Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More

5 Sep

Though I am conflicted about football despite watching various levels of play (high school, college, NFL) for many years and despite my disinterest in reading books about sports, I was drawn to Nicholas Dawidoff’s
Collision, Low Crossers because I know him (having chatted with him previously) to bring an insight laden intelligence to bear on whatever interests him. It turns out this book is also unique in that he spent almost a year,essentially embedded, with the New York Jets.Reading this book and the conversation below went some distance to removing the scales from my eyes and I am able to watch my son’s Newton North Tiger’s with a fresh vision and generally having acquired a modicum of respect for players and coaches.

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick  Dawidoff

Collision, Low Crossers by Nick Dawidoff

RB: Remember I have the last word—so don’t mess with me.

ND: Even if you didn’t I would give it to you.

RB: Rachel Cohen calls you Nicky

ND: That’s what everybody calls me except for football coaches. They call me Nick.

RB: And they called you ‘Worm’.

ND: That too.

RB: That’s not so bad. I had a high school friend called Worm. He didn’t suffer from it.

ND: Well, from Miami to New York to West Newton Massachusetts, it’s all in how its intended.

RB: Waxing philosophical now, are we? Is there a subject that you wouldn’t write about?

ND:(pauses) So many, probably. I should only write about things that I am really enthusiastic about.

RB: You wrote a book on country music. You wrote a memoir about your grandfather. You edited the Library of America anthology on baseball. And as far as I know you have now done this book on football.

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

Baseball edited by Nicholas Dawidoff

ND: In between I wrote a non-fiction, coming of age book of my childhood.

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: About you.

ND: It was mainly about other people.

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

The FlySwatter by Nicholas Dawidoff

RB: So, is there a subject that you can’t imagine writing about?

ND: So many. It seems to me that these are—they are not all the same book, they all basically come from the same terrain, which is outsider somewhere in the United States who, by virtue of some form of ingenuity and persistence, overcomes different forms of adversity to penetrate the culture and then engage with the culture.

RB: How is that manifest in this book? I didn’t get that?

ND: Football players and coaches? These are not—most of them are not necessarily already in any form of privileged position in American culture. The huddle really is America. There is a little bit of everybody and they all come together.

RB: So with the new ‘no huddle‘ offenses—

ND: (laughs) I don’t know. It could be off shore.

RB: I was bemoaning the fact that my son’s football team doesn’t have huddles either. The coaches call plays from the sidelines. I’m thinking that takes away something from the game. I have come to, intellectually, dislike football. While I seem now to be hard wired to pay attention to it. But I don’t like myself for watching it. To me it’s evolved into a vicious game and a rotten business.

ND: Certainly football has had its share of really bad press lately. Everywhere from New Orleans with the bounties to Miami with bullying to concussions and the deplorable way the NFL handled concussions for many years. To even here in New England, where you have a player on trial for murder.Football evolves so slowly in many cultural ways but it evolves so quickly in many other ways. More than any other sport. It evolves quickly in terms of its relationship to technology.

RB: Are there statistics that cover frequency and degree of injury pre-1960 and the present? Was it a noticeably less injurious game?

ND: I don’t know. There are so many different theories. All I can say is that people are much more aware of injury and even pain. When I was spending time with the Jets I saw the distinction between how some of the players had been taught to respond to their own physical ailments when in college and now in the pros. There really is a change going on. Greg McEllroy, who was a quarterback at the University of Alabama was a rookie, he is now with the Bengals. But he was a rookie with the Jets, my year there. When he was at Alabama you were considered soft if you went to the training room. The best thing about being with the Jets for him, in that respect, was that everybody was encouraged and it was considered irresponsible if you didn’t go to the training room because they understood that a healthy player was an optimal player.

RB: Was that attitude player enforced at Alabama?

ND: He wasn’t blaming anyone in particular and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unique to Alabama. When people talked about concussions, they talk about it exactly the way you do. They talk about football with a kind of queasy ambivalence— that’s pushing towards something in which they feel their guilt about watching it. “How can you watch something that you wouldn’t let your own children play?” That kind of thinking is slowly overtaking the joy in watching it. But within the [Jets] facility nobody ever talked about it unless I asked them. And even when I asked them some of them didn’t want to talk about it. Many football players are very young so they think they are going to live forever. But even more they really want to do this. They love playing the game. It’s extremely hard to gain a foothold in the NFL and then remain there. NFL—Not For Long— that’s what they say. I also think that it would be very difficult to play something that fast, that violent and that dangerous if you are thinking about getting hurt all the time.

RB: What do they say; the injury rate is 100%?

ND: That’s what Rex Ryan always says.

RB: Everybody gets hurt.

ND:Everybody gets hurt at some point or another. It’s about levels of injury and degrees.

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RB: Are you a football fan?

ND: No. With this book— my two previous books had been very internal books. They have been biographical memoirs. And [so] I wanted to write about a subject that was a big American subject that was of concern to a lot of people. I was feeling sort of adversarial in my choice of subjects. Often when I choose a subject I would write a magazine piece first to see if it would be sustaining as a book. Both for me but more importantly for a reader. And I wrote about climate change deniers. I wrote about a presidents [Jimmy Carter]—since I don’t usually write about big public prominent people, that was different for me. I was really curious after President Obama was elected what the reaction to our first African-American president would be in communities where very few people voted for him. I spent a better part of a year in this northern part of Alabama in a county where almost no one voted for him.

RB: So there were no black people there?

ND: Very few. Those who were—the people who were there were very conservative to begin with. Yet their local representative was black.The sport that I was always interested in and felt the most affinity for was baseball. At the Jets facility I was known among some people as the baseball guy. A million things you’re known as —always other than your name. But I was really interested in things about football. I had written about intelligence officers before in my first book (about Moe Berg) I was really interested in the idea of people working very, very hard to the exclusion of everything else. About a big public subject and football people—the games are the exceptions. They are 16 holidays. But most of the life is spent off limits, behind walls in this window-less place where they are plotting and scheming for as many as 16 hours a day. Often it is 7 days a week on how to win football games. I really loved the idea there was this secret world which not only was it planning what every body was going to see but what every body was going to see effectively still remained secret—since when you watch a football game on television you have no idea, really, what’s going on. And it’s all based on these plays —they look like bistro menus or something that these guys are holding up [on the sidelines]. We don’t know what they mean or what they say. So where in baseball eventually everything becomes clear—the camera will even show you what pitch is called and the broadcaster will sometimes tell you. Football— I just liked how mysterious it was. So that was one thing. In a funny way I thought I would be able to bring people closer to something that they loved. Which seemed like a rewarding thing to do. But then also I always wanted to write a book about an office— a group of people working together in a very committed way on some collective endeavor, which was every thing to them to the exclusion of everything else. I would have loved to have written about the Manhattan Project in its time.

RB: What a group [that was].

ND: Exactly. And so this had always just been in mind and I thought of it as the book that I would write about a group of regulars. In effect, the Jets coaches became my regulars. It could have been any group of coaches.

RB: Really. It wouldn’t have been the same book if you had done this with the Giants

ND: It wouldn’t have been the same because the personalities would have been different. But

RB: The difference between an 8-8 team that failed to make the playoffs and a 9-7 team that won the Super Bowl.

ND: Right. It really was true that going in I ,of course, I hoped things would go well for the Jets. You can’t spend all that time with people who you come to really like and admire without wanting the best for them. But it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to see a representative NFL season. And Bob Sutton, who you meet him the book who is the linebackers coach, and is now the defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, told me at one point that he thought of the NFL as a corporation with 32 branch offices. And so itinerant is the NFL life that people who were with the Jets then, are now scattered all over the league. And it’s just the luck of the right combination.

RB: There is a large amount of recycling of head coaches who are bum rushed out of one town and find glory in another town. These guys don’t lose their jobs because they are terrible coaches.

ND: If you are a terrible coach you probably are going to lose your job—

RB: —and you’ll get another one.

ND: Probably but not for certain. If you are a good NFL coach you will keep finding a job. Maybe a more powerful position or lose a little power like Tony Spirano who was a head coach with the Jets who was then the offensive coordinator. Now I think he is the line coach with the Raiders. You move up and down depending on the fortunes of your team. But it is —there is a little bit of serendipity involved. Just the right combination of people at the right time. And it really does start—clearly the Jets would have been a very successful playoff team, if they had even a workmanlike successful quarterback. The fact that they had a severely regressing quarterback—quarterback is one privileged position in the game where—

RB: You were kinder to Mark Sanchez in the book then you are being right now.

ND: I don’t feel I am being unkind to him. He would say the same thing.

RB: He would say he was regressing?

ND: That he had regressed that year? Absolutely. He is a pretty honest, straight-up guy. I really liked Sanchez— even though he teased me sometimes in merciless ways, I was sitting there watching them lose. It is all about inflection. Keep in mind that football players are really young. Some of them are not much past high school. You accept different levels of maturity —

RB: And it must be the case that some players are not intelligent.

ND: People always said that to me but I never felt that way. I always felt the way George Plimpton felt about when he was writing Paper Lion. He was constantly defending football players to his friends.

RB: I am not saying they are stupider than the norm. Unscientifically, I want to say that average intelligence is not intelligent.

ND: All I can say about football is that—it requires, more study, more book learning, more preparation, then any other sport that I can think of. It requires more time in formal classrooms, more time in absorbing information and understanding how to process it and use it with such a mastery of that information, that you don’t even have to think about it. Those are classroom techniques and if you can’t do that you better be a really, really good intuitive athlete, otherwise you are not going to last in the NFL.

RB: You noted a linebacker who couldn’t remember plays.

ND: And they reduced his role. If you just spoke with him you would think he was one the most well-spoken, interesting people in the community. There is a distinction with what we think of as academic intelligence and football intelligence. I really think, for example. that Rex Ryan is an unusually intelligent person. His qualities of human intuition, his understanding of how to motivate people and also his ability to explore the emotional life and what distinguishes people is extremely sensitive. And impressive to me.

RB: You refer a number of times to your being ‘embedded’. Was that your intention from the start?

ND: My intention was simply to spend as much time as a possible with a group of people so that I could understand what they were doing.

RB: You were prepared to but did you think you would end up spending as much time as you did?

RB: When I began I didn’t know. I doubted it; I thought that for sure I would stay through training camp. But nobody has ever been allowed to spend an entire year with a team. And I don’t think it would have happened had Rex Ryan not been head coach. I can’t say for sure ,I don’t people with the other teams—other people with the Jets are very proud of the work that they do and they feel very comfortable with themselves.

RB: You are hinting that he may be unique for the NFL coaching fraternity.

ND: He is a very unusual person whose strengths and flaws were there in very full relief. As a coach he is certainly unusual. Most coaches have a scheme and within the scheme the 11 starters play 11 roles. And with Rex its an extremely elastic scheme and find roles for everybody within it. And he is constantly revising it. He is so flexible and receptive to new information about people that he then uses with football application. That to me was very appealing. See, you know that I was always very interested in baseball and you also know that baseball writing has been far superior to football writing—not even close right? There are a lot of good reasons for that. People like Walt Whitman to Ring Lardner to Thurber to Malamud to Updike to Roger Angell—all these wonderful American writers—

RB: I’m happy you didn’t include George Will in that group.

New Library of America anthology of Football  writing

New Library of America anthology of Football
writing

Ed note:A Library of America anthology on football, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport has been published

ND: (laughs) All these great American writers who have written so well about the game and there are lots of good reasons for it. The primary is that baseball is accessible. It’s accessible because everybody has played it. Because you can see the faces. The game moves at a reflective pace, which lends itself well to being written about. Also, the game has always been receptive to journalist and reporters who can come and talk to the people for as long as they want. Whereas football has always been closed off. The form and function of the sport —it happens so fast. It’s hard to see. The players wear masks. They are obscured by armor. The rules are abstruse. Most of the life takes place off camera backstage. I wanted some way to slow football down so that you could write abut. That is what Plimpton did. He suited up and became a last string quarterback. It was a stunt but a necessary stunt because it was the only way you could get to know the people but also to get to know the mechanics of the sport with sufficient precision. For me what I came to see is the way a football season is planned, a game is planned. That felt literary to me. It was slow and gradual and resolute and fraught with mistakes and corrections and revision. That felt, to me, artistic. That was the artful part of football. For that reason, if you go and look at the acknowledgments and the source notes to my book, only one football book was a great influence to me. And that’s Paper Lion. Other than that—

RB Fredric Exeley’s A Fan’s Notes?

ND: Especially the first half, it is a wonderful book. But the books that were most affecting to me as I thought about this, were not those books.

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nicholas Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Do you know Dave Meggessey’s book Out of Our League?

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

Out of Their League by Dave Meggesey

ND: It’s a good book.

RB: Don Dellilo wrote a football novel.

ND: End Zone. A few people would say that Don Dellilo is the highest tier .

RB: I read this book because of you —you did open my eyes to the less obvious aspects of football. I loved that the Jet’s coaches let you call a play. Also, that Ryan called a play where all the linebackers were supposed to rush and they dropped back instead and the play worked. And Ryan didn’t want anyone to know that it was a mistake.

ND: [Ryan] “Don’t tell! Don’t tell!”

RB: Then Marv Lewis [of the Bengals] sees his guys running the same play, ”You dumb asses!” He knew it was a mistake. (laughs)

ND: There is a whole world—if you sit as I did, for an entire year with a group of seven defensive coaches in effect watch the season through the prism of their experience of it. They are watching a completely different sport. Just as the angles on film, the way that you watch film is different from what’s televised. Everything that is happening is completely different —or not completely different —its two parallel games.

RB: It does give one pause to wonder about the intelligence of the football fan.
I think of the obese, widow maker wearing, beer swilling, chip devouring, couch tuber—yelling at the TV when his team is not performing well.

ND: Not Fred Exeley?

RB: Right. Every sport has fans that couldn’t perform one athletic feat but are able to denigrate the players when they aren’t doing well.

ND: Isn’t it the same with politics—you’re up, you’re down. Same thing.

RB: You think that people approach politics in the same way they view athletic contests?

ND: People feel perfectly comfortable assuming a level of expertise that would risible and yet they do and that’s also acknowledged within and without as part of the pleasure of it. It ‘s fun to talk about politics, wherever you are, and its fun to talk about football. And you would talk about these things and, maybe write about them in ways that you wouldn’t talk or write about other activities.

RB: I’ve seen the observation that many people would rather read about baseball then watch a game.

ND: It’s a testament to good writing.

RB: And the andante tempo of the game.

ND: Most of the best baseball writing probably isn’t an account of a game except for the exception of Don De Lillo. But even that is so inflected with his imagination. I am talking about “Pafko at the Wall”, which became part of Underworld. Your conception of football fans —I know you don’t really mean because football is the single most popular thing in the country. So every body is watching.

RB: Can you explain why? Especially as you point out most people don’t really know or understand the game.

ND: When we say they don’t know what they are watching, they don’t know the coded essence of the game, the underpinnings of the game. But what people see is incredibly dramatic. It’s graceful. It’s violent. It’s exciting. You can understand it. Also, a lot of the appeal of football, of course, has to do with television. Television has amplified, broadened, brightened and also slowed down football in such a way that you can —coaches after games who were just watching it live standing in the sidelines often will tell the press. I can’t answer your question until I look at the film. And the only reason we can answer questions, sometimes, is because of replay. There are other more, deeper reasons why people respond to football. The Jet psychologist would say that people respond to football because there is somewhere in everyone the urge to ‘drill’ another person. I would say that so much about football is actually counterintuitive. Football is the game of touchdowns and America is the country of films with happy endings, feel good films. I really think of football as the sport of disappointment and failure and what you do with it. Even though fans watch hoping to win, people stick with a franchise like the Jets which hasn’t won everything since 1969 —it has to do with, not misguided loyalty, but acknowledgment that there is something in football disappointment that is powerful and compelling. If you walk into an NFL facility on a Monday morning after these guys have all but eliminated sleep and all but eliminated family life pleasure and joys to completely concentrate on this. And to have gone out there in the most public way in front of all these people and been humiliated. And you have to walk in the facility on Monday morning and watch the film of what just happened to you and know that there is a press corps that is going to writing about this in the most scathing possible ways and then you have to play another game the following weekend. To walk in on a Monday morning is like —I just always thought of it as something into the picture of a depression.

RB: (laughs)

ND:I expected to round the corner in the hallway and there would be trees down and there’d be overturned cars and garbage cans and broken glass, papers blowing around and things like that. People are devastated after they lose. Especially a big game. They don’t sleep. And then they have to do it all over again. I thought what was most admirable about football people—people who were made for the sport—which wouldn’t be me— are they can overcome this by Wednesday. And greet their players and subordinates in such a way that they can be optimistic. They can resume their sense of confidence and even bon hommie. And by the following week they can be ready to do it again.

RB: Baseball is also a game of failure. Every [good] coach will tell his players after they strike out or make an error. “Forget about it. On to the next one.”

ND: Yeah but in baseball the stakes are so much lower. The ultimate stakes are similar. A three game losing streak in baseball— in football is the equivalent to a 30 game losing streak in baseball. The Jets just lost 3 in a row as we sit here. How would you feel after you lost 30 baseball games in a row? I mean, it’s unimaginable. But the proportions are the same.

RB: Is there a growing interest in football by women?

ND: Much greater. It’s the fastest growing demographic.

RB: Why?

ND: Why shouldn’t women take some of the same pleasure that the men do?

RB: They don’t play it.

ND: A lot of the man who enjoy football didn’t play it either. More people play baseball than watch baseball but football is a different thing—its graceful, beautiful, dangerous and dramatic. I talked to several wives of Jets people about this. They all pointed out how handsome football players and how great they look in those uniforms.

RB: You can see well-defined butts.

ND: Yeah and you can see then doing the most balletic things. The aesthetic qualities of football have been much enhanced. Also, how people think about their bodies. Look at Tom Brady when he was a rookie versus Tom Brady now. I am sure it doesn’t help that he is married to someone whose whole business is appearance. He has completely transformed his appearance.

RB: And the Super Bowl winning Redskin offensive line—what were they called The Hogs?

ND: Most linemen are enormous men But to watch people who are that big and run that quickly with that kind of choreographed agility is something to see. Why do we like spectator sports? Ultimately, it is a chance to do something, which I think is one of the most admirable things about humanity, which is the appreciation of things that other people can do. People who can play professional football for all of the —you talk about people in the peanut gallery talking in disparaging ways about athletes. Everybody understands that underneath it all, that the worst guy on a football team is the most sensational athlete from his town in generations.

RB: I don’t think they understand that.

ND: I’m not sure.

RB: IF they knew that there might be a more generous attitude about the players. If you are right than tht unerstanding must be very deeply buried

ND: One of the advantages of football being so distant, in a way, is that you didn’t have to be kind. It was a place to put those lesser angels.

RB: The defense of what I call crass behavior of fans is that you buy the ticket and you can say whatever.

ND: There are a lot of people walking around with a lot of frustration—wouldn’t you say? This is a fairly reasonable way to express frustration.

RB: It’s preferable to going into a post office and shooting the place [and people] up. It doesn’t make those fans more attractive.

ND: Nobody would say this is the Platonic ideal of spectating.

RB: Do you still watch football? And might you watch it with more devotion than before?

ND: It’s a funny thing I really never thought of this as a football book. Obviously, the setting is football and I was learning abut something that I didn’t know very well and was interested in—but I always thought of it as an n office book. Once I was no longer in that office it —the sport that I would really follow is the office. And while I watch football games now and certainly watch the games of the people I came to know well and care about who are in my book I wouldn’t watch it nearly as avidly as I would if I were spending time with them day in and day out. Its so different’—once you know how it works moment to moment leading up to a game if you are really immersed in it, than just to see it with a little more distance —you can see what a wonderful sport it is but for me it feels not quite as satisfying.

RB: So you enjoyed Michael Lewis’s Moneyball that is ostensibly a baseball book.

ND: A wonderful book. If I am saying that everyone of my books that boils down to outsider on fringes of society uses prominent American institution to enter and influence the culture, wouldn’t you say that everyone of his books involves looking at, somebody finding some sort of weakness or flaw in a system that can be exploited for short term even long term gain before everybody else figures out what this person has anticipated first. That’s every Michael Lewis book—that’s
Michael Lewis on business, on baseball, on high tech. That’s because it’s a great theme. And it’s so interesting.

Editor’s note: I contacted Michael Lewis on Dawidoff’s take on Lewis’s oeuvre:

“Certainly true of Moneyball and The Big Short and maybe The New New Thing. Not sure it fits the others.”

RB: What I found compelling in your book was the way coaches and scouts evaluated players and the colorful phrases that used to describe them.

ND: Obviously for me it’s going to be a book about interesting characters going through something together. Overcoming a form of adversity or not. Situations that throw them into some form of conflict. It’s just setting for the oldest virtues of storytelling.

RB: Have you carried over relationships from the book?

ND: Are there people I stay in touch with? Yeah, even coming here I got an email from one of the people I met.

RB: What’s their reaction to the book? Rex Ryan’s,if he’s seen it?

ND: I doubt it. Most people in the facility —I sent them copies but whether they have opened them I have no idea. There were a few people who read it before the season began. They have been uniformly positive. They all told me, like Mike Pattin who is the defensive coordinator and is now with the Bills told me, “You shouldn’t really worry about what I think. You should be worried what you reader is thinking.” And my experience by and large with football people was they were pretty straight up people. I loved how frank and candid they were. And they would have been disappointed with me if I weren’t the same. Bart Scott, the linebacker said, “You know football isn’t always pretty. It’s not any easy life in lots of ways. And you do us a disservice if you don’t describe it that way.” That was fairly consistent throughout. Even the very anxious general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, whose job is to be anxious and controlling —its his nature and his job. Even his response to it has been very generous. I wasn’t writing it for them. I was writing it for someone else. Your question points to something, which is a decision for a writer. Because once you are that intimately involved, in a sense that I am with them every day, watching what they do, part of the necessity of the culture is to bring everybody together in a common cause. And that common cause may ask people to make sacrifices in their own careers—statistical or otherwise. It’s just a very seductive thing to be a part of a big group especially for a writer who works by himself. It was very different to step outside it. As somebody who was inside/ outside all the time, I really got a sense of how fragile is the life in football. But also to write about it you really would have to be outside. You really have to make a definite break from it all, otherwise they were no longer characters to you— they were still people who you worry about how they felt.

RB: My son plays football and he is smart about it —he doesn’t unnecessarily throw himself into the fray. He is not one of those kamikaze players who hurls himself into the play. And I realized that he is into it because of the camaraderie. When the season was over I asked him if he missed it and he does.

ND: That’s what all the coaches say. More than playing the game itself they miss the company of other people. Some of the players were even prematurely sentimental.They were thinking about what it would belike not to have all these people to talk with everyday. For a lot of people in football they come from terrible childhood circumstances. Many come from single parent families, grew up in dire poverty. Lot of them knew considerable violence when they were children. There is the player in the book—Julian Posey who says football is his father. But he speaks for lots of people I the book in the sense that its very seductive appealing thing to have this community of people who want the best for you but are going to push you to achieve your best and also are going to be on hand all the time to support you. Sure there are many other accouterment of daily life—meals are there at the facility for you. There’s a dry cleaner. There’s a car wash. Everything is taken care so you can concentrate on being as successful as you can ta very difficult pursuit. More than anything, the younger players just really having older players who they can look up to. Older players like having coaches. For me. that was the most appealing part of it.

RB:What do you make of what happened in Miami?

ND: For me. It was different. It’s a SUV world. I drive a mini Cooper. It’s a steak and burger world and I would eat beet salads at lunch. When I exercise I wear a bandana. One of then is purple—the chief of scouts stops a meeting and he says, ”So Nicky, there are headband concerns.” There was a tremendous amount of teasing, all of which I loved. And you can just tell —intuitively, you can tell the difference between something that is affectionate and makes you feel closer to other people and something that’s mean spirited. What can happen is—we were talking earlier about Mark Sanchez and the other quarterbacks—they called me Bookworm, which quickly turned to Worm. Nobody likes being called worm or creep, everyday. I can see that when your whole life is endless meetings and practices, which go on from before dawn till deep into the evening, everyday with the same people and one of them is just getting a lot of pleasure about making you feel badly about yourself. How pretty quickly it could become intolerable if you were a certain kind of person. Especially, if that person were the most powerful colleague you had.

RB: I get that.

ND: Football is tedium. It is practicing and revising and over and over. The few days that you are repeating the same physical motion hundreds and hundreds of times and if you have someone around who can bring joy and humor and seem as though—Rex Ryan used to talk about his greatest coaching ability was his ability to make people believe that they weren’t doing the same thing over and over again. Sounds like small thing but it isn’t.

RB: So what do you think happened with the Miami Dolphins? Or how was it allowed to happen?

ND: One of the things that can happen is that environment things almost casually devolve. I don’t think it was ever that any one pointed to any one.

RB: Abuse wasn’t pointed toward Jason Martin?

ND: I think it was —of course I think it was disgusting and degrading and he was the object of derision. But it was never done—the expression of it wasn’t so deliberately brutal (this is all speculation on my part) but over time it gradually devolved into something that was horrible.

RB: Martin took it for a while and then it reached a point where he didn’t.

ND: The degrees of what he was taking and how it was feeling abut it. He’s young person. Nothing could be more troubling than Incognito’s behavior bit almost as troubling was that—I talked to some of the Jets guys about this, “I never saw anything remotely like this was I missing something?” They said no, what they couldn’t understand were the other Dolphins players. Bart Scott said, “If I saw anything remotely like this, that guy would have had 6 of us, he would have been up against the wall, answering for this.” Let’s not pretend that football locker room all harmony and comity but there is a great deal of fraternity and a great deal of —the word ‘love’ was used an awful lot. I saw a great deal of affection and concern for other people I don’t know why that didn’t happen in Miami. Makes me glad I wasn’t in Miami.

RB: I find the professions of ignorance disturbing.

ND: You shouldn’t be as surprised by that. The idea that this is locker room culture is a misnomer. Football players don’t spend all that much time as a team in the locker room. Even when they are together somebody is in the shower. Someone is in the equipment room. Someone is late. Someone has gone to lift weights. Only in team meetings is everyone together. By and large, the time when people spend the most time together would be in their position groups. In those little windowless rooms where they go to have their meetings and things. Somebody who is bound and determined to give you a hard time, pretty quickly those walls will close in.

RB: Are all NFL team facilities like bunkers?

ND: That’s what I am told. This is a job where you want be completely focused and committed to your purpose and you want to have mothering else going in but football. That’s the object.

RB: Are football players conservative by and large?

ND: You shouldn’t think of professional football players in any sort of general way. Every kind of person is playing football. Rex Ryan used to begin training camp, the first team meeting, by describing who was on the team. It was a long, bluesy riff and it was funny. In effect we have tall guys and short guys we have wild guys and religious guys and he would just go on and on. And it was true.

RB: But there are demographics that stand out—lots of black males, many from poor circumstances.

ND: Sure the sport is 67 % African American.

RB: Many who were sold football as a way of climbing out of their poverty.

ND: I don’t think too many of them would use the word ‘sold’. For many of them it was a joy and a pleasure and escape.

RB: I was reading Greg Easterbrook’s King of Sports. He argues that Nick Saban recruits for Alabama by selling it his program as a steppingstone to the NFL. As opposed to appealing to his kids with Alabama’s glorious tradition and wonderful campus and the joys of being a student athlete.

ND: All these guys want to be in the NFL.I don’t see that has anything to do with their reasons—

RB: The notion of selling the program—

ND: That’s what all college programs do. Penn State used to have—every team has a pro day in which professional coaches come to visit and evaluate the draft eligible players on a college team. One the things they do is sprint and the coaches see how fast they can sprint. At Penn State the place where they hold the sprints is slightly downhill grade. Every college team wants its players to go to the NFL and the players want to go. It’s no different than Yale selling its drama program by the number of people who get to Broadway.

RB: Yes, but what are the odds.

ND: And the odds are better from Alabama than from other schools. You are suggesting they are giving these kids false hope.

RB: Sure.

ND: Might be. Ever read Darcy Frey’s book The Last Shot. It’s a whole book about false hope. And yet the only reason people make it is because enough people have to believe they can overcome and be the exception and it creates an activity full of exceptions.

RB: Maybe this an obvious question —are you happy with this book?

ND: Yeah, I think so. It’s not really for me to say any more. I did the best—

RB: —you wrote it. I am not asking, is it a good book?

ND: Am I pleased with it? Yeah. It takes a while with books —the same thing happens with every book. Which is to say where your book is going to go and how you are going to feel about are so mysterious. When I say where its going to go even for your more obscure books, you’ll still have business in some far fling place and you’ll check into a little inn and you’ll get into bed and you turn on the night light and there will be some books there and you’ll look and then one of them will look pretty familiar. So you never know where they are going end up. But then if you are the sort of person who hadn’t looked a that book in long time and maybe it was published 30 years ago and you open up that book and you start reading—most writers I know would say that they felt, ”I guess it was ok”. And so far I think this one is ok

RB: You haven’t gone back to look at past books?

ND: I was projecting to my own future. I have heard other writers talk about their books in that way. For me, I don’t really like to look back because there are so many books I want to write. Life is short and they take me so long to write that I wouldn’t want to spend time feeling nostalgic. I am reading portions of it around the country right now. When I read from it I feel ok about the portions I am reading. You can always immediately think of small things you wish were different. The major decisions, the conception and the architecture of the book are sound. I created it based on two outlines that took me many months to make—one was chronological, the other was thematic. The whole pleasure and joy of this kind of non-fiction writing is to embed a series of themes in events and move in and out of them so that the whole thing is woven together in way that reads like a good story. The actual structure of it is based on a fairly if only to yourself complex notion of what it could be.

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Nick Dawidoff circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: So now you are about the task of hawking your book, publicizing your book…

ND: (chuckles) I am telling you, you would just be a phenomenal success in an NFL locker I can just see a “C” [captain] on that jersey very soon.

RB: (laughs) Did I say something wrong?

ND: You have skin like an armadillo

RB: (laughs) So what’s next?

ND: I am interested in two big themes and I want to find the right subjects for them. One, is I am very interested in income inequality. I grew in a city which is one of the poorest cities in the country. New Haven. And it has one of the wealthiest universities in the world there. Since my childhood not much functionally has changed abut New Haven even though New Haven has changed a lot. It breaks my heart that New Haven is this way and makes me want to think about why in America, such a prosperous country, why this happens.

RB: What’s an organizational entry point in that issue?

ND: I have some ideas. They are so inchoate it’s not right to say yet. And then I would really like to write a book about a great American artist.

RB: Any candidates?

ND: Even when I was writing this book when I had free time I would go and visit Robert Frank {The Americans).

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

RB: How old is he now?

ND: He’s in his late 80s.

RB: How coherent is he?

ND: I love spending time with him. I find him to be a wonderful person.

RB: He opened up to you?

ND: I think so.

RB: You get football players to like you. Cranky, old artists. Not bad.

ND: I am going to have to work on you. Just kidding.

RB: I like you fine.

ND: I am just so interested in his work and then was interested in that he’s the person who made it.

RB: The more recent work or the work that made him famous?

ND: I love the Americans—like most people that’s what brought me to him. If that is a source of attraction once you become interested in someone everything is apart of it. If you are interested in a novelist like Svevo than he come to him because of Zeno’s Conscience. But all the other books, which are essentially small sketches for that novel, are still interesting because you all the years that made the great book.

RB: How is it that Rolling Stone is interested in Robert Frank?

ND: They asked me if there was something I would like to write about.

RB: So can offer suggestions. They must like you.

ND: (laughs)

RB: Add magazine editors to the list

ND: Pretty soon I am going to have a whole team. (both laugh)

RB: You’re pretty popular.

ND: Tell that to my neighbors, maybe they’ll like me

RB: What, do you play music too loud? Raise chickens? Your kids break windows?

ND: I aspire to raise window breakers. Remember the part in the book where the coaches teach my son how to be a better tackler?

RB: Why would think I have time to read a 460 page book? (both laugh)

ND: There is a point in the book where my son —

RB: —I know.

ND: —tackles a little 2 year old girl in his singing group who is wearing a pink ballerina tutu. And the coaches are overjoyed the next day. And they give me tips how to teach him to tackle better

RB: What are the people who come to your readings wanting to know about football?

ND: They want to know quite a few of the things that you have asked.

RB: What! (laughs)

ND: I mean, with in the broader themes that you are interested in—pain or injury. The big national subjects of concussions and bullying are—its clear football has to change. This should not be the conversation especially about something that is intended to be for enjoyment and pleasure. They shouldn’t be talking about brain injuries, about bounties and murder. And they shouldn’t be talking about harassment. So this is not good for football. If football is savvy about it and football has always been pretty savvy in its modern era.

RB: And recalcitrant.

ND: Recalcitrant but savvy. Football has many advantages that saw that I don’t see the NFL taking much interest in. Namely, there are so many interesting people within the sport. And they are all obscured form the public. Football would do better to continue with Hard Knocks, the Bill Bellichick documentary—even my experience where you tell the stories about football that have been traditionally told about baseball.

RB: More questions?

ND: People want to know what it was like to call a play. Only 10 % of the time do all eleven players do what they are supposed to do. It was really fun. Nothing can compare to actually doing it under live conditions. Football coaches by and large—I had so much admiration for first and foremost what we were talking about earlier—their ability to overcome tremendous pubic adversity and to some degree shame and walk out into the world, days later with an integrity to their optimism and self confidence intact. That is, they were able to arouse the same I their players. That’s hard to do. The really good ones—I would say that every coach (with Jets) would have been so clearly the best coach I had ever been around. I never had any coaches like that. They are in the NFL for a reason. What a really good coach does is he has you thinking about his ideals long after you have been around him. I think a lot about their expectations. And their expectations of me— these are people who are simultaneously nurturing and evaluating all the time. I felt it that I had to behave and be on my marks at all times. It is such fragile professional life. People were getting cut all the time. That phrases “on the street—that’s a true phrase. You are either in or you are gone. Once you are outside that facility. The gate closes and— it’s a large and lonely echo. I felt entirely to the end, all the time, I felt I the back of my mind that they could just wash their hands of me. That I had become a distraction in some way. Once some one began making jokes in a meeting that I was a spy for the Patriots and I was going to divulge secrets (I didn’t understand the secrets well enough to divulge them) it was horrifying to me. There were several moments like that. Of course I didn’t want him to know it was horrifying to me but it was. There was a day that had a media consultant come in (who usually worked with politicians) on how to deal with the press. Up on the screen come the Michael Hastings /Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General”. He was going on and on about how all reporters were just trying to make friends with you but they were just out to betray you and ruin your life. And I had just written a Paul Simon profile for Rolling Stone, which the coaches all knew and they were all looking at me

RB: (laughs)

ND: IF I could disappear into the fabric of your seat that would have been me then.

RB: Excellent, thank you.

ND: Thank you —always nice to see you

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4 Responses to “Me and Nick Dawidoff talk Football and More”

  1. hdinin December 23, 2014 at 5:14 pm #

    Nice conversation, as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough. You two managed to talk about a sport that was almost banned more than a century ago, and would have been but for the intervention of two U.S. Presidents, for its innate brutality and violence (qualities which this very distant observer would assert have hardly disappeared from the foundation of the ethos of the game).

    Further, what this conversation, as it progressed, reminded me of, in terms of aspects I had never before considered or been aware of (and yes, I know the metaphor coming is a hoary and boring one, especially to football aficionados) is the similarity of the game, especially at the professional level, and the way the military of any halfway well-equipped nation invested in its defense, is run. The secrecy and mystery of the “deep” game, the essential anonymity of the players… their interchangeability and the cloaking of identity with their uniforms and “defensive” equipment, the camaraderie and brotherhood (not to mention the exclusion of women on the playing field, except in skimpy cheerleading outfits, with short shorts and deep cleavage—I mean, what are we fighting for, men?—and of course the regrettable, but murderous violence, which leaves any evocation of hostility in the individual only partly checked (really aggressive players are encouraged). Then of course, there are those bonds, after the “battle” has ended, the sense of brotherhood (never mind mere camaraderie)—”We few… we happy few… we band of brothers…”

    I’m always surprised to see you advert to your son’s playing and the tacit approval from you, with the unmistakable rationalization that his intelligence and holding back are somehow a shield from the sometimes inadvertent and irreversible damage that a misguided highly violent encounter will engender.

    All sports will kill, especially at the highest level, when played with almost all risk assessment suspended for the sake of spectacle or fictive levels of glory attached, with no other goal than the attainment of victory for its own sake, as opposed to strategic aims (as in war) where perhaps some malignant force may be diverted from causing damage to innocents. But likely, except for the truly ugly extreme sports involving hand-to-hand (and other body parts) combat that are now emerging—after a long dormant sleep since the days of gladiatorial conflicts as public entertainment—no other sport is engineered to be potentially lethal at any moment, never mind the slow and accretive (and proven) deadly effects of repeated violent physical clashes between two poorly protected over-developed human beings, some of an age when they are still in some stage of musculo-skeletal development short of maturiy.

    My parents, in 1929, when the game was made “safe” thanks to the exertions of the first President Roosevelt and others almost a generation before, witnessed a Columbia University (Columbia, for Christ’s sake!) football game, in which a player died on the field after a tremendous collision of his head with someone else’s body, someone of far greater implacability.

    It’s pretty clear to me, clearer than the very short list of things that in any way clear, that football is a dangerous, brutal, violent sport. It should, probably, regrettably no doubt, in the end, be banned. If I had kids I can imagine not wanting to deny them anything, but I also cannot imagine exposing them to the heightened danger of what is laughably called a “sport.”

    • robertbirnbaum December 23, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

      H

      All true.

      My son related to me the position that one of his football coaches proffered that military metaphors did apply to football and that it was wrongheaded to do so.

      Fortunately, Cuba (6’2″, 260 lbs of solid beef) hasn’t been hurt and as a close observer (I work on the chain gang at NNHS home games )and have seen some vexing and injurious behavior—so I get all that. The thing is Cuba has really gained a lot —in confidence, fitness, mental stimulation and a real notion of teamwork. That is in a precarious balance with the risks …………………but so it goes

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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