It’s a struggle between American Puritanism and American flamboyance.
I’m talking about the argument over N.F.L. touchdown dances and other outcroppings of fun in this sport that takes itself so seriously.
As the Super Bowl approaches, the sports prudes are at it again. Consider the deep distress with which an otherwise intelligent local sports media columnist reacted to Fox TV’s coverage of a recent playoff game, which featured—brace yourself—repeated cutaway shots of a woman in a cutoff shirt with an NSFW slogan magic-markered on her bare belly.
Just when a shaken nation was recovering from the trauma of the Janet Jackson Super Bowl horror!
But this was far worse: The Janet Jackson incident took place during a half-time show. Here the camera cut away to this deeply, shamefully immoral and frivolous image of a bare belly during the profoundly serious, extremely socially significant game itself! When we should all have been focusing on the tactical shifts of the game plan!
People! Where are your priorities!
What’s really disturbing about this, of course, is the mindset of a purported grownup who can get all exercised about how troubling this is. Lighten up, dude. It’s a game, you’re not covering the State of the Union.
But this isn’t an isolated incident; it’s emblematic of the attitude of the entire National Football League, a bureaucracy of hacks in suits habitually overimpressed with the grandeur of their enterprise, a small-minded bureaucracy which last year issued one of the most laughably stupid rulings in the history of the sport: the ban on what they called “prolonged or excessive celebrations” by players celebrating touchdowns or big plays on the field.
It was this ban, announced last March, that led to the N.F.L. being dubbed the “No Fun League” by players and fans. But the killjoy N.F.L. bureaucrats, in their campaign to extinguish playfulness and joyfulness—because it might threaten their granitic image of the game’s gravitas—seem to be unable to distinguish a football game from a meeting of say, the U.N. Security Council.
True, it would probably be inappropriate if, after exercising a veto in that august chamber, the Russian U.N. ambassador did a “sack dance.” But the N.F.L. and much of the sports media treat it like an equivalent issue.
In fact, as I’m writing this, the Saints’ rookie running back, Reggie Bush, just scored a touchdown for New Orleans against the Bears and—racing toward the goal line after a beautiful catch and run—did a total frontal somersault flip into the end zone for the score, and then went into a complex, slow-motion imitation jog/dance that was both celebration and parody of celebration and totally cool in every respect.
I can picture the entire old-school sports media having a virtual cow when it happened. And, indeed, some did point to Reggie Bush’s conduct in the course of that scoring play as a terrible turning point. In fact, Reggie Bush himself apologized for letting himself get “caught up in the emotion of the game.” And yet emotions are what make great sports clashes different from combat by robots or digital images in video games. Emotions may well be the reason Reggie Bush got as far as the goal line he flipped over in the first place.
I don’t necessarily believe the world needs a micro-analysis of this moment, but, as ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning team pointed out to their credit the day after the game, there was nothing wrong with the flip and the dance; rather, Reggie Bush’s real mistake came 10 yards before he scored, when he turned and taunted the Bears’ scary linebacker, Brian Urlacher, who was futilely chasing him—thus incensing the Bears’ entire team, which went on to win the game.
On the other hand, what made Cassius Clay into the Muhammad Ali we know and love if it wasn’t his daring death-defying taunting of his opponents? The old-school sports establishment came down on him for “prolonged and excessive celebrations,” too. Live by taunting, die by taunting—the game is psychological as well as physical, and sometimes you intimidate by taunting, sometimes you suffer from taunting, but it’s all part of the drama.
Oh, the Humanity!
I had thought the sports-prude attitude had finally died of old age, but look at how everybody got all outraged all over again during the A.F.C. divisional playoffs, when some of the victorious Patriots had the nerve—the unmitigated gall, the shamelessness—to do a victory dance on (sit down so you don’t faint) the San Diego Chargers’ midfield colored chalk logo at the end of the game!
Yes, they disrespected the sacred chalk logo! I swear this sacrilege actually happened and was shown on national TV, and it was as if certain sports commentators’ heads exploded. They treated it like the Saddam execution cell-phone video of sports. Oh, the humanity!
Never mind that the Satanic glee the Pats players were exhibiting was an attempt to mock the sack dance of one of the Chargers players (Shawne Merriman)—so that, in a witty, meta way, the Patriots were exercising a critique of sack-dancery. But instead of applause for their ingenuity, the Patriots got the same old tired condemnation: that they didn’t show “class.”
What gets to me was the careless use of the word “class” and “classlessness,” words that are thrown around by clueless sportswriters writing about this subject. Did Muhammad Ali lack class? No, his grace and wit transcended the jock-sniffing boxing writers.
In fact, it’s kind of obvious to any observer that it’s not about class, but about race. Most often, nerdy white guys who feel inferior to large, gifted, (mostly) black athletes and thus try to find some way to feel superior to them.
Meanwhile, all the opprobrium obscures the fact that touchdown dances are one of the most entertaining and, in a way, athletic aspects of the game. I mean, breathes there a soul so dead that he cannot appreciate the wit of the Ickey Shuffle?
Yet apparently these dead souls abound. Remember the Ickey Shuffle? Everything about it was pure delight. For those who don’t remember, it was one of the first touchdown dances, and it featured a massive 250-pound Cincinnati Bengals fullback named Elbert (Ickey) Woods delicately shuffling his bulk back and forth in a slightly off-center, comically tilting yet debonair, even Fred Astaire–like fashion.
The subtle mockery of a freight-car-sized fullback performing these dainty little dance movements was a witty wink-and-nod at the cult of massive body violence in the N.F.L. I may have the chronology wrong, but it seemed to me at the time that it was a response to the crude posturing of Mark Gastineau’s dumb-jock “sack dance.” The best touchdown dances belong to the aesthetic of satire. And yet the clueless N.F.L. actually outlawed the Ickey Shuffle! It was dangerous to the extreme dignity of the game.
A short course in end-zone celebrations might have to include the wholesome collective gung-ho variations, such as the Fun Bunch group-jump, where the Washington Redskins’ offense would gather around the goalposts for a choreographed high-five-ish group love-in. And Green Bay’s Lambeau Leap, which soon got old for me thanks to its obligatory quality: Every time someone from the Packers scored, they had to leap into the end-zone stands to be mauled by drunken fans. No spontaneity!
The Ickey Shuffle was succeeded by various versions of the Electric Slide, the elbow-flapping slapstick of the Dirty Bird and the like.
It makes you wonder why the No Fun League encourages soft-core cheerleaders and face-painting fan-geeks, yet puts their players in straitjackets. Come on! The celebratory impulse and gesture are part of the American national character. We don’t need no stinkin’ stiff upper lip. Didn’t we learn anything from Prohibition and the idiocy of Comstockery?
But for innovation and variation, nothing recently has matched the veritable one-man crime wave of touchdown-celebration freak shows courtesy of controversial, much-maligned and (thus) much-traveled star wide receiver Terrell Owens, the bête noire of sports prudes everywhere. Mr. Owens is the guy known for scoring a touchdown and then taking out a Sharpie pen he’d stuck in his socks, autographing the ball and ostentatiously handing it to his financial consultant; on another occasion, he borrowed a cheerleader’s pompoms to celebrate himself. And then there’s Joe Horn, who used his moment of touchdown triumph to demonstratively take out a cell phone and call his family to break the news.
N.F.L. Brain Damage
What’s really outrageous and hypocritical on the part of these No Fun League bureaucrats is that they’ve sanctioned a game where the one thing that is permitted to be “prolonged or excessive”—and reverently celebrated—is vicious, crippling violence.
Recent studies of the cumulative effect of traumatic brain injuries of the kind sustained in concussions by professional football players (as reported in ESPN the Magazine) suggest that previously neglected brain damage—especially to the pituitary gland—is even more widespread than realized. But the N.F.L. suits are too busy policing end-zone celebrations to do anything about the kind of poorly policed, head-butting, helmet-spearing violence endemic to the league. (They could put a stop to it if they penalized the players $15K as well as 15 yards).
The league winks at violence so it can promote its product with jacked-up, “jacked” violent-hit videos. What fun! Brain damage in the making. It’s O.K. to have fun watching the players’ frontal lobes battered to jelly, but God forbid that they let off a little steam after they make a great play.
In fact, there may be a connection between the two that the N.F.L. suits don’t seem to get. I was talking to a knowledgeable friend who pointed out that in the violent pressure cooker of N.F.L. games, touchdown celebrations are lighthearted ways of letting off steam. And that the ability to let off steam in harmless ways may be a factor in reducing the unnecessarily malicious viciousness of the hits that cause brain damage.
How do we make the No Fun League come to its senses? Somebody has got to make a YouTube video of great N.F.L. touchdown dances. The superb archivists of the game at N.F.L. Films could do it in a heartbeat (maybe they already have). It would demonstrate just how much a part of the game these moments of physical joy are. That athletics isn’t all brute force, but wit and, you know, fun, too.
Bring back the Ickey Shuffle.