NFL Lockout: What Hunter S. Thompson Would Have to Say About the Circus
A little over six years ago one of the greatest writers in American history ended his life with a gun blast to the face. The title of his suicide note? “Football Season is Over.”
Hunter S. Thompson was not only a gifted wordsmith and storyteller but an avid football fan. I used to wait for his sporadic columns on ESPN’s Page 2 covering the NFL games of the week; not to mention his brilliant turns of phrase—a verbal assassin’s bullet—for anyone degrading his hallowed league.
The realization that he took his life only six years ago actually surprised me; I thought it had been well over ten. The void felt that big.
So when the Indianapolis Colts recently published a letter Thompson wrote to owner Jim Irsay in 1997 and the Good Doctor ranted that the teams Irsay put together were “a gaggle of third-world transients in a holding pen with just enough whiskey and weirdness and talent to be competitive,” I had to smile and laugh.
Irsay had wanted to relocate the hallowed, yet perpetually flailing team. Almost a year, to the day, after Thompson sent his letter Indianapolis would draft a kid from the University of Tennessee named Peyton Manning and never look back. The Good Doctor’s prognosis that Irsay's days would become "spastic episodes full of great crooked cops & wrongful dishonor” never came to pass. The Colts have been one of the finest teams in the league over the last decade.
Yet Thompson’s prescient closing line still haunts:
“Be careful, James – your greed crazed outbursts are beginning to rub off on people.”
No, James Irsay didn’t embroil the NFL in this labor dispute. But if you remember the way Thompson zeroed in on the levers of power and did everything in his pen possible to unhinge them, you’ll know a few more letters with his return address would be circulating these days.
All we have are the echos of his words. So let’s take some of his quotes and see how they’d apply today…
Network and Advertisers
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
To the television networks and advertisers who are the silent catalyst to the entire affair. No, you can’t blame them if the owners and players can’t figure out how to divide the spoils. But you can blame them for making television coverage of football a shallow and commercial-centric affair every Sunday.
The PR Game
Chris Trotman/Getty Images
“I have a theory that the truth is never told during the nine-to-five hours.”
I wrote about this last week but perhaps one of the most dreadful side effects of this labor dispute is all the boring PR. In Thompson’s day writers had taller soapboxes. The Internet wasn’t around so the channels weren’t diluted, you could lay the lumber to someone and they’d really feel it.
Not as much today. We can all talk past one another, pretend we don’t hear the other person, exist in our echo chambers. Both the players and the owners have lived in their echo chambers for the last six months, reaffirming their own opinions and acting as if we, the fans, really gave a damn. Just put the game back on, guys, and quit with the Tweets, letters and conference calls.
Good Cop, No Cop
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“If you're going to be crazy, you have to get paid for it or else you're going to be locked up.”
There have been a few incidents, but am I the only one that thinks the relative quiet from the police concerning NFL players’ conduct over this past off-season has to do with the fact that a paycheck isn’t necessarily guaranteed right now?
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“If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”
Like politics, no one ever knows exactly what’s going on. Always best to keep opinions mitigated.
Know of What You Speak
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“The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
One of his finest quotes from one of his finest books, "The Hell's Angels." This quote is for anyone that hasn't taken an NFL snap that passes judgment on NFL players fighting for the rights to protect their bodies, their brains and their health after they retire. You’ve never taken that hit; you've not stood on that Edge.
Going, Going, Going....
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"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
We’re at that point where this labor dispute could turn pro. I still maintain that we’ll be back to our regular scheduled programming by August. But every day I’m less sure.
Dollars and Sense
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
“Buy the ticket, take the ride. “
Though Thompson’s circumstances for this quote were quite different (take a guess), we need to recognize that if we love the NFL, and it’s billions and billions of dollars, we’re going to have to take everything that comes along with the ride. We watch a piece of commerce on Sundays—don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s a game. We’re getting what we bought with our ticket.
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“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men's reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of "the rat race" is not yet final.”
For the essence of this lockout. We don’t care about the legal specifics or the divisions of the pie. We care that the curtain on our favorite teams, players and our hallowed game has been incinerated; and we now see our Sunday afternoons for what they are: a dogfight for our wallets. Those mold-breaking champions exist in the same rat race we do, however much larger and more brutal it may be.
Rest in Peace
"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!"
In the end, Thompson probably would have advised everyone to forget about football, raid our local liquor store and head for the mountains or the beach. Our time on this rock is too short to care about this sort of business. Or as he also said, "Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously."
God rest the Good Doctor’s soul. He is missed.