In a now almost forgotten book called The Immediate Experience, an equally forgotten critic named Robert Warshow, in a volume of perceptive essay topics ranging from the 1930’s to gangster as hero and the Western, argued that popular culture is designed so as to help us organize violence and thereby help us make violence acceptable.
Warshow was writing in his most explicit essay—the one on the Western—about the gunfighter as the figure who organizes violence for us. But the gunfighter doesn’t really work anymore. Too many loners with guns have committed too many random massacres, including the tragic one in Newtown, Connecticut, in which six adults and twenty first-graders lost their lives. One little boy of six was shot eleven times: there is no organizing that.
We would propose that the NFL quarterback has replaced the gunfighter as the principle organizer of violence in present-day America. Cowboys are no longer credible in that role, but quarterbacks are there on a weekly basis to make the violent sport of football into a beginning, a middle, and an end, an enactment that often involves pity: the dropped pass; the missed field goal.
We can produce distinct memories of quarterbacks going back at least to Don Meredith of the Dallas Cowboys, who in his era were not playing in a billion-dollar stadium in Arlington, Texas, where today they are not yet winning often enough to satisfy their splenetic owner, Jerry Jones. Today’s Cowboy quarterback, Tony Romo, has been known to throw as many as five interceptions in one game, an unfortunate pattern, though to be fair he can produce streaks of brilliance, too.
All athletes have good days and bad, but quarterbacks perform for an audience of millions, and their lapses are immediately exposed from coast to coast. Over time, wheat will separate itself from chaff, as it has just done for the present season. Somewhere during the season, we picked up the phrase, “elite quarterbacks”; that would be the athletes now practicing the game of football who organize this type of violence best. In thinking about these superior athletes, the men—no girls need apply—who organize this particular kind of violence best, there are questions of style, which we will take up in a later essay. If we choose to see these men as tragic figures, in the Greek style that Aristotle would accept and appreciate, then the merciless Achilles is Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. The Hector figure is Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, who has successfully come off a year’s absence due to illness; but he doesn’t convey the level of ferocity of Tom Brady. And it’s Brady, not Manning, who is involved with a goddess supermodel. Manning is more your normal suburban Dad, though his little brother Eli of the New York Giants—he could be our Mercury–projects a likable goofiness.
If Brady is from the Greeks, then the athletically talented Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles, tarnished as he is by the dog fighting scandal, is a figure from Dante. He may be elite, but with a heavy–and permanent–stain.
It could be argued, then, that football itself was more innocent in the days of Dandy Don.
–Larry and Diana
Robert Warshow’s The Immediate Experience was most recently reprinted by Harvard University Press in 2002; that edition is still in print.