Sunday, September 24, 2017

Election Season

The NFL is a failing empire.  After a decades long rise to its status as the dominant hyper-power of the sports entertainment industry, the contours of its once unimaginable collapse are now becoming apparent.  The obscene profits grifted from state and local governments by its oligarchs are becoming unsustainable. Ad revenues, previously assumed to "always go up," are in crisis.  As the science behind the inherent flaws in the game itself reaches greater consensus, its fan base is presented with an ever more difficult moral dilemma.  We are likely the last generation to witness the NFL at the height of its prominence.

David Roth described the league's precarious decadence in an essay published a few weeks ago.
There’s no real promise of fun or awe in the NFL’s pitch, because the league’s most important people so obviously have little interest in those things. Because they cannot imagine anything more interesting or important than what they see in a mirror or their bank accounts, the NFL’s most powerful men have given us a league that looks and feels and acts like these are the all that matters. We of course already live in the world that men like this have made, and it makes a sad sort of sense that even their league’s escapism is shot through with these values. They do not or cannot care for anyone’s present or future beyond their own; they have no use for beauty or regard for other people. And so the NFL they’ve made is the NFL they would make.
Suffice to say, the state of the NFL is bad. To immerse oneself in its world is to grapple with the dismal day to day exhaustion of hope itself. The disaster is here. No one knows what can or should be done. Perhaps nothing. Maybe we all deserve to be here now at the unraveling to do our penance together watching it all fall apart.

We know this isn't just about football, right?  Of course we do. That isn't even very interesting to note anymore. Institutions are failing all around us.  It's the central theme of our cultural moment. Here, for example, is a passage from a different article I read last week about Season Four of the Netflix animated series, BoJack Horseman.
It is creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s bright, off-balance, blisteringly funny, almost unbearably moving analogue to this line from Heather Havrilesky’s “Ask Polly” column, which read to me in July as the thesis statement of the age we’re in: ”[N]ow no one calls anyone else a sell-out, and everyone and everything feels so thoroughly sold out that it hurts.”

Even the obvious political metaphor is boring.  It is true, of course. But we're so badly burned out now that we're no longer moved by truth.  A banal exhaustion is baked in to the very spirit of our times. Nostalgia fails to recover an America that was never really Great.  Fake News and conspiracy theory divert us from the work of grappling honestly with our failures. The work of creating real wealth and distributing it fairly is crowded out by grift and graft.  Unless our only move is to sink into paralysis, what, then, is the remedy? Maybe there is nothing.

If Nick Saban were here, he might say something about The Process. Don't be overwhelmed by the big picture. Just focus on the task in front of you and see if you can make that a little bit better. Maybe today is not the day to bring down the Trump Administration.  But it might be a good day to help a neighbor with a broken tail light.  After that, maybe there is capacity to take on the larger mess.

Eventually, though, the solution to a political problem is still politics.  And they always say that real change begins at the local level. The NFL is a failing empire. Maybe we can't do anything about that. But what if we could look to our own corner of the failing empire and find, if not hope, at least some reason not to despair?

For years now I've been pushing the idea that Head Football Coach should be an elected office. The reasoning goes like this.  Professional sports teams, like your New Orleans Saints, are so heavily subsidized by public resources that we may as well consider them community property.  The Saints play in a building constructed and maintained by the State Of Louisiana. They are granted special rights to the concession profits generated in that building for which the state allows them a sales tax exemption. Over the years the team's operations have been supported through gifts in the form of real estate, favorable services contracts, a public street, and direct annual payments from the state treasury.

Moreover, the team's brand and iconography are borrowed from the people of the city.  Thus the very basis of the business; the passions, pride, and communal spirit of the team's fans; is rooted in a civic identity that belongs not to the franchise, but to the people themselves. Nobody is paying to watch the Tom Benson NFL Football Team. These are the New Orleans Saints they're coming to see. Their investment is as real and, frankly, worth more than his ever was. This business of professional football is rightfully a popular and populist undertaking. If it is to be saved, it may first be necessary for the people to seize the means of production from the tyranny of the billionaire rentiers. It's time to get those sons of bitches out of there. Nationalize the "National" Football League. Hand its franchises over to their constituencies to govern as they see fit.

Imagine a New Orleans in 2017 had the revolution come and gone before now. This is an election year, after all.  Along with the candidates for mayor and various other municipal offices on the ballot this fall, Sean Payton would be well into campaigning for a fourth term as Head Coach.

In all likelihood he would be tanking in the polls too.  The team is already off to an 0-2 start. And those losses to Minnesota and New England were no mere gaffes. They were major "pee tape" level disasters.  The campaign is reeling.  But Payton has pulled out of tight spots before.

His first term (2006-2010) started better than anyone could have hoped but fell into a malaise of 7-9 and 8-8 seasons. Only the startling SuperBowl win guaranteed reelection.  The second term was marred by scandal as staff turnover, a Vicodin controversy and, of course, "Bountygate" which might have been the end of him.  But a positive showing in 2013, the final year of the term, combined with residual goodwill from the glory years was enough to get him in again.

The third term, though, has been the most difficult.  Payton's big promises of 2014 went unfulfilled and the administration has been moribund ever since. Voters aren't likely to tolerate another 7-9.  Everything is riding on this campaign. A fall to 0-3 could sink the whole ship. So let's have a look at some of the most critical issues.

Health Care

Football is dangerous. The people who play it are often going to get hurt. An organization with millions of dollars invested in those players should see to it that they're well cared for. Under Sean Payton, the Saints have not always lived up to this obligation, though. In the past, players like Pierre Thomas and Jeremey Shockey have complained that team doctors misdiagnosed their injuries. Poor medical evaluations have led to costly free agent busts like C.J. Spiller and Jairus Byrd.  This season a critical mistake has left the team without its number one corner for what will probably be half the year. Two team doctors lost their jobs in the fallout over this latest incident.

It also doesn't help matters that Nick Fairley was diagnosed with a life threatening heart condition after the Saints signed him to a long term contract and counted on him being a key part of the defense this year. The subsequent discovery of long snapper Jon Dorenbos's heart problem
was a freaky coincidence. To be fair, the Saints' doctors very likely saved Dorenbos's life when they examined him.  Still the Saints clearly have health care problems that threaten to derail the 2017 campaign.  This week they'll play without top draft pick Marshon Lattimore. And while there are some interesting theories afoot as to how this might actually be good thing, we''d prefer to argue in favor of a more sound policy direction.

Sharing economy
When Adrian Peterson joined the team this summer, everyone was cautiously optimistic that he'd be OK splitting time in Payton's backfield. After the first week, we're not so sure that's going to be the case.
For a player who is accustomed to taking the majority of the snaps at running back, the lack of work was hard to process at first, although Peterson knew he'd be splitting time with Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara when he signed with New Orleans this offseason.

Peterson believes it will just take some time for the running back situation to sort itself out.

"I didn’t sign up for nine snaps, though, but unfortunately that’s the way the game played out," Peterson said. "In my mind, personally, I knew it was gonna take some adjusting. You know, me and Mark played in the last preseason game, AK didn’t even play that game. So with all three of us being out there, I knew it would take a game or so to kind of get adjusted."

Week two was even more of a mess. The sharing backfield is leading to a kind of income inequality. We still don't know what the fairest distribution of carries might be.  Payton and Peterson continue to deny this is a problem they can't solve. It might be easier if they weren't always having to play from behind, of course.  Which brings us to...


The Saints' defense is a crime against decency.  Nobody is protecting our endzone, or even the nearest yard to gain marker on any given third down. Things are brutal out there. Should the team ever happen to find itself with a lead again this year, they should know it is not safe. It's a problem the Payton Administration has, quite famously, never been able to overcome satisfactorily. And after years and years of cabinet level turnover in the defense department, we all know where the buck stops. Here's Ralph Malbrough on that.
The Saints are on defensive coordinator number three since 2012. They have invested millions in free agents and high draft picks too numerous to list. And yet they are on pace to allow 48 touchdown passes breaking the NFL record they set in 2015.

Go ahead and blame the players or the plan if that makes you feel better. This is Sean Payton's creation. The Saints intercepting Tom Brady but having it called back because they had 12 men on the field explains pretty much everything about the last 5 years of New Orleans Saints football.
Also, look at this.  What the hell is this?

How does that even happen? To what one supposes must be his credit, Payton (kind of) acknowledges  responsibility for this unmitigated debacle.
He also points out the building of the defense doesn't fall directly on defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. Instead, the Saints head coach said it is a combined effort among the primary decision makers.

"It's never going to be the coordinator's defense himself," Payton said. "It's going to be the Saints defense, No. 1.
Mistakes have been made by the Saints. He still doesn't exactly say, "by Sean Payton," does he? Not that it matters. Everybody knows. And unless this turns around, everyone is going to hold him accountable.

Flood Pass Protection

Drew Brees is still, by far, the team's most valuable property. What are they doing to keep him safe from the flood of oncoming rushers?  In offensive tackle years, Zach Strief has got to be at least as old as Sewerage and Water Board Turbine Number 4. And, at the moment, he seems to be in about the same state of repair. The shuffling elsewhere along the line as the Saints wait on Terron Armstead to get healthy and Ryan Ramczyk to figure out what he's doing, makes it anybody's guess when or if they'll ever reach 100 percent of full capacity. We'd like to believe they can at least tell us straight up if any of the players suddenly catches on fire. Given the recent issues with the medical staff, though, who really knows?

Monument Removal

That's right, we still haven't forgotten about you Bronze Tom.  Your time is coming soon enough.  #TakeEmDown.

Bronze Tom in glory

When the Saints kickoff against the Panthers, we will have passed the final day to register to vote in the municipal election.  If he falls to 0-3 Sunday, Payton should probably be relieved to know he is not, in fact, on the ballot.  His contract situation allows him some expectation of job security. But if 0-3 becomes 0-4 or any worse than that, how much patience will a wine and ice cream addled Benson have?  Who even knows if the old dotard is making the decisions any more? Again, this is why these matters are better left to the consent of the governed. That's how it will work after the people's revolution. Someday. Just you wait and see.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea  for Payton to behave as if he is accountable to somebody even if that may not in fact be the case. If he cares about staying in New Orleans past the end of this term, and he may not, our best advice to him would be to shift into campaign mode as soon as possible. The record shows that his Saints have tended to be at their best whenever election season comes along. Maybe that's reason enough to believe they can right the ship once again.  Maybe.

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