Yesterday, the Arizona Cardinals defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-14 to go to 3-0 on the season, only the second time they've gotten off to a start like that in 40 years. (The last time they started 3-0, they finished the year 5-11.) It was a difficult, hard-fought game, and considering the 49ers' success over the Cardinals in recent years (they had won nine of the last 10 games), even late, with the Cardinals leading, one still had the sense San Francisco was going to come back.
The moment that turned it, the moment when the crowd erupted and University of Phoenix Stadium crackled with that "whoa, we're going to win this" energy came midway through the fourth quarter, with the Cardinals holding a six-point lead and driving into 49ers territory. The Fox broadcast mentioned how Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals' future Hall of Fame wideout, had not caught a pass yet, and how, if that remained the case, it would be the first game he was held catchless since 2004. The very next play, Fitzgerald, on 2nd-and-30, caught a Drew Stanton fade for a 24-yard gain, but what happened next… that was the moment. On 3rd-and-6, Fitzgerald grabbed a screen pass and was met by three Niners defenders … but he bounced off all of them, flailing and falling forward, knocked around a few more times, before extending the ball just past the first-down marker. (Even better, San Francisco defender Patrick Willis hit him late, adding a personal foul.)
For decades, the Arizona Cardinals have often been the second team in their home stadium, having their fans outnumbered by visiting hordes from Dallas, San Francisco, Green Bay, even Seattle. That has become less a problem since the team moved out of Sun Devil Stadium, but it's a local insecurity: Phoenix is a land of ex-pats, many of whom already have their own favorite team already. So you heard plenty of noise when the 49ers did something worthwhile yesterday… but it was nothing like the sound after that play. Fitzgerald, the best player in franchise history, the one player who has put together a Hall of Fame career in Arizona and only in Arizona, the guy responsible for one of the most exciting plays in Super Bowl history, he is theirs. Larry Fitzgerald is the second-most popular Arizona Cardinal of all time, behind only the late Pat Tillman, and he's as beloved off the field. (Sen. John McCain once said, "He's among the most outstanding individuals and athletes I have ever known.")
So after Fitzgerald popped up from his hit and began waving his arms and unleashing a primal scream, the crowd exploded. It was a defining moment for the team, and the crowd, and for Fitzgerald. The old war horse, the local legend, showing how tough and passionate he is at the most crucial time. It was what the joy of watching football is all about: spontaneous, irrepressible joy, framed in the context of toughness and the exertion of one's manhood. If Fitzgerald had just gotten the first down and fallen down, it wouldn't have been nearly exciting. What made it great was that he got hit and that he kept going, that he fell and got back up. (Yes, he lost a fumble two plays later, but that didn't temper my enthusiasm.)
When Fitzgerald got that first down, I -- wearing my Fitzgerald jersey -- leapt off the couch and screamed. He's my favorite player too.
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Last week, Soraya Nadia McDonald, a writer for the Washington Post, pointed out something that I tried to touch on last week myself: Just how much our attitudes and attention paid toward domestic violence have changed over the years. In my piece, I noted that 25 years ago O.J. Simpson could be arrested for punching his wife and eight months later be joking about the police on Late Night With David Letterman. But McDonald didn't have to go back nearly that far.
On New Year's Eve 2008, TMZ published a story that said Fitzgerald had been ordered to stay away from [former girlfriend Angela] Nazario. It detailed the allegations, gleaned from court documents, that she leveled against him -- that after the two began quarreling, Fitzgerald challenged her to a play fight. Nazario said she swung at Fitzgerald, who then pushed her. He "grabbed me by my hair with both hands on the back of my head very very hard and tossed me across the room." When Nazario tried to leave with their son, she said Fitzgerald "grabbed the back of my neck and slammed me down on the marble floor…. [I] was disoriented for awhile and could not get up, I remember he mumbled something about 'that's what happens when you try taking my son away from me.'" When she made it to her car, Nazario said she realized Fitzgerald had pulled out chunks of her hair.
The story TMZ ran nearly six years ago, with the very TMZ headline "NFL Superstar Accused Of Baby Mama Beatdown," was, as McDonald pointed out, not widely picked up at the time. The Arizona Republic barely even noted it at the time -- -- their defense yesterday, in which a sports editor accuses McDonald of "inflammatory, click-hungry coverage," didn't help their cause much -- but you can't just blame them: ESPN and Sports Illustrated all left it alone as well. What's particularly strange about this is that it's not like Fitzgerald wasn't at the absolute center of the news that month: The Cardinals had just completed their improbable run to the Super Bowl, and the media had two full weeks of opportunity to ask the game's most telegenic superstar player about the allegations. No one did.
Now, obviously, TMZ is treated a bit differently now than it was in early 2009, but that's less because the news media has just discovered their news value and more because everyone has realized just how much of a hunger there is to read about the stories they publish and thus decided to get in on that action. TMZ drives the conversation now, not just in sports, and ignoring them is just not feasible. Particularly when they're almost always right, as much as Ray Rice would like to wish them away. But I think it's less about TMZ and more about those people who once had the ability to shut out a story like that no longer possessing that power. The notion of the best player on a Super Bowl team having a restraining order put out against him after a woman claimed he "grabbed the back of my neck and slammed me down on the marble floor" and then having no one even mention it is so inconceivable now, just six years later, that is seems surreal. When you look at why the NFL's initial response to the Ray Rice arrest was so flaccid and ton-deaf, the Fitzgerald story provides a helpful tutorial: No one cared this much, like, really recently. They missed the cultural shift.
So McDonald's point that our reaction to allegations like this is dramatically different now is valid in every possible way. And I think I'm living proof of that. Because until the Arizona Republic wrote that ridiculous "response" to her piece yesterday… I had completely forgotten about the entire incident. And Larry Fitzgerald is my favorite player.
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On one hand, it is unfair to make a one-to-one comparison between Rice's incident (or Jonathan Dwyer's, which the Arizona Republic was far more upset about) and Fitzgerald's. Unlike Rice, Fitzgerald was never arrested. Unlike Rice, there is no definitive video of Nazario being knocked unconscious. Unlike Rice, the incident was tied up in a larger, messier, more complicated custody issue, when ugly allegations are often tossed out, by both sides, as legal maneuvers. (This even happened with your Internet god, Bill Murray.)
But let's not kid ourselves. We do not know whether Nazario's story is true. But we do know that domestic violence is perpetuated, allowed to fester and strike, because the benefit of the doubt has constantly been given to the man in these situations. (To hear reactionaries cry "let the legal system run its complete course!" in response to Rice must surely inspire some rueful head shakes among the hundreds of thousands of abused women too afraid to ever file any sort of complaint.) We do know that this incredibly serious charge was something Fitzgerald was never required to answer for because he was above reproach on it -- because he's Larry Fitzgerald. (And also possibly because the only story any media cared about at the time was that his dad was a sportswriter, though I can't seem to find anywhere he writes anymore other than Twitter, which is mostly just pictures of himself with his son's teammates.) That the man never had to defend himself while the woman was accused of being some sort of troublemaker is sadly familiar to any woman in this situation. The pendulum has swung in the other direction now. It will be a while until you can convince any woman who has dealt with domestic violence before that it has swung too far.
Does this mean Fitzgerald is unquestionably a woman beater? It does not. But six years ago, no one ever asked him. Remember: Not investigating these matters does everyone a disservice, even the potentially falsely accused. John McCain thinks Larry Fitzgerald is "one of the most outstanding individuals" he has ever met. (John McCain! He's met a ton of people!) Is that true? Is the public image just a public relations construction? I don't know. It sure would be nice if we knew a little bit more about that incident six years ago… if we could know for sure. It would be nice if someone would have just asked the damned question.
Which leads it back to me on my couch yesterday, screaming "Yeah, Larry!" (For crying out loud, I have a freaking bobblehead of the guy.) It wasn't until after the game was over, after I'd finished sending celebratory texts to all my fellow Arizona Cardinals fan friends, that I came across McDonald's piece, and then I remembered: Oh yeah … there was something back in 2009, wasn't there? I'd ignored it as well, too dismissive of TMZ, too enthralled in my team's first Super Bowl appearance, too well surely if this were real we'd hear more about it like everybody else. And it had left my brain entirely.
So now what do I do? Is it fair to Fitzgerald -- against whom, again, nothing has ever been proven, or even really substantiated -- to begin despising my favorite player, the best player in my favorite team's history, just because someone reminded me of a story I'd forgotten? Is it even possible? I don't mean I can't stop admiring Larry Fitzgerald the person; I shouldn't have been doing that in the first place. (And I wasn't. Remember, we don't know these people. Do not admire public figures. You do not know them.) I mean Larry Fitzgerald the football player, the one who plays for the team I've spent 30-plus years cheering for, the one whose touchdowns make me undeniably happy. Should I feel ambivalent when he scores? Or should I feel happy that he got a first down and wasn't stopped by San Francisco's Ray McDonald, who was accused just two weeks ago of even more heinous domestic violence crimes? Or should I stop watching Shame or Inglorious Basterds because Michael Fassbender was accused of domestic violence? Or should I stop eating at Godfather's Pizza because Herman Cain is a rampant sexual harasser? I mean, I like the Cardinals. I like Inglourious Basterds. I, dumbly, like Godfather's Pizza. If I have to take moral stands on every single corporate entity I deal with in my life, I won't be able to do anything.
Or is that just a rationalization? Am I just telling myself that so I don't have to deal with the consequences of cheering on a football team -- or a sport -- that allows such things to be covered up? Am I just as bad? And man, isn't this quite the serious conversation when I, like everyone, am just trying to take an afternoon off and unwind after a long hard workweek and enjoy rooting for my favorite football team? Figuring out how to deal with people, how to truly know people that I've met is impossible; now I have to make sure I know everything about people I watch on television? Maybe I should?
These are the questions that any sports fan could ask him or herself when they watch any game, football or otherwise. They're difficult, they're thorny, they're basically impossible. It is no wonder we throw up our hands and watch the game. There is so much we do not know. There is so much we cannot know. It is maddening and complex and confusing. It is life. No one has all the answers. No one possibly could.
Just to be safe, though: I think I'm gonna take down the bobblehead. I still hope the Arizona Cardinals win. But since last night … I just don't like looking at it anymore.
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