Gonzo journalism has come to carve out its own little sphere, both in the world of “real” sports writing and the blogosphere. Google it sometime – there are many proponents of Hunter S. Thompson’s style and flair, his knack (allegedly) for truly immersing himself in his subject matter. The triumph of the subjective, instead of the illusion of the objective. I’m a fan, but I find his style to be too dense with arcane detail to be “true.” In short, I think the good Doctor was full of it most of the time. That was the beauty of his work, though. Thompson had a way of getting to the truth of things he wrote about (the Truth, as he might write) . . . real truth, even if it was ugly.
Your correspondent does not claim to be a journalist, gonzo or otherwise. But I find the Doctor’s perspective useful when thinking about the meaning of this NFL season. The NFL in 2012 has become a monolith, a moneymaking powerhouse with popularity so great, momentum so self-sustaining, that even the sham of scab referees or horrifying player mortality statistics can’t slow it down. The NFL has smartly integrated itself into our lives in ways the NBA and NHL can only dream of – building off of the game at the high school and college levels, leaving us for two full calendar seasons in spring and summer to build our bloodlust . . . even the piss-poor Thursday night games, which are markedly lesser in quality by the lack of rest the players are afforded, succeed in drawing eyeballs. The NFL reigns supreme. Major League Baseball has the boys of summer and the pastoral distraction of mano-a-mano pitcher/hitter duels, but none of that satisfies our primal need for violence.
Which, ahem, is where the gonzo helps us understand our country’s current NFL obsession. If Thompson were here with us today, I think he’d positively shriek about the moralizing and hand-wringing being, well, wrought, about player safety. He’d chortle rudely if someone complained about the replacement refs damaging “integrity of the game.” The good Doctor saw the game at the pro level for what it was and is: an exercise in physical dominance. Make no mistake, gentle readers – the camera can follow the ball all day, focusing on the quarterback and the passing game, the long bombs and interceptions. Focus on strategy so obviously drawn from the military that it is not work examining. Focus, off the field, on statistics and trends and play-by-play win percentages. The NFL has built its immovable popularity on everything surrounding the game itself, on the window dressing if you like. But that’s not the game itself.
The game itself is about nine or 10 men (five offensive, four or five defensive) lining up around the ball and (literally, our scientists are learning) trying to kill one another. The players know this. Degenerate gamblers know this. Ex-players know it, including those charlatan “analysts” who convert their knowledge of the game into a paycheck on studio shows.
The fans do not know, for the most part. They tune in to see the catharsis of modern life, imagining the NFL as our version of Roman gladiatorial combat. Stylized death throes. Or maybe they’re just tuning in to watch the inevitable beer commercials where impossibly attractive women pay attention to slobs. Fans see myths, in other words, when the reality is so much more simple. And that’s where the gonzo is so useful: Thompson never constructed any kind of false mythology around athletes. He used famous and even mythological characters in his writing (Jack Nicholson comes to mind), but never to construct something around the sports he covered. He name-dropped to be interesting, to be compelling. To create coverage, a story that was better than the truth. And he covered the NFL – Thompson attended Super Bowls and identified himself as a degenerate gambler, someone who knew the true nature of the NFL by intuition, not even through direct experience.
I’m a fan, but my eyes are open. Enjoy the window dressing if you’d like – I’ll be watching the super-slo-mo HD images of sweat flying off the lineman because of the impact in that split second after the snap of the ball, that moment of truth and pain. Violence. That’s what we’re all watching. Well, that and the beer commercials.
Mike Lipetzky is immersed in this sporting life. He’s a regular contributor at NoCoastBias. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.