Needling The Winners: Football, Hypocrisy, and the next Patriots Scandal


By Shawn Stjean

One of the first critical acts children are capable of is to observe the often-wide gulf between how the adults around them speak, and how they act.  They do this unconsciously, even before they can articulate their conclusions.  And yeah, there’s a word for what they see *cough* in my title *cough*.

So what are they perceiving as the 2014 NFL season draws to a close?

1. Americans are, as always, at-any-cost ultra-competitive.  Ever hear “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”? If not, you didn’t grow up in the USA.  No one complains about stupid little endzone dances, or Gronk with his signature, juvenile spike of the ball following a touchdown, or “We’re number one” foam fingers or terrible towels, all of which would have been called poor sportsmanship by every previous generation of human beings to inhabit this planet.  Is it any surprise when we hear, then, in the wider culture, of wiretapping foreign governments and citizens’ phone calls, an income inequity between rich and poor that staggers the mind, and drone strikes? There’s a chilling consistency there.  Doesn’t Brady himself pull down more yearly salary than most of us could see in six lifetimes?  Um, unfair advantage, anyone?

2.  Football is a sport of deception.  Like chess.  Hell, like tennis, volleyball, or poker, with perhaps a bit more planning.  At its core level, it’s lying.  Are they going to run or pass?  Who’s getting the ball?  Will it be a trick play?  What do those signals mean?  What’s that hurry-up offense about, anyway?  We could have predicted something like another impending “cry foul” when Tom Brady had to remind reporters following the Ravens game that the Patriots do read the rulebook, and then take every advantage allowed them.  In an age where athletes are routinely busted for steroid use, beating their wives, and even murder, and yet are still valorized and lavished with 1000 times more media attention than a battalion of firefighters, doctors and nurses, or teachers, a few PSI more or less in a pigskin are supposed to matter?

3.  BUT we have fast become a culture of childish and narcissistic whiners.  There is nothing more pathetic than grown men playing drama queen after a play they didn’t execute, throwing up pointed fingers at opponents in a “He touched me!” gesture.  Well, maybe one thing.  And that’s a so-called news media with nothing better to do than fan the flames of outrage, because their very livelihoods depend on having a wide-open piehole every day.  Plus, they love to hear the sound of their own voices.  “Deflate-gate”. Wow, that is so incredibly clever, and not in the least predictable.  Like any number of headlines using the word “Balls.”

Grow up.  It’ a game.  None more so than the Super Bowl, which functions as much as a delivery device for advertising, not Football, as a pill does for Ritalin or a syringe does for saline, or a needle does for air.  For crying out loud.  Everybody loses.  Even Patriots.  Most of us lose more than we win.  And the last lesson any kid needs to take away from her or his role models is this: Fire up the Excuse Machine when you sense a loss coming.  Because the next logical step is to lay down and stop trying, ‘cuz if you lose it’s never your fault.

By the way, Kids, turn on any screen device and imbibe the clear message to drink, smoke, eat crap, waste your days on games and more TV, consume mindlessly, go into debt, go to work all day every day, pay the government and insurance companies half of all your earnings, BUT: don’t ever cheat.  That would be taking unfair advantage.

By definition, a football is a gasbag.  There’ a lot of that going around.

imageSuper Bowl Football

Traps For Indie Writers: Thematic Ambiguity, or Why Revenge Doesn’t [and Does] Work


Earlier this year, I wrote about the overlooked importance of plot complication (Act 2 in a 3 or 5 act structure, whether play or novel.)  In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, the protagonist receives his mission from the ghost of his dead father:  “Revenge [my] foul and most unnatural murder.”  Sounds straightforward enough.  So much so that young Hamlet immediately vows to do it swiftly, and without distraction.  However, the youth (and many readers) overlook the Ghost’s further, vital instruction: that no matter how his son pursues the act, “Taint not thy mind.” Now, invest the time to spin out the implications of “taint.” To paraphrase, Get justice for my murder, with extreme prejudice, yet do not in the process become that which you hate the most.

Most, though not all, of my university students, when this paradoxical pair of charges is brought to their attention, agree: this isn’t Mission Difficult, it’s Mission Impossible.  Take revenge, but remain pure.

One of the more challenging tasks for intermediate writers (which includes pretty much everyone who’s ever published anything–no ever masters writing,) because it takes so much self-discipline, is to communicate thematic meaning through plot, dialogue, symbolism, and other literary elements like motif, without either moralizing through the narrator or using a character as a mouthpiece.  And I think this temptation stems from the very real possibility that readers routinely mistake the intentions of writers.

The idea that Revenge simply isn’t a viable way to obtain justice, while endorsed by most of the literary classics we treasure, remains controversial.  Popular film and television continues to treat the subject on a rolling basis, sometimes with much more depth than manipulative stuff like the masochistic  Death Wish franchise.  And the more complex the writer and audience, the more ambiguous revenge gets.  Just catch some Sopranos reruns.  Because, as human beings, most of us have either done it, or wanted badly to do it.

Television, unlike film, can be dangerous in the messages it sends, because of the continued need to preserve characters for next week and next year.  Tony Soprano does seem to get away with it.  But examine his quality of life.  And. . .watch that final episode carefully, and experience the absolute sense of dread.

Let’s say you got away with it. So you feel great, right?  The world seems sweeter, your life is cleaner, food tastes great.  Hmm.  No–what you did was exchange a cheap sense of justice served for a subtly degraded life.  Because someone hurt you, you hurt back–and now the world is just a bit worse: the trust has eroded like ice caps melting over the course of years.  It’s like the price thieves pay: they must always lock their own doors.  And liars can never trust what people tell them.

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” a deeper work than the much-anthologized “Tell-Tale Heart,” fools untrained readers into thinking that bad deeds can go unpunished, but a close reading demonstrates that the narrator is uttering a deathbed confession in dire fear for his eternal soul.

The coat-of-arms of the Montresor family is that of a serpent bruising the heel of man, which in turn is crushed under that heel.  The common biblical allusion to Genesis signals what, in modern terms, we might call an endless circle of violence, which can be abstractly represented by the common recycling sign below.

As I teach works that use revenge plots, a minority of students usually don’t agree with the textual evidence–we call this “reading against the grain”–or find that evidence ambiguous.  In other words, a theme that does not seem to accord with basic human truths–such as “Revenge DOES work” always resonates with a few readers.  People who believe that may value personal satisfaction above all else.  This is probably why most fictional revenge plots raise the stakes to life-and-death–so that there’s no mistaking the moral implications of punishing another human being, in pursuit of personal justice.  Even so, ambiguities do persist.  Hamlet may be dead, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, along with his girlfriend, her father and brother, and various members of the royal family and a few friends, BUT the “something rotten in the state” of Denmark has been purged.  We have some reason to believe that Fortinbras will make a better king than any of the Danes, and so the greater good has arguably been served by Hamlet’s quest, if only unwittingly.

On a personal level, however–spiritual remorse of the Poe variety aside–all revenge does is make the world that much more fallen and perverse, which is why the Arthurian mythology stands as antithetical to the medieval “might makes right” ethic–an outmoded code of a vanished epoch.

So, as always, resist the urge to tell, and SHOW revenge not working, if that’s what you believe.  Let your characters suffer for it.  Twist the plot.  Embed the symbology.  Freight the dialogue with irony.

Or, if you believe differently, let them prosper.  And don’t forget to lock your door.