Down and Distance
What the Cowboys win, the Penn State riots and the Occupy movement all have incommon
Ask anybody with a restaurant or bar in the Dallas Metroplex if business is better following a Cowboys win. You’ll get quick confirmation that the mood of a city rises and falls with the success of their sports team. Or, to put it another way: Would you want to be someone who worked for tips in Indianapolis on Sundays this year? Even the strippers are probably moonlighting in the face of the Colts’ 0-10 record.
Meanwhile, go to Billy’s on Burnet, or Bikini's on 6th, during a Packers or Steelers game. Count the members of waitstaff wearing Hines Ward or Aaron Rodgers jerseys, even if they couldn’t care less about the team. Those colors and logos make fans happy, and that’s usually good to bump the tip from 15% to 20%. And while we can acknowledge all of this is obvious, what we haven’t spent much time considering is why all of this matters so much.
There’s an answer to that question though, that’s only gotten clearer over the past few weeks. As students in Penn State threaten mini-riots at the firing of Joe Paterno, and as the Occupy movement finds itself evolving after the eviction from Zuccoti Park and the pepper spray assaults at the University of California-Davis, there’s something you can make out in the distance, if you squint a bit.
Let’s see you connect these dots
When the photos of the students demonstrating at Penn State over Joe Paterno’s firing went out to the Internet a couple of weeks ago, people understandably were outraged. The man, to put it as charitably as possible, failed to zealously protect children from a man he had strong reason to believe was sexually assaulting them. "And you’re mad that this guy lost his job?," People cried. "Coaching a football team?"
And yeah – when you put it like that it sure does sound outrageous. But putting it in such stark terms removes the context of what football means to Penn State, and what fundamental and basic human need it fulfills. It’s not about the game itself. It never was.
We live in a culture that doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunities for adults to form emotional attachments to things larger than ourselves. In Dallas, that’s what How ‘bout them Cowboys helps accomplish – it’s a connection to something wider in the culture. Rising and falling with the arm of Tony Romo, even when it’s all pick-sixes and fumbled snaps, is something besides family to hold onto. For some people, it’s the things they loved as kids (why else have the Transformers movies have grossed a combined $2.7 billion dollars?). For others, it’s church (though with only 18.7% of Americans regularly attending services, that’s probably fewer people than saw Transformers), and for others, I dunno, book clubs or something.
For people in State College, Pennsylvania, it’s Penn State football. And as that very powerful emotional force spent nearly fifty years getting tied up with Joe Paterno, you can get an inkling of how people at Penn State weren’t demonstrating because they don’t give a shit about child rape – they were demonstrating because their church was under attack. It was a reaction to a threat. That sort of lizard-brain impulse doesn’t change just because that threat was 100% justified, and maybe ought to end with criminal prosecution.
We need these adult emotional connections. They’re important. Family is good, but it’s not enough, and our culture doesn’t provide a wealth of outlets for that need. This is why people in Chicago are biting their fingernails off after learning that Jay Cutler will miss weeks with a broken thumb on his throwing hand, and why people in Philadelphia are allowing themselves to believe, just for a few minutes, in the myth of Vince Young that we created here in Austin half a decade ago. If football’s not your thing, fine—but there’s probably something else that you’re invested in emotionally in the same way.
Meanwhile, on the West coast
Students in Davis, California were probably not too concerned with the fact that the UC-Davis Aggies held off the Sacramento State Hornets on Saturday for the team’s fourth win of the season. Even a 9-1 49ers team and the 6-4 Raiders probably have a shadow on them.
There’s an image that’s been going around Facebook this weekend. It depicts the already-iconic image of UC-Davis Police Lt. John Pike dousing seated, unarmed students in the face with pepper spray on the right, and students at Penn State flipping over a van without so much as a mace can in sight on the left. It labels the images as “Pepper” and “No Pepper” and reads, “This is the selective silencing of dissent.”
It’s an effective image, even if it’s not 100% true—police did use mace to disperse the crowd that flipped the van—but the larger point is valid. The kids in State College had to flip a van over to get the police to use force on them, while the ones in California just had to link arms and not do what they were told.
But as the crackdowns on Occupy continue across the country, it confirms the thing that’s at the core of the Penn State protest. For so many people involved in that movement, the point is that we’ve created a society that offers so few opportunities to form the emotional bonds that we need. Talk to almost anyone who’s spent much time at Zucotti Park, or Austin City Hall, or any of the other locations around the country, and they’ll say that the reason this is an ongoing, no-goals-or-end-in-sight thing, rather than an “impose some half-hearted banking regulations and we’ll go home” protest, is because they want to create something different. They want more options.
In that way, Occupy is a lot like a church, or a football team that’s at the vital core of a community, or insert-name-of-thing-that-matters-to-you here. It’s both a protest against the fact that there aren’t enough opportunities to fulfill the need for emotional connection, and an attempt to give people something new to connect to.
When that need manifests itself in letting the car with a Cowboys sticker in the back window merge on the highway, it’s fine. When it takes the form of flipping out over the dismissal of a guy who helped cover up child rape, it’s a lot less comfortable. In any case, it’s not going away—but maybe we can find a few new options.