Thursday, December 19, 2013

Wait, I've Seen this Movie

I started writing this post about Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito over six weeks ago but I could never quite get a handle on what it was supposed to be about which made it kind of hard to finish. (By the way, this is also the explanation for season 3 of Homeland.)* First it was about locker room bullying being just the latest example of the NFL having more blind spots than a cruise ship considering it failed to see the following icebergs looming off its starboard bow: Bountygate, concussions, the replacement refs and making sure the electric bill was paid before the Super Bowl. And now we have Bullygate or whatever name will eventually stick (I wish it had happened to the Cardinals so we could have called it "Hazing Arizona") and again the NFL is dealing with a shit show that it absolutely should have seen coming.**

Then, it was about an out of control locker room and a head coach in over his head but the Dolphins have miraculously won four of their last five games so that position kind of lost some of its momentum (and by "some" I mean "all"). Then it morphed into a review of one of my favorite movies of all-time (that part stayed) but it still didn't have a point. And finally, after re-writing it about six times, I think I finally figured it out . . . but I'll leave that up to you to decide.

Let's just say that the Cowboys and
Meredith were meant to be together.
At some point during all of this analysis, it dawned on me why the Martin-Incognito situation fascinates me. It's because I've seen this story before, only it took place forty years ago and it was called North Dallas Forty, a novel by Peter Gent published in 1973 and then made into a movie of the same name starring Nick Nolte.*** It has to rank as one of my favorite books of all-time based on the fact that I read it in my early teens without anyone telling me I had to . . . and then I read it again. Gent played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and North Dallas Forty is a semi-biographical novel about him and his friend, quarterback Don Meredith who, shall we say, liked to say "woo" to the ladies.****

The book chronicles a week in the life of my namesake, wide receiver Phil Elliott, beginning on the morning after one game and ending after the game the following week and here's the best part, Richie Incognito is in it, only his name in the movie is Jo Bob Priddy. If you don't believe me, watch this Incognito scene and then watch the beginning of this Jo Bob scene (and that's before Jo Bob starts getting really handsy . . . more on that later). But wait, there's more. Just to make sure I was on the right track with the Jo Bob Incognito thing, I went back and re-watched it and there were even more parallels than I remembered including the following exchange between Phil Elliott and future love interest, Charlotte Caulder, who he meets at the same party where Jo Bob Incognito throws a T.V. in the pool and gropes more women than Jack Nicholson at a Laker Girl audition (HEYOOOOOO!!!!!):

Elliott: Jo Bob is here to remind us that the biggest and the baddest get to make all the rules.

Charlotte: Well I don't agree with that.

Elliott: Agreeing doesn't play into it.

It's not much of a stretch to imagine that scene happening with Incognito at say a Miami Dolphins celebrity golf outing. Oh wait, it allegedly did happen in 2012 when he got hammered and decided to play gynecologist on a volunteer with his pitching wedge. The woman reportedly settled for $30,000, the team covered-up the incident with a confidentiality agreement and Incognito stayed on the roster. (Everybody wins!) But let's keep exploring because the parallels don't end with Jo Bob Incognito.

One key difference between
Hartman and Tannehill - wives
of back-ups don't look like this.
One of the other characters in North Dallas Forty is a devout Christian back-up quarterback named Art Hartman who even looks a bit like Ryan Tannehill. One of the implied story-lines is that the only reason Hartman isn't the starter despite having a better arm than the cagey veteran, Seth Maxwell, is that he doesn't have what it takes to control the locker room whereas Maxwell commands instant respect from his teammates (hmmmmm). Clearly Tannehill has raised his stature this season and maybe his handling of this incident had something to do with that but there is no way he was wading into the Martin-Incognito mess as a rookie beyond maybe praying for the devil to get bored and possess the body of an offensive lineman from a different team (or move back into the body of Ndamunkong Suh).

The head coach of the North Dallas Bulls, B.A. Strothers, is played by G.D. Spradlin (a/k/a disgraced Senator Pat Geary from The Godfather: Part II). If they didn't know who they wanted for what is clearly the Tom Landry role before they watched Spradlin's performance in the Robby Benson college basketball classic, One on One (70's movie sleeper alert), then that certainly clinched it because it's almost the exact same character. Landry was best known for his innovative coaching style and his attention to detail and those are on display in Spradlin's performance, especially when he taps on the keyboard of his Tandy 1000 computer a few times during a meeting with Elliott, scrolls through what appear to be some statistics and suddenly says, "now that's it, that's it . . . Phil, that's what it all boils down to, your attitude." (Apparently the man could glean all kinds of character information from a player's yards per catch). The implication of course was that the essence of each player was his statistical tendencies and attention to the most minute detail was everything.

"Well don't you see it?!?
Then pick it up!!!"
And that brings us to Dolphins' head coach Joe Philbin who was featured in a scene from Hard Knocks walking to practice when he noticed a scrap of paper on the ground and bent down to to pick it up as the voice over guy made a comment about his unbelievable attention to detail. I remember thinking that Philbin wasn't going to make it as a head coach because a guy who's distracted by scraps of paper is going to miss the big picture and because Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and Chuck Knoll never would have bothered to pick-up a f-cking scrap of paper.

So NFL teams have apparently had bullies, Christian quarterbacks and anal retentive coaches since at least 1973 . . . big deal. Does this book report actually have a point Mr. Elliott? (Holy 9th grade flashback). Well, I think it does - here goes. What sent me down this path in the first place (other than the fact that I always wanted to do a movie review . . . until now) was a scene from North Dallas Forty that always comes to mind when the NFL finds itself in one of these Catch-22 situations where it's trying to run a respectable business despite the fact that a significant percentage of its most qualified employees are giant raging psychopaths. In this scene, an offensive lineman played by real life Raiders defensive end John Matuzak has finally had enough of the constant riding from a short plump abrasive assistant coach (played to perfection by Charles Durning), and unloads one of my five favorite movie lines of all-time, "every time I call it a game, you call it a business . . . and every time I call it a business, you call it a game!!!" Watch this scene for yourself and tell me that Matuzak isn't drawing on some real life deep seeded frustration and rage from his days with the Raiders. 

And this gets us back to Martin-Incognito. Coaches, owners and fans demand that players compete with a fury that borders on homicidal for three hours once a week and then turn it off when the clock hits 00:00. At that point, they're supposed to become students of the game and role models in the community for the next 6 days and 21 hours. That's absurd. We don't ask other entertainers to do that. Imagine if the day after doing a three hour show at Madison Square Garden, the guys from Metallica had to get up and go over all of their missed notes with a music coach and then go visit sick kids at Mount Sinai Medical Center. And then they had to do the same thing the following week in Philly, then D.C. and then Charlotte. By the time they got to Atlanta, the music coach would be in intensive care with a guitar neck sticking out of his ass and the sick kids at the Atlanta Medical Center would hear a Richard Pryor concert's worth of f-bombs.

This would explain why the NFL has never done anything about bullying despite the fact that Peter Gent documented it in his book 40 years ago and it also explains why the league isn't doing anything about it now. The league clearly isn't going to pay this issue the same attention they've recently paid to player safety, off-field misconduct and the Whizzinator scandal because they know they have to give players somewhere to blow-off steam without limitation and the only safe place to do that is in the locker room where the players' code keeps it out of sight (I am trying very hard to get through this without quoting Colonel Jessup but it's not easy). Locker room bullying is as much a part of football as fighting is to hockey, beaning batters is to baseball and crooked judging is to figure skating. Richie Incognito's behavior may have been excessive but it certainly wasn't unprecedented. As Tony Kornheiser noted, Richie Incognito isn't smart enough to start a trend.

This may be the only scene in
which Mr. Blonde isn't shooting,
maiming or igniting someone.
In the end, I don't blame the Dolphins for having Incognito on the roster because he's a good player and if he wasn't playing for Miami, he would certainly be playing somewhere else. Where they went wrong was allowing him to elevate to a position of power within the locker room. Why would they do that in light of the 2012 golf course incident? It's like adding Mr. Blonde to the bank job crew in Reservoir Dogs and look how that turned out. If you're going to have that guy on your team, you better stop picking-up scraps of paper and keep an eye on your locker room dynamic. Or maybe the Dolphins needed B.A. Strothers' super computer to tell them that a raving lunatic like Incognito could be a problem. (This is where it should be noted that Dolphin' GM Jeff Ireland asked Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute before the 2010 draft so clearly they're struggling with this whole scouting thing).

Let's circle this back to North Dallas Forty so we can tie this thing up neatly with a pretty bow (makes sense considering I waited until Christmas to finish it). Check-out this excerpt from a Philadelphia Enquirer review printed on the inside cover of my dog-eared paperback copy:

"THE CURIOUS LITTLE SOCIETY THAT IS A PROFESSIONAL TEAM, THE DRUGS, THE SEX, THE PAIN, THE COACHES WITHOUT CONSCIENCE, THE FANS WITHOUT PITY, . . . . FUNNY AND POWERFUL AND DISTURBING."

Besides the fact that I want those last five words written on my tombstone, that pretty much sums-up today's NFL doesn't it? (And smile . . . bow to the judges . . . and exit).

Endnotes

* I think my favorite way to describe how awful Homeland was this season is to point out the fact that Quinn, who is supposed to be a combination of Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne, had the following Season 3 highlights: (1) he accidentally shot a kid during an assassination mission, (2) he let Carrie get nabbed from her house by the Iranians when he was parked across the street (dammit . . . no one told me there was a back door!), and (3) he managed to get photographed by a residential security camera while in the process of covering-up a murder for the CIA (ADT - 1 . . . CIA - 0). The only thing he did right was intentionally shoot a fellow agent in the shoulder without killing her though, if he had been a little high and left, it would have made the season a lot more interesting.

** You know why we know they should have seen it coming? Because HBO has been broadcasting the warning signs on Hard Knocks for over ten years. The NFL getting blindsided on this one reminds me of the classic Cheers episode when the guys made-up a fictional secret admirer for Carla. As the whole scheme inevitably fell apart, one of them noted, "man, I didn't see this coming" to which Diane replied, "yes, this from the group who every year fails to see spring coming" to which Norm replied "man that reminds me, I need to get those storm windows down."

*** Another "R" rated movie I saw in the theater before my 12th birthday (along with Animal House, Saturday Night Fever, The Warriors, Stripes and Annie Hall which was just a little over my head at the time. And those were just the ones I remember and don't include the early days of HBO with The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack and The Jerk). If you enjoy reading the FGR as much as I enjoy writing it, then you can thank the laissez faire approach to parenting that prevailed in the late 70's and early 80's for a major part of its inspiration.

At least then I knew I definitely
wanted to go to college.
**** When I was in college, I randomly met Don Meredith once . . . in a liquor store (true story). I said "hey, you're Don Meredith" and, in his smooth southern drawl, he said "why yes I am." He then autographed a six-pack of Budweiser for me meaning that for approximately three hours, I owned the autographs of two Cowboys quarterbacks (Meredith and Roger Staubach). Believe it or not, I lost the Budweiser container.