If you have an inkling to watch the NFC Championship pregame show this Sunday, I urge you strenuously to ignore it. The show rarely offers much insight under the best of circumstances, but with two starting quarterbacks of color, it's bound to be even more awkward, and head downward from there.
NFL human interest commentary often involves clumsily mashing a thumb down on the scales. NFL talking heads killed time before the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl arguing whether a win would cap off a year of "redemption" for Ben Roethlisberger. (If you believe the accusations leveled at him twice, then no. Christ, no.) With the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick and the Seahawks' Russell Wilson, what you generally hear is a tone-deaf subtextual commentary on race, one that, in the hype of play by play, can feel frankly gross.
Things aren't much better even in the slightly more thoughtful medium of print. Last Sunday, a sportswriter for the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle took to Twitter at the end of the Niners-Panthers game and blasted Kaepernick for wearing a ballcap backwards, a complaint about thuggish culture so culturally retrograde that you expected him to warn you that Chuck D was going to start rounding up whites so Sister Souljah could gun them down with uzis in the Terrordome. Then he deleted his tweets.
When it comes to Kaepernick commentary, tweets like that are just the mainstream cultural id mic'd up and soaked in hormones. Even people who are probably pretty color blind -- who aren't sporting a "wad-of-Dockers-up-the-crack, I can't seem to seal the deal on the Henderson account!" dad rage at a changing world -- trade in topics and language that reduce Kaepernick to some kind of animal force.
When you hear of the intelligence of the Niners' offense, it reflects the many looks that Jim Harbaugh's schemes give the opposing defense. Harbaugh's a clever man and deserves praise, but there's a kind of disconnect between the sideline and the outcome of a play, as if there weren't someone standing between those two points and shepherding the ball from one to the other. Announcers praise Kaepernick's athleticism, speed and arm cannon, but terms like "architect" don't get thrown at him. He's intense. He's a soldier or a warrior, but the "athleticism" thing creates a distinction between someone who plans a battle and someone who merely executes it. Kaepernick isn't going to get slapped with the label "field general" a lot. Field generals are warriors, but they don't run; they stand still and send the grunts out running.
Then of course there's going sleeveless in Lambeau in January, and those tattoos. Not to mention copping other players' signature moves after a score to "serve" them, something that gets played up almost like Kaepernick's telling "yo mama" jokes. Then there's his personal Twitter and Instagram, where he posts goofy pictures of swag. Together, these tend to marginalize him as a dopey guy with ungodly physical ability, which is pretty unfair, considering that describes the normative condition of being an NFL player.
Russell Wilson stands at the other end of the spectrum from Kaepernick, where you find an overweening desire to praise Wilson for things that hardly single him out or merit mention twice, let alone half a dozen times each broadcast. The perverse thing about Wilson is that, if commentary about Kaepernick represents the soft bigotry of low expectations -- look at how athletically that athlete just did athletics -- then the expectations for Wilson seem somehow cynically even lower. "He looks like someone who reads!"
Think of the stories you hear about Wilson ad nauseam. Announcers marvel that they call him up only to find that he's watching film at a time when non-quarterback players are not. How novel: You called an employee to find him doing work. At this point in the advancement of ever more complex NFL schemes, a quarterback spending time studying even during the offseason has become a prerequisite for the job. These men have to make absurd investments to distinguish themselves from their peers, and have an absurdly low number of years in which to do this job and get paid absurd amounts of money. What they do seems weird to us. So does doing calculus all day, but if you heard,
JIM NANTZ: Earlier this week, Phil, we called up nuclear physicist Dr. Mike Tubes at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and he was doing math!
PHIL SIMMS: I TELL YOU WHAT, JEEM, THE ONLY MATH I KNOW HOW TO DO IS DIAL 10-10-220, THE ONLY WAY TO MAKE A COLLECT CALL IN THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
you would want to wedgie both of them and shove them into a locker.
Then there's Wilson's shirt and tie, which were talked about so much last year that Pete Carroll let them take snaps on two drives this preseason. The fact that Wilson took care to wear them to an interview early in his career somehow made him stand out in a league where even meathead offensive linemen wear $4,000 suits to walk from the team bus to the locker room.
The worst two slice-of-life details about Wilson are his faith and his expressiveness. The former is merely window-dressing; you could blindly fire a shotgun in the average NFL locker room and hit a dozen people whose lives are guided by their Christianity. (Colin Kaepernick's tattoos, for instance, feature a cross and two Bible verses.) But the latter comes with a salad bar of synonyms that all mean "clean," "well-spoken" and "articulate" without hitting any of those race-oriented buzzwords. The fact that, as I said in my last column, Wilson's full name has expanded to something like "THIS REMARKABLE YOUNG MAN RUSSELL WILSON" exhibits a symptom of this.
Even if some of the damning-with-faint-praise visited on Wilson extenuates from the on-the-fly nature of color commentary, print fares little better. One week ago, Allen Barra revisited the subject of Wilson's faith and dedication and even argued that Wilson was a better MVP candidate than Peyton Manning. Much of the tone was to be expected, but Barra oddly led the column with another recounting of Wilson's dad coaching him from a young age to give canned interview responses about doing everything for the team.
With any other player, the fact that his father trained him to be a thought-robot would stand out as either crassly commercialized -- preschool for corporate stoogifying your own offspring -- or just annoying. We would aggressively make fun of it, maybe even come to define him by it, or at least always consider him insincere. But with Wilson, it gets subsumed by the narrative of his being a thoughtful young man -- as if you'd expect anything less from the son of a Dartmouth-educated lawyer and a legal nurse consultant, who went to a private preparatory school and then graduated college in three years with a B.A. in communications.
The frustrating thing about all this packaging is that it likely stems less from not caring than from trying too hard. Colin Kaepernick sounds genuinely like a big football galoot who takes all that "warrior" language seriously, so commentators take him on his terms, knowing that many fans enjoy battlefield rhetoric. The push to sell Russell Wilson stems from the fact that he is polished and media-savvy, and the NFL probably wants to have a polished, media-savvy person of color at quarterback to cast aside the career baggage of someone like Michael Vick, or the college and early career baggage of Cam Newton.
Still, it's hard not to hear a faint but persistent conversation about athletes of color in these depictions, the dog-whistling and reductive binary of the physical specimen (and/or "thug") and the studious middle-class striver (and/or "one of the good ones"). Working past those terms is more fair, more human and more enjoyable than the forced narratives of the last two years have been. It's perfectly fine and welcome to give Kaepernick more credit as decision maker and as a personality greater than a cliché -- just as it is to hold off on putting Wilson on the same level as Manning and maybe acknowledge that his demeanor is both less than unique and also somewhat processed and disingenuous.
If nothing else, focusing on them as people -- perfectly ordinary, even boring people -- does two things. One, it eschews the NFL media packaging that starts fans down the path of turning against superstars out of exhaustion. Two, and most importantly, it helps shut down that casual transmission of the dog whistle and that dreadful question in the back of your mind about who is hearing it and who could possibly enjoy it.
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