixon, who, so debunked legend has it, called an unsuccessful reverse play for the Redskins during a 1971 playoff game against San Francisco. Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974. The Longest Yard was released on August 30. Remembering Philip Baker Hall’s Nixon blubbering over the memory of his Whittier College football coach in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984), I can only imagine that the 37th president would’ve loved the mawkish coach-porn movies of recent years.