The Dramatic Possibilities of the NFL
Of late, I’ve been toying with the idea of non-narrative drama. I’m sure that in some MFA program somewhere the term has been defined, dehydrated, packaged, monetized and mummified, and I couldn’t be less interested in that definition. MFAs are draining all of the FA out of theatre, in my humble MA opinion. That, for another post.
At the start of the Pandemic, when suddenly I no longer needed to hoist my carcass onto a Red Line train and go into an office I, like many, decided this was an opportunity to IMPROVE. During the course of the shutdown, I took several playwrighting classes, subscribed to Masterclass (highly recommend), and began a dedicated wandering through classical music.
My interest in music was brutally mutilated in high school by an over-ambitious choir director. State competitions were akin to Olympic tryouts for him. We rehearsed for ninety minutes before school, during lunches (which I especially resented) and after school. There were times when I was even pulled from PE to rehearse. At one point, I was dragged out of some class to meet with…someone, I have no idea who, and told to sing scales. This monster had me screaming up to a high C and I was told that with work and determination I had a shot at a career in opera. I, and everyone else competing received the I ratings required to remain alive in this director's choruses, but any interest I had in music went into a coma. Full disclosure: while acting I was occasionally cast in a musical, and in almost every case regretted it. Again, for another post.
This all left me feeling like I had a huge hole in my education. So, with absolutely no direction nor plan, I began buying recordings of “classical” music. I knew little more than the word "classical," so needing a hook or reason to intellectually engage, I hit upon the idea of non-narrative drama, and slowly “classical” music began to come alive for me. With the help of classical music, I think my writing has improved.
But my notion of the non-narrative drama is expanding, and I’ve become a devotee of the NFL.
Years ago, a job in a sports agency just appeared out of nowhere. I was finishing up my master’s degree and managing a small coffee shop. It was February, and being tip dependent, cash flow was becoming an issue during a slow season. On my day off I received a call from a staffing agency, desperate for me to go into this company as a temporary HR manager. They’d seen my resume and the agency had promised I’d be there. My whole reason for going into a master's program was to escape the horrors of human resources and I had negative interest in taking up an HR job, but cash flow demanded action, so I agreed to sit at the desk for a few days while they continued their search.
By the end of my first day, I had a new job. My chief qualification was that I had absolutely no interest in professional sports of any kind. The agency handled some very high-profile athletes, and the last thing they wanted was a fawning fan. I’ve worked with Jim Belushi and Jeremy Piven. Celebrity in any form does not impress me.
The eighteen months I held that job before the agency was sold solidified my resolve to never again hold an HR position. Again, another post.
Over the course of my time with the agency I met a number of athletes. To me they were just great kids. And while mountains of money were always at stake, I slowly began to feel some almost-pity for them. I would be in company meetings where these kids were discussed as assets. In particular, during the NFL draft season there were many uncomfortable conversations about young black men being auctioned off to various teams and their owners. And this was before the reforms in the game that mitigate the physical dangers of the sport. The objectification of these young men was antebellum. At that level, with tens of millions of dollars at stake, perhaps a drop of humanity is not possible. It's certainly not good business. But regardless of the economic stakes, the brutal lack of disregard for the talent is soul crushing for everyone involved, not least of all the kids who are just thrilled to have struck it rich.
The stuff of nightmares.
A year ago, I unexpectedly found myself watching a football game on TV. It was the Kansas City Chiefs season opener, and the quarterback caught my eye. My gay eye. My only thought was, “Well, isn’t he a cutie-patootie?” I watched, not understanding anything that was happening, but with enough interest to recognize an elegance in the way a pass was thrown and caught. I watched the entire game, and I believe the Chiefs won. I was happy for my new crush, Patrick Mahomes. And that, I thought was that. Months later, I heard Paddy (he’s Paddy to me now) won the Super Bowl. I smiled and went on with my life.
Then this season started, and I decided to watch a game. I don’t remember which teams were playing, but suddenly I started to toy with the idea of a non-narrative play based on a football game. I have no idea what, if anything will come of the idea, but it tickles my brain just enough to stick with the sport and to learn something about what these kids are doing.
At the start of this season, the big news was Aaron Rogers and his starting with the Jets, only to be injured in the first minutes of his first game. He was replacing a young quarterback, Zach Wilson, who was demoted to back-up because of weak performance. I learned all of this by watching a mini-series, Hard Knocks. If ever there was a story with dramatic possibilities, that would be it. I could see the narrative story, but I thought (and still think) there are non-narrative dramatic possibilities. And then Rogers was injured, and Wilson was thrust back into the starter position. The narrative story is just writing itself.
Last week the Chiefs and the Jets played each other. A bloodbath was expected. Paddy, the cutie-patootie, is heralded as the best QB (that’s what us hard-care fans call it, don’t ya know?) and Zach is generally considered... flawed. The game ended pretty much as expected. But the journey was anything but.
The middle half of the game was electric. Zach Wilson, despite weeks of negative press and three crushing, humiliating defeats, came to life and played the most elegant game I’ve ever seen in my weeks-long NFL career as a football fan. Passes were sharp. Rushing was daring. That elegance came to a screeching halt with a single fumble, and the magic evaporated. If you’re interested, much has been written about it since, and a quick search will pull up an analysis.
What hasn’t been commented upon is Paddy’s performance. He crushed the fourth quarter. You could almost see him flip the switch and go into beast mode. In those final plays, he took no prisoners, showed no mercy. It was chic carnage.
And the reason that change was so evident is because during the middle half of the game, quarters two and three, while Wilson was redefining himself, Mahomes made sloppy mistakes. There were several interceptions. He passed to other players than Kelce and Pacheco, when he shouldn’t have. The idea that came to mind would be wildly illegal and it's pseudo-heresy to suggest, but it’s almost like he was intentionally holding back. It's possible that the alleged best QB of all time was just skilled enough, just secure enough to look bad to make someone else look good.
At the end of the game, when the teams meet in performative good sportsmanship, Mahomes gave Wilson a big hug and whispered something in Zach’s ear.
It’s nobody’s business what the words were. But I saw respect. I saw encouragement. I saw love.
I saw a drop of humanity in a business that destroys it.
I saw dramatic possibilities.