Football is blocking and tackling. Everything else is mythology.
- Vince Lombardi
The Jets' regular home is the Weeb Ewbank training center, comfortably tucked in a (naturally) green and isolated strip of the high-rise Hofstra campus on Long Island. When I went out for a visit in the plash of a sporadic rain the Thursday before the season-ending (so far) Monday Night Football tilt with the Patriots, the military atmosphere was anything but subtle. Within 10 minutes after arriving, I was spotted squatting along the sideline watching the offensive troops drill. Eyes everywhere, the Coach greeted the new visitor with a question asked in a tone that was only half joking: "You're not from New England, are you?"
This was hardly the austere and rabbinic Joe Walton I was used to seeing on the tube; it was clear that, full metal jacket and all, Joe was enormously relaxed (this was five days before the strike and long before he was forced to coach scabs), and, well, enjoying himself, even relishing the implication (wholly unwarranted given the hardass security at the gate) that I was an enemy spy sent by the archrival Pats. Joe's question in fact detonated a whole string of images that lead into the heart of football's classic military vocab.
Squad, bombs, drills - the list of shared terms is endless. Engaged as we now are in an NFL DMZ, the tenacity of these tropes is alarming, especially if the strike principals stick to 'em. You think I'm exaggerating? The Jets' PR chief, Frank Ramos, a lean and elegant man with keen, distant eyes (not unlike field general Ken O'Brien's), spent his army hitch working for the football program at West Point.
Military structure runs through all pro football, but there's another system at work that's especially evident with the Jets. I didn't see it fully until I visited the locker room following the Monday night game at the Meadowlands, where the cold high-tech feel provides a stark contrast to Edenic Hofstra. While the Giants or the Bears will pop off to the press, the Jets are trained not only as a football squad but also as, well, a corporate sales force. (Walton's description of Freeman McNeil in the Jets media guide could just as well have fit an IBM marketing veep: "He has good leadership qualities and the team responds to him.") Face it: despite their relative eloquence (or perhaps because of it), the Jets are now one of the most faceless teams in the NFL.
The fabulation of team harmony is so brutally perfect it leaves you gasping. These guys are as man/nerly in their discourse as they are on the field. The Brooklyn-born O'Brien is the perfect Jet - cool, levelheaded, nerveless. But whether it's because he's developed Sacramento cool or because Lockheed subcontracted his cerebrum, it's hard to tell. No showboating for this team, no fat-heading, no stupidity - not as players, not (any longer) as personalities. Only Jetspeak, a fine and supple language that yields nothing and whose primary rule is that the speaker subjugate himself to the team as a whole. The corporate message behind Jetspeak is sheltered very well indeed in the military metaphor. Jetspeak is a mode of military orderliness for the players, but also a mode of corporate cool for the company.
Jetspeak is an example of the slow addition of the language of the corporation to the more classical milatarese we associate with football. But the noncoincidence of the metaphors is surprising. In fact, it's caused a football strike. Pro football has, of course, always been a business, but only lately - in these days of Super Bowl Giants who are both suburban M.B.A.'s and "lunch pailers" - have its self-describing metaphors caught up with the corporate reality that produces them. In fact, you could say that there's been a time lag in the history of football terminology. You could even say that the military lingo has, until recently, almost entirely repressed the corporate infrastructure.
The striking NFL player looks like a guy itching to be a mercenary (the natural combination of war skills and the corporate marketplace) but discovering that he's only got a single client - and a single metaphor - to stand on. After the USFL's demise, the NFL is once again a monopoly, especially when the TV money is divided equally among the clubs no matter how well they perform. Had Pittsburgh played the Jets last weekend, for instance, it wouldn't have been a fight between cities but between "organizations." Look at it this way: football, the ultimate TV sport, is a living-room war - our continuing Vietnam. But the difference is that the NFL is always the home team and the enemy. Sorta like Rollerball (itself a joke about the NFL) with Tokyo and Houston in mortal "combat" in the arena under the regime of a single international corporate government. Sorta a lot like it.
Military and corporate metaphors have suddenly collided rather than meshed - hence the strike. In fact, for the past few years they've been colliding in the current system, which is military for the players ("loyalty to the team") but coldly corporate for the owners ("loyalty to profits"). "When we call it a game," said John Matuszak in North Dallas Forty, "you call it a business. When we call it a business, you call it a game." Most NFL players not named Gastineau have finally come to understand the slipperiness of this doublespeak - and to act on it.
No matter how successful the players are in their strike and how much the structure of the NFL changes as a result (it's hard to imagine the NFL Players Association turning the league into the People's Republic of Santa Monica), the Jets' astonishing bolt out of the gate this year is likely to silence kvetches and succor the faithful once a legitimate season resumes. OneVoicehand even quipped that a strike would at least bar another late-year Jet collapse, since the schedule will be truncated. Whatever happens, who'd've figure the Jets to be 2-0 and the Giants 0-2 in 1987? Before the opener at Buffalo (a sturdy though numerically slim victory, 31-28), it seemed that the Jets would probably benefit from a suspension of play more than any other team in the league (Joe Klecko, Lance Mehl, and Reggie McElroy are expected to return no earlier than November - hang on, scabs).
The Monday night subjugation of the Patriots should've dispelled any lingering questions about Obie (his late-season slide last year turned most Jets fans into amateur shrinks) or the two rookies, Gerald Nichols and Alex Gordon, now filling in for Klecko and Mehl, respectively. With a combo of sticky D by the secondary and funky stunts by the line (from the second quarter on), supersound field-positioning by the special teams, time-bomb running by Johnny Hector and Freeman McNeil, and an obviously refreshed O'Brien, particularly in the second half, the Jets are (were) on a roll again.
Ironically, it's the Jets rather than the Giants who should be hungry to get back to work. They're (once again) the surprise team of the year, this time in a stillborn season.
Originally published in The Village Voice, October 6, 1987