Time to trot out the old Gertrude Stein quote that in Oakland, “there’s no there there.” With news that the NFL Raiders will be running off to Las Vegas comes the sense of a lost place. And, just to further disorient football fans and civic leaders, the team crassly intends to squat at the Oakland Coliseum for at least two more seasons while its palatial new playground is being built in Sin City.
“Home” games are looking like there might be no “here” there. Plenty of Raiders’ fans, often described as among the league’s most passionate and loyal, essentially are reacting to the Raiders’ good-bye by offering to make them sandwiches. You know: Here’s your hat; what’s your hurry?
That includes Scott McKibben, the man who heads the authority that controls the Oakland Coliseum. McKibben told USA Today that it is “actually financially to our benefit” if the Raiders don’t exercise their option to honor their lease through 2018—a clear suggestion that the Raiders pack up and leave immediately. The Coliseum generates $7 million a year from the team but spends $8 million.
There doesn’t appear to be a real danger that the Raiders will wind up like the imaginary Port Ruppert Mundys in Philip Roth’s “Great American Novel”—a baseball team in the World War II era forced to play its entire schedule on the road because its stadium was used as a soldier’s embarkation point.
But this promises to be a mighty awkward divorce. And not so different from the last time the Raiders said “See you, suckers” to Oakland citizens. That was in 1982, when the Raiders’ founder and original owner, Al Davis—father to current majority owner Mark, who inherited Al’s tendency toward itchy feet—went looking for greener grass in Los Angeles.
The weird logistics that year included having the Raiders continue to live and train in Oakland—practicing all week within view of the Oakland Coliseum—then flying the 365 miles to L.A. for Sunday “home” games. It was a bit like having the New York Jets play home games in Pittsburgh, or the New England Patriots play home games in Buffalo.
Players reported sometimes crossing paths with Oakland residents who marveled, “I didn’t know y’all were still around here.” The local newspaper, which had recorded the Raiders’ every move for the previous 22 seasons, quit covering the team. The Raiders’ fan club disbanded, though some members went on insisting, according to that season’s Raiders’ running back Kenny King, “You’re not the L.A. Raiders. You’re the Oakland Raiders.”
King’s response: “If they want to call us that, fine. I’m a Raider. A Whatever Raider.”
So, here we are again. The Whatever Raiders, expecting to play at least one more season 500 miles from their future digs, are somehow expecting Oakland folks to go on supporting them. Mark Davis, having lived up to his father’s allegiance to the team’s pirate logo by attempting to plunder taxpayers for a better stadium deal, nevertheless went on local radio and claimed, “I still have a feeling for the fans in the Bay Area. And I’ve met with a number of them. And anything I say to them isn’t going to soothe them, and it makes this whole thing bittersweet.”
Not that such emotions stopped him from merrily abandoning those fans, the same way the original Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982, then walked out 13 years later on the spectator following they had built in L.A. to return to Oakland.
And now Davis has insisted that the Raiders will carry the “Oakland” name until settling in Vegas in 2019 or 2020.
But why should Bay Area citizens still contribute to Davis’ bank account with the Oakland Coliseum again becoming the Park of the Lost Raiders? With speculation that the team might seek a temporary home at the San Francisco 49ers’ stadium in Santa Clara—or even in San Antonio, Tex.—before its Vegas stadium is available, why should any fans buy into a one-way, short-term relationship?
Davis insisted that he really wanted to stay in Oakland, but had no choice.
Once again, the NFL has evoked Mad Magazine’s goofy Cold War-inspired cartoon “Spy vs. Spy.” How else to consider the recent heavy-handed punishment of New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo? When his league-approved encrypted communication device, which pipes his voice covertly into his quarterback’s helmet, malfunctioned, the dastardly McAdoo resorted to the use of a walkie-talkie.
McAdoo was hit with a $50,000 fine and the Giants assessed an additional $150,000 penalty, as well as a degradation in their 2017 draft order. All because the walkie-talkie, unlike the NFL’s authorized CoachComm system, did not have a cut-off switch to discontinue the coach’s play-calling instructions with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
That theoretically unfair advantage over the Dallas Cowboys, who still were operating with the cut-off switch, nevertheless led to a drive-ending interception against the Giants. Still, the league must be forever vigilant in assuring a level playing field! Paranoia reigns among coaches, whose inherent tendency toward micromanagement—as a function of self-preservation—pairs with advancing technology to emphasize stealth and surveillance.
For a sport that sees itself as a simulation of war, with its blitzes and bombs and field generals, clandestine strategizing is of great consequence. Thus the strict rules against the use of, say, Navajo code talkers or Enigma machines.
It’s all secrecy vs. chicanery—with teams, for decades, bivouacking in huddles to guard again pilfered campaign intelligence, and more recently deploying sideline pantomimes and the helmet implant.
Football wasn’t far beyond its rugby roots when Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, devised the first huddle in 1892 to shield Gallaudet’s hand signals from opponents, themselves often hearing impaired and therefore conversant in signing.
For a century afterwards, huddles worked wonderfully for all players because quarterbacks—without the coaches’ direct involvement—called plays out of earshot of the opposition. Then, in the 1950s, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, not satisfied to leave strategy to his soldiers on the field, began using “messenger guards” to shuttle play calls into his quarterback.
There were tales that wise-guy Browns quarterback George Ratterman once told rookie guard Joe Skibinski to “go back and get another play” when he didn’t like the one delivered from the sideline. So Brown took the next step, recruiting two Ohio inventors to build the first radio receiver into Ratterman’s helmet. That was in 1956.
“My helmet acted as an antenna,” Ratterman told me in a telephone conversation a few years before his death in 2007. “And I had to turn a certain way to hear, so I’d be standing outside the huddle, revolving around, trying to tune in the signal.”
Worse, Ratterman said, in a game against Detroit, the Lions got wind of the experiment, “so the Lions kept saying to each other, ‘Kick the helmet. Kick the helmet.’ And I kept trying to explain to them that my head was inside the helmet,” Ratterman said.
“Then, in Chicago,” he recalled, “we played a benefit game at Soldier Field against the Bears and they were planning all kinds of sets and displays for a halftime show. All during the first half, I was picking up walkie-talkies of these workers, setting up the displays. I couldn’t hear Brown at all, but I kept hearing stuff like, ‘Hey, Joe, set that up over there.’”
Brown’s messengers soon were employed by other coaches and, in the 1970s, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry began shuffling quarterbacks after every play, something neither Roger Staubach nor Craig Morton much appreciated. As play-calling came to be wrested almost completely away from players by coaches, the NFL moved to provide direct communication that could cut through stadium noise via CoachComm, which became standard equipment in 1994. (Quarterbacks wired to receive transmissions from the coach’s headset wear small green dots on their helmets, and a fan of secret agents might make an immediate connection to the CIA. In a 1998 novel, veteran journalist Jim Lehrer wrote that CIA snoops had purple dots affixed to their license plates as a special privilege to warn off police and tow trucks.)
There are, meanwhile, many instances of coaches relaying signals by using coded placards, and coaches’ crafty hand-over-the-mouth delivery of commands. Because spies are everywhere.
In his 2007 book, “The GM,” celebrated sportswriter Tom Callahan recounted a classic undercover scheme in a 1977 game between the Colts (then in Baltimore) and New England Patriots. With Baltimore trailing late in the game and stuck with a third-and-18 on its own 12-yard line, the Colts had Bobby Colbert—then head coach at hearing-impaired Gallaudet—read the lips of New England’s defensive coordinator as he called for “Double safety delayed blitz.”
Colbert relayed the message to the Baltimore bench, which passed it on to Colts quarterback Bert Jones, who changed the play and threw an 88-yard touchdown pass for the winning score.
And that is why the always wary NFL, with Ben McAdoo’s walkie-talkie misbehavior, ruled that up with this it would not put.
With any big news story, there really are more questions than answers. Has Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem before NFL games enlightened the public about racial inequities in America? Or has it merely empowered the scribes and Pharisees—talking heads and comportment police—to lecture over what constitutes an appropriate protest?
Has Kaepernick sparked a debate about police treatment of minorities, which is his stated intention? Or has he fueled an argument about whether he, as a $19-million-a-year backup quarterback, is in any position to speak for the oppressed?
By not participating in what his critics consider an act of patriotism, is he disrespecting American military troops and those who serve the country? Or he is reinforcing what the anthem and flag stand for—the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Should we be talking about this?
For the animated adult cartoon “South Park,” to which nothing is off limits, assumptions of uncompromising certainties in the Kaepernick case are skewered by its satiric rewriting of the Star-Spangled Banner’s lyrics:
Colin Kaepernick is great.
Cops are pigs, cops are pigs.
Wait, someone just took my stuff, I need to call the cops.
Oh, no, I just said cops are pigs.
Who’s gonna help me get my stuff?
Why did I listen to Colin Kaepernick? He’s not even any good.
Oh, I just got all my stuff back.
Cops are pigs again, cops are pigs.
Colin Kaepernick is a good backup….
As a career sports journalist, I was struck by the thoughtful observations of SUNY-Oswego communications professor Brian Moritz, a former sportswriter, who mulled whether reports subsequent to Kaepernick’s first protest on Aug. 26 somehow are hijacking his original intent.
“If two of the most primary news values are conflict (aka disagreements) and deviance (something outside the norm),” Moritz wrote on his sportsmediaguy.com Web site, “then it’s natural for reporters to focus on people who disagree loudly with Kaepernick. Ambivalence is not a great news value, especially not if one or more players voice strong disapproval of Kaepernick’s actions. Those disapproving voices get amplified in the follow-up stories (because they fit the established news values), and I wonder how much that amplification inadvertently isolates Kaepernick and his position.
“The point,” Mortiz added, “is not whether Kaepernick is right or wrong. We’re grownups. We’re allowed to disagree. The point is whether the way we…cover a story effects public perception of the issues involved.”
Does it stray from Kaepernick’s message to know that a principal in Florida told students they would be ejected from sports events if they didn’t stand for the national anthem? Or that a Massachusetts high school football player was threatened with suspension if he mimicked Kaepernick? That presidential candidate Donald Trump invited Kaepernick to leave the country and Iowa congressman Steve King compared a player’s kneeling during the anthem akin to “activism that is sympathetic to ISIS”?
According to a report in the U.K.-based Telegraph, an Alabama preacher informed a high school football crowd, “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you.”
Perhaps it further inflames Kaepernick’s detractors that Wesley Morris, in a New York Times Magazine essay, pointed to the football establishment’s long history of seeking “to conflate itself with the military, making it easy to confuse players with troops and political protest with treason.” Morris argued that “modern patriotism has become Kabuki citizenship” through rituals that have turned national loyalty into “a matter of optics—of theater.”
A few other pros have joined Kaepernick’s no-standing stance during pre-game anthems. As the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times noted, the Supreme Court in 1943 established that citizens cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the American flag or engage in other patriotic demonstrations, and a 1969 ruling reinforced the constitutional right to express political opinions as long as they don’t impose on “the rights of others.”
In the end, it does not appear that Kaepernick has endangered anyone, with the possible exception of himself. He “has placed his livelihood in peril in the service of his conscience,” contended Penn State professor Abraham Iqbal Khan in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opinion piece, calling that “a risk that merits our attention.”
Meanwhile, it surely does no good that Fox Sports commentator Jason Whitlock—like Kaepernick, an African-American—has questioned not only Kaepernick’s integrity and football ability, but also his blackness?
“This kid was about Instagram models, tattoos, his abs and building up the Colin Kaepernick brand—until the very moment he loses his starting quarterback job,” Whitlock said, “and now he’s out here and he’s ‘Martin Luther Cornrow.’ And he’s got cornrows, he’s Allen Iverson, he’s Angela Davis. I don’t buy it.”
Jason Whitlock, by the way, was working as a scribe for the Kansas City Star in 2009 when he similarly lit into Serena Williams—at the time a champion of 11 Grand Slam tennis tournaments—for being overweight and deficient of “guts….an underachiever [who] lacks the courage to fulfill her destiny.”
To that, Williams, who since has won 11 more Slam events, had a question: “Who is Jason Whitlock?”
The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was well into its forceful, menacing rendition of The Requiem when I thought of New York Jets training camp, in progress just a few miles from Lincoln Center. Not because of conductor Louis Langree’s physical exertions—slashing the air with his arms, balling his fists, pointing and exhorting the musicians and chorus, sort of a Peyton Manning of maestros. Rather, I was reminded of what Langree had told me in a discussion of classical music in a football setting nine years earlier.
At the time, Jets head coach Eric Mangini had embarked on a brief—and arguably unsuccessful—experiment in which he piped the most culturally refined symphonic sounds into the heads of his gridiron behemoths during study portions of camp. Mangini was inspired by the so-called “Mozart Effect,” which suggests that listening to the 18th-Century master’s work makes a person smarter.
Langree, as director of the Mostly Mozart Festival since 2002, was an obvious man to query on the topic. In a phone interview, he confessed that he had “no idea” whether Mozart’s music stimulated learning, though he said he had “heard there were some studies on farms” in which “they put the cows in stables and at night put on different music. Michael Jackson. Beethoven. Duke Ellington. And when they played Mozart, the cows gave the biggest amount of milk.”
Langree, a Frenchman, admitted limited knowledge of American football. “I’ve heard of the Jets. I don’t know how many players there are on a team,” he said.
But he suggested that to promote more concentration by Jets players, or any workers, he might play Mozart’s last movement of the Jupiter Symphony (Symphony No. 41), which he described as “a vision like the time of enlightenment.” More to the point, and this is what struck me during the recent concert, he said he might attempt to provoke players’ aggression with “excerpts from The Requiem. This is music panic, almost. Truly hell, or fear of hell. The end of the world.”
Ominous. Rousing. Smash-mouth music. Hit-em-again, hit-em-again. Harder. Harder.
It should be noted that Eric Mangini, like Mozart, was a fellow who found unusual success at an early age in the field of his endeavor and, like Mozart (who was composing music at 5 years old), was labeled a “genius” by many critics for a willingness to break the molds of his profession. In 2006, Mangini not only was the youngest head coach in the National Football League, at 35, but also was named his conference’s coach of the year when the Jets won 10 of 16 games.
It was in August of 2007, however, that he attempted the Mozart project—a true rejiggering of the football DNA—and the team wound up going 4-12. In 2008, after an 8-3 start, the Jets lost four of their last five games and Mangini was fired.
Nevertheless, just exposed to the Mostly Mozart production, I am inclined to ascribe to a Leo Tolstoy observation that “music is the shorthand of emotion” and is therefore ideally suited to assertive sports activity. At last year’s U.S. Open tennis championships, by the way, there was a harpist performing just outside the player entrance.
Likewise, at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, a woman named Diane Evans, a member of the Indianapolis Symphony, played a harp in the foyer of the hall that was housing the Games’ weightlifting competition. All manner of grunting and groaning was going on inside the building, while Evans argued that harps and symphony halls “are perfectly appropriate” in the athletic setting. She had taken in the Pan Am baseball competition, and decided that the pitcher warming up was “just slow pieces followed by faster pieces.” She asked, “Do you know what an etude is?”
I had to look it up. It is a musical composition for the development of a specific point of technique. Strikingly similar, one could argue, to a drill that helps offensive linemen refine their footwork to improve blocking ability. Or a workout that hones a pass receiver’s routes.
So: Virtuosity in different forms. Mostly.
In the verisimilitude of NFL stadiums these days, almost all fans are suited up and ready to go, only a set of shoulder pads and a helmet shy of offering to trade places with the players. Faux Tom Bradys are decked out in their No. 12 Patriots jerseys. Mock Dez Bryants in their No. 88 Cowboys jerseys. Artificial No. 13 Odell Beckham Juniors in Giants blue and No. 12 Aaron Rodgerses in Packers green.
This appearance or semblance of truth—this blurring of spectator and performer—has been a multiplying phenomenon for roughly a quarter century, ever since merchandizers hit on the financial bonanza of mining sports loyalists’ dress-up fantasies. Where once it was enough just to ride the bandwagon, attired in mufti, it has become standard procedure to walk around with another person’s name and number on one’s back.
And it isn’t just young men, whose age and gender at least roughly coincide with the athletes they are pretending to be. Older folks, little kids, women and girls assume player identities as well.
Whether this is motivated by a visceral belief that fans, by increasing the number of Eli Mannings or Andrew Lucks on site each Sunday, can affect the game’s outcome is difficult to pinpoint. But wearing a player’s shirt has become so routine that the NFL, as well as other professional leagues, publicizes lists of top-selling jerseys. (Brady currently is No. 1.)
In this strange circumstance of visual cloning, then, it is refreshing to note the Seattle Seahawks’ variant on the theme. In Seattle, football fans indeed wear blue or white team shirts, often with the name and number of quarterback Russell Wilson (No. 3) or running back Marshawn Lynch (No. 24), whose replica jerseys are the ninth and 15th among top sellers.
The difference in Seattle, though, is the ubiquitous presence of jersey No. 12, a number that hasn’t been worn by a Seahawk player since 1981 and never will be again. (Only one man ever wore No. 12 for the Seahawks since they joined the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1976. And he, essentially was just another spectator: Sam Adkins played—briefly—in all of 11 games over a four-year career from 1977 to 1981 and threw a total of 39 passes (17 completions, two touchdowns, four interceptions), before he—not his jersey—was retired.
But in 1984, Seahawks head coach Chuck Knox began to refer to the support of Seattle’s home crowd as an extra player—a 12th man—and that December, team owner Mike McCormack officially retired that “player’s” number as a tribute to the fans.
So now, a visitor such as myself doesn’t walk the Seattle streets without passing countless citizens wearing No. 12, with “FAN” above the number where a surname normally goes. There are “12” banners in shop windows, “12” scarves and hats for sale, a giant “12” flag flying on game days atop the tower of the global Starbucks headquarters. (The Seahawks No. 12 shirt, by the way, is the 19th most popular NFL jersey sold.)
In November of 2005, that “extra player”—famously loud in a stadium constructed to amplify crowd noise to record-level decibles—conspired to rattle the New York Giants into committing 11 false-start penalties and missing three field goals, which led to an overtime Seahawks victory. The next day, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren awarded the game ball to old No. 12.
That fed the fans’ conceit that they in fact can influence the game’s result, not unlike the apparent belief of the fellow who pulls on a Ben Roethlisberger No. 7 shirt with the conviction that he is prepared to further steel the Pittsburgh Steelers against their opponents. (“Put me in, coach; I’m ready to play.”)
As if. But in Seattle, at least, the we-are-the-team make-believe mostly stops short of ticketholders envisioning themselves to actually be Russell Wilson. The No. 12 shirt says, “FAN.” Truth in advertising.
On good legal advice, it can be stated here that that rascally Tom Brady is in a bind. Because, beyond Brady getting beat up by (non-New England Patriots) fans on the jury in the court of public opinion, the term “more probable than not”—used to cite Brady’s culpability in the case of the squishy NFL footballs—is a valid one in establishing proof.
Furthermore, as Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams explained in a telephone tutorial, “When the NFL wrote its own rules, unilateral rules, they were not negotiated with the union, because [the league] wanted it as easy as possible to sustain discipline.
“The NFL has its own housekeeping rules,” Abrams said. “If the question is whether the NFL has the power [to suspend Brady for four games], the answer is, ‘Sure.’”
Brady can appeal, and his agent has said he will. And the players’ union can appeal on Brady’s behalf. But either appeal, Abrams said, “does not go to an independent, neutral arbitrator. It’s to a person designated by the commissioner. The NFL has the edge, absolutely.”
It should be noted that Abrams, who has written extensively on law and sports and served as arbitrator in hundreds of legal disputes, was “floored” by the Brady suspension. “The NFL,” he said, “seems unable to get it correct,” citing how the league’s original suspensions in the matters of Ray Rice’s domestic violence, New Orleans Saints bounty practices and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges—each of those involving physical harm as opposed to fudging competitive rules by decreasing the air pressure in footballs—all were overturned.
But this is what happens when cloak-and-dagger activity is unearthed in sports, a universe founded on the ideal of the Level Playing Field and so closely scrutinized by passionate, partisan devotees. However stark, raving mad Patriots fans are about having Brady convicted of behavior they insist is neither conclusive nor outside the bounds of common practice around the league, those anti-Patriots loyalists have been just as nuts over Brady’s perceived arrogance and apparent treachery.
This opinion divide was evident in a sampling of New York Times’ reader reactions published Sunday. To both sides of the argument, then, the NFL penalties announced on Monday, including a hefty fine and loss or draft choices for the Patriots, were predictably gasoline on the flames.
The better part of valor in this fight could be humor, as when Columbia University physics and mathematics professor Brian Greene wrote in the Times—soon after the scandal surfaced—that the league’s attempt to obtain expert scientific analysis of pigskin inflation occasioned “one of the rare times when the jocks turn to the nerds….
“So fellow fans of molecules and momentum—climb out of that gym locker you were stuffed into—this is our moment.”
Greene, alluding to “gas physics” and a formula considering volume, pressure and air temperature, slyly concluded that NFL lawyers may “just want to increase their billable hours.” And, taking the meteorological elements into account, “It looks to me that mother nature at least provides a reasonable doubt” about any skullduggery. “So, based on what I know now, your honor, I cannot convict,” Greene wrote.
My friend Charlie Pierce, whose wickedly snarky style is to be envied in these situations, similarly advised that we all calm down. In a piece for the Web site Grantland just prior to the suspension order, Pierce wrote,
“1. I think [Brady] knew damned well what was going on with those footballs. I think his categorical denial at the January press conference was what my old journalism school dean would have called a “barefaced non-fact.” I think he should be suspended two games. And then, good god, people, we should all get on with our lives.
“2. I think anyone who advocates a more serious punishment than that, and anyone who equates Brady with Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds, is a dangerous child who should be kept away from the public for the same reason we keep toddlers out of the cutlery….”
Meanwhile, back to the “more probable than not” guilt assigned to Brady, the face of the Patriots and—to some extent—the face of the NFL: “What it means in real life,” Abrams said, “is, ‘It could be, maybe it’s not, I’m not too sure.’ It’s 51-percent sure. Which means it’s 49 percent not sure.
“But ‘more probable than not’ is used in civil actions, not criminal actions, for damages in car accidents or breach-of-contract or actions involving real property. Does the evidence [against Brady] meet that standard? Ted Wells [the lawyer who authored the report on the deflation investigation] is a wonderful attorney. Known him for 30 years. I value his work.
“On the other hand, people are picking that report apart.”
In the end, Abrams said, this was “not a legal decision but a policy decision: What’s best for the business?” So what the NFL had to decide was whether it wanted to open the 2015 season on national television—New England vs. Pittsburgh—without the sport’s biggest star? Or wanted to risk, by some relatively meek penalty, reinforcing the notion that rules are not quite the same for superstars?
Either way, what has been aired out, with those footballs, is some of the game’s dirty laundry.