Last ☔️🌹🌷💐spring💐🌷🌹☔️ , I was just a small👎 freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to being a huge football 🏈🏈🏈 fan, I am also a ❤️🧡💛HUGE💚💙💜fan of 🔥👌🏀, playing ⛹️♂️and watching👀👅 the game.
1️⃣night I was playing at our University gym🏋️♂️, 🔥warming up🔥 on a side court waiting to get into the next game. The gym was buzzing 🐝 that night as J A M E S C O N N E R and his buddies were playing ⛹️♂️ and everyone wanted to get a game against him. I was too scared 😱 as I was small, weak, and Conner could easily eat me for 🍳 🥞 .
As I'm popping 3️⃣s in the corner I see Conner walking out towards the exit🚪 , which 🅱️oincidentally was right➡️ behind me. As he's walking by he 🛑s, obviously impressed by incredible abilities, and said "✔️💲20 on your next shot"
With no hesitation, I throw that 💩shit💩 up. Now this wasn't any normal three 3️⃣ pointer, I'm talking Steph Curry range, like out-of-bounds.
Perfect Swish 🎯.
I was even amazed👀👀👀 I made it. Next thing I know🧠 he pulls out 💸💰💵 out of his sweatshirt pocket and just hands it to me, without 👀 to see what the value of it was. A crisp $100 bill from J A M E S C O N N E R was in my 🖐 . Looking up to say thank you 🙏 , I noticed he had disappeared, almost like 🎅 , he left ⬅️ without a trace, leaving 🎁 for kids who were good. From that moment on, I knew James Conner was the greatest player of all time 🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐🔥🐐.
John Madden died last week, and despite never having any real interest in football, his eponymous game series (outside of the couple of times I bought one--1997 and again in 2022-, and loved it, not knowing much about the game after playing either), I found the guy endlessly fascinating. Madden was someone that, in the context of anyone who is an Oakland sports fan, probably had an appreciation for sport on a level that synthesized the pragmatism of Billy Beane of the Oakland A's in 2002, and the embodied anthesis of sportsmanship of the owner of the Raiders during Madden's tenure as head coach, Al Davis. Both Beane and Davis did what they had to do to push back against institutional influence of capital in their chosen sports, and in the case of Davis, he was open to playing dirty to remain competitve, even after his machinations with the AFL forced a merger with the NFL and found himself amongst the elite in the game.
Madden, by contrast, I learned from Madden: A Biography by Bryan Burwell, seemed to only relish these Davisian flights of paranoia (as his precedessor under Davis did, but rather than take it personally, Madden externalized them to the league) under Davis' watchful eye, where Madden was otherwise entrusted, something that was a rarity under Davis, to do right by the sport and the franchise.
There's a lot of mythology around Madden; his fear of flying, for example, and his own mythmaking about childhood sport, but more striking to me was the mythology of what was the opportunism of his career trajectory, not at all unfamiliar to anyone with a working class background with top-of-field ambitions– he did what took to reach the pros, transferring colleges when it became clear his economic background (Rust Belt and Iowa plains labor to Northern California middle class by the time he went to college) set him apart from the ambitions and priorities of his peers. After an injury ended his playing career, he pursued his childhood dream of coach. This began during his time pursuing a graduate degree is Education (he dropped out "a few credit hours short" of a doctorate) and despite being an ex-pro with no coaching experience, his bonafides to coach even high schoolers were the subject of some skepticism, but he had "a gift" of teaching these teams the way he instructed in the classroom, in understanding discrete events and datapoints as part of an elaborate system.
Under Davis, who Burwell describes as "Socratic" in his handling of Madden--playing the devil's advocate to get the midwestern guy to "tell him what he really thought"-, Madden, having absorbed a similar approach to football from his time watching tape while a player, and his experience in teaching, began to coach the same way, never proving himself weak to the combative New Yorker, Davis. On the surface, to many, the action on the field was little more than brute force, a blood sport, with no relationship from down-to-down, but to Madden, he honed a sense of the choreography of the game. I won't go on much more with this, but by the time of his final season with the Raiders, when he unexpectedly retires, and becomes a broadcaster, "those dancing Xs and Os" become his trademark expositional tool.
Like with Billy Beane, who is dramatized as saying "it's hard not to be romantic about baseball" in Moneyball, Madden makes it difficult to separate him from his utility to the sport of football as a propaganda tool for a nostalgic past that never truly existed, at least not for anyone but Madden. Football is a sport with all of the cooperation required of a highly active sport like soccer, but presented so individualistically that individual diagnoses for head trauma, etc. are difficult for an unitiated public, for example, to absord as systemic or holistic to the experience of playing, or to the point where even a labor dispute in the 90's resulted in probably the closest thing that exists to meaningful labor equity in profit sharing in professional sports at the time (this has since recurred as an issue as a result of said hyper individualization). It'd be wrongheaded to blame Madden for that, even if he's a huge lens for awareness of the game– these were problems in corruption in the league before he ever entered the sport.
My point isn't that the game isn't dangerous, and unnecessarily so, or that Madden is or is not culpable for any of this, but that his role in the sport speaks to something inherent about Americans, and that we desperately want to be normal people who understand each other, rather than class stratified to the point of forever being lumped into one type of participation or another, a microcosm of some idealized version of our real economy, something Madden, himself, never stopped highlighting as a reality of play.
One thing that people know about Madden is that he traveled around the country in a Greyhound bus he would live in during his travels, often criss-crossing the country, often finding himself in places like his native Iowa at 3 AM at a roadside diner– Burwell notes he would make great pains to surround himself with the workers, rather than his peers in broadcasting, and while this speaks to some level of affectation, it's hard not to read into it as a commentary on the game, the industry of commentating itself, for a guy who "wanted to play forever". As with Beane, while Madden's talent was never in question in the same way, he was a kid from a normal, working-class background who found that no matter how good he was, there was always someone there to pay their way ahead, or someone who could replace you if you were injured, or that your shelf-life as a player, as a worker, was extremely variable, and could change in an instant.
Loving the game, being an idealist of it, maybe blinds you to the realities of making it, but it also allows you see the opportunities to game the system to remain competitive as they both did. Beane ended his playing career, rather than being sent down further from professional play, by becoming a front office scout; Madden became an educator and a football coach, and clawing his way up the ranks, picked from obscurity by someone like Al Davis, as Beane was by Sandy Alderson (then GM of the A's) to what would become his defining career characteristic. So often, as workers learn, but especially when things are going well, or at least statistically better than most (most do not last as long as Beane did without being relegated), that their job is not their Life's Work, and often by chance, luck, etc. the thing that defines their career is often very different.
The material reality, however, is that Madden, himself, in his idealism and passion for the sport and its mechanics, found himself in a familar bind of those ownership identifies as passion put them in: If he's so passionate about the sport, and its mechanics, then how can one ever truly become burned out? By this 8th and 9th season as coach of the Raiders, while Al Davis (who, in his defense, was quick to credit Madden) reaped the reputational benefits of Madden's Raiders discipline (despite marketing themselves as outlaws, they were among the least penalized teams in the league consistently) and record, Madden was falling apart, and no longer able to hide it. Once privately fuming to an old friend on the coaching staff, and sometimes spotted swigging from a Pepto bottle, he was now openly retching from stress right onto the field, having panic attacks during flights, and on one occasion finding himself in the hospital. An embedded journalist with the team during training camp said she didn't think Madden would live another 10 years if he kept this up. All of this a direct response to not only pressure/praise from Davis for his skills and passion, but also league pressure to keep up (but not exceed the boundaries of) the performance of football. One such example is the "criminal" element of football Madden said was omnipresent when someone can get hurt in play; one of his players was in court on a felony charge related to an on-field injury as the Raiders began their last season with Madden at the helm. If this indicated to Madden that the game he was leaving was a very different one that he saw such sophisticated systems behavior in just a decade earlier, his physical state was very much reflective of this.
We see this kind of thing in professional and blue collar work alike; you, correctly, want to take pride in the work you do, with the expectation that the reward is a good wage and a long, healthy life, but because this can so easily be spun as, and as a result you perform it as, passion, what do you need to be paid for if you get to do what you love? Well, the obvious part of this myth shouldn't require explaining, and neither should the extremity it engenders, and yet both seem to constantly require explaining more and more frequently, especially in the present day, coming off of a fall and now winter and spring of unprecedented levels of worker mobilization in traditional sectors (manufacturing, food service, etc.) as well as new organization in the ranks of white collar workers (media and tech company unionization, where this Madden paradigm is a much more direct parallel), amidst even fundamentally challenging, conceptually, organizing like tenant unions and the like.
Ultimately, this is what winds up happening at the end of Madden's broadcasting career as well, but this time, he knew he got tired, spending too much time away from home, he began missing beats some said, so he decided it was time to move on. He enters broadcasting with no influences from the outside (he was relatively insulated from TV commenator style during his career before broadcasting), where his approach as a coach is new to his production team, which learns from him the way his teams learned from him, in his systemic approach to parsing the action on screen, despite some growing pains for Madden in the shift in perspective. In Andre Agassi's Open he talks about the kind of animosity he holds for the sport of tennis, and that the balance between hate motivating him to wake up, but love for the things about the life it's given him is what gets him on his feet, and without that love, he doesn't rise from his knees, potentially ever in the grander scheme of things. For Madden, it seemed as if he was being pushed down, and as he said in his Hall of Fame ceremony, "this is something they can never take away from you".
They did, indeed, try to take this away from him: he was denied entry into the hall of fame for many years, and only through a particularly Madden-esque viewing of the objective facts of his career, was he finally given a break: Against many of the winningest coaches already in the hall of fame, while maybe he wasn't one himself, again them, none of them had a winning record– this speaks to something Madden always, himself, represented about the game; a misunderstanding of where wins come from, about what makes the game a creative and strategic pursuit for someone like him. His most, at least commercially, successful project, the Madden football video game series, began life as a new way for Madden to teach coaches to see the game a different way. Part of what precipitated Madden's exit from broadcasting was a realization that, again, football had become a sport he recognized less and less, and the video games, originally a simulator/professional development tool, represented how he'd like to see it played again; innovatively.
“Art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.” wrote Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, and Madden observed this about the trajectory of the franchise's development. The games went from being representations of what Madden felt was initially a conceptualization of gameplay to, as technology evolved, how it was depicted on TV to, most interestingly to Madden, players and TV producers alike seeking to emulate what they saw in their digital avatars, rather than the other way around. Players seeking to play better to have that representation improve alongside them in the next iteration, camera techniques (notably wire-cams that could film the on-field huddles) to match features of the game, what makes the players humans themselves playing a game (swag ratings, etc.) all became common metacommentaries.
Burwell describes Madden early in the book as someone who wanted "to play forever"; this was something he accomplished by doing what the working class has always done when competing in what is said to be based on merit, but is based on presence and connections and all manner of biasable criteria– they do what they have to do. Madden's commitment to the purity of the style of play, even amidst pressure to conform to various metadramas in the league at either Davis' request (the so-called anti-Raiders bias discussed earlier– something even Madden suspected played an early role in his being blocked for hall of fame status) or by other broadcasters who asked him to change his frame of reference for commentating a game on their narrative from the stats, is what ultimately, even amongst his late-career detractors, made his legacy a lasting one, and again, makes it hard not to set aside distaste for the game, its culture, and indulge in the romance of sport. Even Al Davis, who insisted upon introducing Madden at his hall of fame induction, conceded in some small way that it was he who possibly didn't love the sport enough to imbue it with the same.
Reflecting on his fear of flying, many Burwell speaks to in the book wonder if he'd have become some sort of public intellectual, were he to have traveled the world, taking in the world through his unique lens of historical preservation for the sport as a discipline applied to that of other places, rather than trekking the United States in a decommissioned Greyhound Bus, but then again, would he have wanted it any other way? Hard to say. Like Roger Ebert, Madden represents something of the Midwest that is uniquely American that, when exported to the coasts, becomes singular in its expression in an otherwise timeless and generalizable arena (film criticism, like commentation and analysis)– it becomes something of a Platonic form, the most distilled version of this craft, specifically by not only not being of it, but by rejecting contemporary notions of what would've made a good social critic. In that way, something I'll contend is uniformly the influence of mid-century Midwesterners on media, I don't believe, personally, that he, like Ebert (who did have many foreign travels, but notable for the same reason in its scope) could have had the same impact if he weren't so thoroughly an American in what he chose to analyze, systematize, and ultimately become a signifier of were anything other than what it was.