Down and Distance
There are two live video images from the weekend that are going to stay with me: the first is the footage of the women who were demonstrating on Wall Street being penned in by an orange police enclosure; the second, the phantom penalty flag thrown for holding with a minute left in the Bears/Packers game, negating one of the more remarkable punt return touchdowns in recent memory.
We’ll talk about the police footage in a minute—if you haven’t seen it, here’s a good write-up on it in The Atlantic—and about what the two have to do with each other. If you missed the play, it was pretty unique: the Bears, down by ten with a minute and change left to play, receive a punt, with future Hall Of Fame returner Devin Hester deep. Hester backs up, his eyes toward the sky to catch the punt, and he starts looking as if he’s about to call for a fair catch; the Packers special teams unit chases toward him to cover. The trick is that the ball isn’t going to land anywhere near Devin Hester—it’s actually clear on the other side of the field, where the team’s other returner, Johnny Knox, takes it. Without a single Packer realizing what’s happened, Knox is halfway across the field, and then quickly into the end zone. Touchdown! Or, at least, it would have been, except a penalty flag flew as Knox streaked toward the end zone. Holding, number 21, receiving team. And the play is called back.
Announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were incredulous on the broadcast: that player, Corey Graham, was 10 yards from the nearest Packer at the time the flag was thrown, and through a handful of replays, they failed to identify anyone who the official might have meant.
I’ve never hid my allegiance to the Chicago Bears, but I also harbor no illusions about the play’s probable effect on the outcome of the game: recovering an onside kick against a team with the speed and hands of the Packers is an unlikely proposition, and turning that into points with a Chicago offense that sputtered far more often than it soared makes it unlikelier still. It’s fair to accept that the game would have probably gone into the record books 27-24, Packers win by three.
So who cares, if the same team would have won?
Take a look at this: the Vegas spread on the matchup, which was “America’s Game Of The Week On Fox”? Four points.
If you look around at various sports blogs, you’ll find more than a handful of suspicious fans. Over on the ESPN NFC North blog and at NBC’s ProFootballTalk.com, you can find comment sections with people pointing out the spread; and if those are mostly sore loser Bears fans, you can find a similar sentiment in the Packers fan blog Acme Packing Company. Which isn’t to say that the fix is actually in, and the refs threw the flag to ensure that the Packers cover the spread. Former NFL Vice-President of Officiating Mike Pereira insisted that he could see the penalty on the video immediately after the game, Corey Graham himself stopped short of denying that a hold had occurred, and there’s an element of the moon landing was faked! that comes with just suggesting it. On the other hand, if you’re a ref who can toss a flag that’s not likely to affect the outcome of a game in order to bring back a garbage-time TD and pocket some extra cash, well, the starting salary for an NFL official is $27,000 a year….
Regardless of what happened, though, there’s something interesting that so many people seem to believe that there may have been something shady at work. And besides that game, there’s also the big story of last week, where the football world was rocked by the outright admission of the ESPN commentary booth that, yeah, teams fake injuries, as the Giants obviously faked it against the Rams to slow down their offense. Even Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King, a company man for the NFL if there ever was one, echoes that sentiment. In short, it looks like a developing crisis of confidence in the NFL.
What that has to do with the #occupywallstreet demonstrations
We’re years into a deep recession, and ten days into one of the first major protests against the circumstances that created it that targets the bankers instead of the government. And this weekend, the national news media started paying attention to that protest. Why did it suddenly become news? Mostly because the police got violent.
There are a lot of photos of what’s been happening in Manhattan available, and they don’t look make the police look great. Read the headlines and you’ll see protests turn violent, but look at the body of the article and you’ll see that the verified violence is all being committed by the police, not the protesters. “Turn violent” is one word for it; “get beat up by the cops” is another.
And it’s silly to compare videos and photographs of police macing defenseless protesters, or yanking the hair out of women held behind a barricade, or attacking people who are filming them with their cell phones, to a video of a weird call in a football game. Except the comparison isn’t over the level of injustice demonstrated in both of them—it’s over the fact that both of them show a cultural shift that seems to be on the verge of happening, in regards to who we trust.
Americans have long been a people who distrust certain institutions. The Tea Party gained so much traction so quickly because don’t trust the government and politicians are liars is a golden oldie in the American character, and the classics never go out of style. A lack of faith in business and corporations, meanwhile, is more the stuff of Michael Moore movies and Noam Chomsky pamphlets—which makes the coverage that the #occupywallstreet demonstration is getting fairly remarkable. But for that to extend to the NFL, in ways that go beyond sore loser-isms and SpyGate complaints into the sort of world-weary, everybody does it cynicismthat’s usually reserved for politics and lawyers? That’s something else.
When you start to see Packers fans insist that a touchdown against their team was negated by refs to cover the spread, and you get major national news networks to cover protests against Wall Street in a way that acknowledges wrongdoing by the police, then it sure seems like confidence is going down in more institutions than the usual ones. It’s hard to say where this is going, but it’s rare that so many people are paying attention.