Why watching the 49ers is so painful


Everybody suffers from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder about one thing or another, or so claims comic Paula Poundstone. My own brand of OCD has to do with brooding about this end-of-empire moment of American history. I slog through enormous and demoralizing thumb-sucker articles in the Atlantic Monthly and the Independent of London about the world’s downward spiral like some whacked-out masochist who can’t stop squirting lemons in his eyes.
Seeking temporary relief last week from this horrid affliction, I turned to the beloved old San Francisco 49ers in hopes of just a couple of hours in the sweet loving arms of spectacle and escapism. But instead of escape, the Niners delivered me right back to my obsessions by providing yet another metaphor – there are so many – about what ails the Land of the Free.
What set it off was a shot of Niners head coach Mike Singletary and the rather prominent cross he wore around his neck.
Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with anyone expressing their faith in that manner. But it reminded me what kind of coach Singletary is. He’s a Hall of Fame former middle linebacker who as a coach is tightly wound, perpetually quick to anger, confrontational and a deep believer in the warrior ethic.
Football is a game of machismo steeped in militarism. And that kind of mentality has made head coaches into sentimental figures of borrowed glory, martinets who must play-act as generals and formidable men of discipline and aggressiveness. Vince Lombardi is still held up as a football version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, a sainted warrior king blessed with a holy purity of purpose.
Singletary’s that kind of guy, which is no surprise given that he’s one of the few former players who now serves as head coaches in the NFL. Of course, football is a violent game and maybe you need a lot of that fire in the belly to even suit up and take the field. It would take a tanker-truck full of testosterone to get me to do it.
But with the Niners, it didn’t used to be all about the way of the warrior. For years, the Niners were led by the late Bill Walsh, dapper, professorial, remarkably self-possessed, a man who looked like he knew how to buy a good bottle of wine and how to find a decent mutual fund. But even in his time, he was something of an outlier.
Walsh approached football as if it were a chess game. He was a problem solver, not a warrior. He was the principal innovator behind something called the “West Coast Offense,”which prefers a finesse approach instead of a mano-a-mano power game. In many ways, Walsh was the Steve Jobs of football, wildly successful partly because he believed in the virtues of good design.
As any Northern Californian knows (or should know), the Niners, under Walsh, were once not merely good, but great, mythic, world-beaters, makers of history. From the early Reagan era to the mid Clinton, they were dominators. Now, of course, under Singletary, they labor to reach mediocrity.
OK, you could make the case that Singletary would be a great coach too if he had Joe Montana and Jerry Rice on his squad. But we’re not really talking about football here. We’re talking about two entirely different ways to face challenges.
Singletary, like just about any other NFL coach who’s ever drawn a breath, seems to greet every game as a symbolic test of manhood and mettle. With that mentality often comes self-righteousness, paranoia, a black hat/white hat worldview that is a lot of times grandiose and self-destructive. Hey Mike, maybe sometimes it’s just a game.
But America is a sucker for the warrior attitude and everything from our foreign policy to our political campaigns to the contestants on our reality-TV shows have been influenced by the ghost of Lombardi.
Bill Walsh looked at a game as a nut to be cracked, and I can’t help but be nostalgic about the loss of that kind of can-do, problem-solving attitude, not only with the Niners but in American culture in general. This spirit is what put us on the moon, what created our technology, which created the unprecedented wealth of the last century.
The nostalgia that has crept into my life has very little to do with football, and has led me to tentatively embrace attitudes I’ve always tried to avoid – the notion that things aren’t what they used to be, that we, as a people were once made of sterner stuff, that we live now in a fallen time. Those are, in the end, the attitudes of an old man. Staying young, I’ve always believed, had a lot to do with resisting nostalgia.
But look around the country today and you’ll see a whole lot of warriors eager to do some head knocking, and very few problem solvers. The media are entranced with the warrior way that it is saturated by the dramatic narratives of global terrorism and partisan politics.
There’s an old cliché that says, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” CEOs, politicians, pundits, even celebrities are all adopting the football-coach approach to success. It’s all about the hammer.
But the Lombardi ethic has little use when applied to the problems of climate change, crippling debt and the economy. For that we need more innovators and problem solvers who are willing to put the manhood narratives aside.
We need a few more Bill Walshes.


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