Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'Boys Will Be Boys': The Superhuman Debauchery of the Dallas Cowboys

Schadenfreude fans enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon Sunday as the Dallas Cowboys, who'd been predicted to go to the Super Bowl, suffered a 44-6 drubbing by the Philadelphia Eagles. That the Eagles underperformed all season and slipped into the playoffs while dashing the Cowboys' postseason hopes via their worst loss since owner Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989 was all gravy. Hating Dallas is relatively easy and, for most people, signs of a healthy mind and functioning heart, and anyone who found themselves in that common position Sunday night probably went to bed smiling.

Explaining the hate isn't difficult. Years ago, Dallas had the presumption to anoint themselves America's Team, an obnoxiousness that seems to afflict mainly southern teams.* True, Dallas was once very popular. As the only southern NFL franchise from 1960-1966, they netted a greater audience from that region and from portions of the country that identified with it and enjoyed regular national programming from networks hoping to capitalize on those markets. Moreover, as a consistently successful team for two decades, they accreted bandwagoners who like the reassurance of rooting for a team that will probably win. (The other successful southern team, Miami, doesn't fit into both categories precisely because the people who identify as true southern good old boys and who have the racist Civil War totems on the bumper stickers of their trucks to prove it don't tend to identify with a city filled with that many Yankees, Jews and brown people.)

* — The only other team to do this is baseball's Atlanta Braves. While Atlanta did at one time benefit from greater nationwide coverage via the cable Superstation TBS, that distinction was counterbalanced by the existence of Chicago's Superstation WGN (which also garnered nationwide interest for the White Sox and Cubs), the fact that the Braves can't even sell out their own home ballpark during playoff games and the inescapable reality that many people couldn't fucking stand the Braves or the south in general.

In baseball, there's no question that the Yankees are historically "America's team," not necessarily for universal fandom but at least for what they once represented. There's a reason why American soldiers in WWII tried to establish whether strangers were spies by asking them to name Yankees starters: aside from Coca Cola and Lend-Lease, they were our biggest export to the world, and anyone who didn't know them couldn't possibly have been on our side.

Establishing an America's Team for football is a trickier proposition, but I think if any team earns the distinction, it's the Pittsburgh Steelers. For several reasons:
1. An old and established team.
2. Classic American industrial city with working-class roots.
3. Great stadium, within walking distance of tons of neighborhoods, as close to the heart of the city as one can reasonably demand in this day and age.
4. Thirty years of consistent competence and frequent excellence.
5. Enormous nationwide appeal.
6. Appeal across all racial lines.
7. They philosophically represent a lot of what is great about America in that their owner, Dan Rooney, insisted on and helped pass the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minorities for head coaching positions. Not only is watching the Steelers rewarding from a "good football" standpoint, it's rewarding in a "good citizen" sense.

None of this made the Cowboys America's team, of course. They were The South's team, which certainly doesn't represent America, since most Americans aren't from there and many wish it would go away forever or at least until it socially enters even the late 20th century. They then hemorrhaged this loyalty as teams like the Falcons, Saints, Oilers/Titans, Buccaneers, Jaguars and Texans gained local attention. And they were the team of the despicable frontrunning fan, the fickle visitor who most fans consider part of an untouchable caste. They then lost this fanbase too in the 1980s, as the team slid into mediocrity and decline. It couldn't have happened to nicer people — except, of course, Tom Landry, the polite fedora-wearing head coach who looks like everyone's tight-assed Presbyterian grandfather and who genuinely seems to be a nice and classy guy.

Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, Jeff Pearlman's biography of the 1989-1997's Cowboys teams, opens at this nadir in the franchise's fortunes. How could the team turn it around? Where would they find the players and coaches they'd need? All these are valid questions, and the book answers them in a thoughtful and entertaining manner. Even though they don't really matter. Because while the story of how the Cowboys turned things around, won three championships and then sank back into mediocrity is interesting, it's fairly well known by sports fans. It's also far, far less interesting than how they managed to do all that while being a team owned, coached and comprised almost exclusively of horrible human beings.

Take, for instance, the case of self-described "Playmaker" Michael Irvin, who probably deserves as much credit as any one player for pioneering the taunting, dancing jackass breed of soi-disant NFL superstar. While the actual narrative of the book begins with Landry's firing, Pearlman puts a teaser in the first chapter, a glimpse of the final days of the dynasty, when Irvin stabs a teammate in the throat for making him wait to get a haircut. Later revelations in the book include:
That Irvin once punched out a girl in high school.
He orchestrated massive orgies on team flights, directing which women would do what to whom. (Though Pearlman doesn't indicate who had final say on the matter, Cowboys personnel were furnished with a facebook of single airline flight attendants and chose the most attractive and loose.)
Took over the "Hoopsters," a basketball team of Cowboys players that participated in exhibition games at charity functions, and used the team as a personal fundraising and pussy-wrangling tool. The Hoopsters frequently charged anywhere from $10,000-$25,000 just to show up, plus expenses, then left as soon as possible to fuck as many local women as were willing. The games weren't much better. Irvin once punched a volunteer referee in the face, knocking loose his dental plate, in front of an audience filled with children.
Was arrested for possession of marijuana and 10.3 grams of cocaine while with two strippers/prostitutes. Showed up to his arraignment in a floor-length mink coat.
Indeed, the only drawback to Pearlman's coverage of Irvin's many controversies is that — amazingly — he doesn't go far enough. The book ends with Irvin's sobbing, mawkishly trite Hall of Fame speech about fatherhood and goodness, essentially jumping forward about nine years to 2007 and painting him as a reformed man. This ignores Irvin's 2005 arrest for possession of marijuana paraphernalia and his hilariously unique explanation that it belonged to someone else, honest, and that he meant to throw it away. Pearlman also glosses over Irvin's strangely vague departure from ESPN.*

* — Whether Irvin and the network parted ways because of behind-the-scenes shenanigans (the more one reads about ESPN, the more it sounds like one in three on-air personalities is basically four drinks away from being a date rapist), his near incomprehensibility, almost terminal stupidity or his heroic obnoxiousness, no one can say. What can be said is that he accomplished something rare in his time there, because standing out as uniquely stupid on ESPN is about as improbable and noteworthy as being singled out as the filthiest person in a village buried in sewage.

This presentation gives off the sense of a tale of redemption, when the jury is obviously still out on Irvin. Stylistically, it makes sense that Pearlman would have wanted to end the book on a more upbeat and heartwarming note after taking his subjects from the heights of championships to injury, retirement and incompetence, but it seems a little dishonest. Irvin had clearly established a pattern of adultery, hedonism and/or substance abuse for over 15 years, so ending the book with almost unfiltered moralism and sentimentality merely 15 months after his last drug arrest seems like trying to force the story.

The story doesn't need forcing, and it doesn't need redemption. It's so comprehensively indulgent, tacky and shallow that it needs no lessons learned or tidy wrap-ups to be entertaining. Leave that to all the other sports books. This one has Charles Haley putting his massive dick on his desk during team meetings or masturbating in front of teammates while describing what he found attractive about their wives. It has a giant McMansion nicknamed "The White House" where the team fucked prostitutes and did drugs, because the old bar where they fucked prostitutes and dig drugs (and from which they drove home drunk — sometimes nearly fatally) got to be too much of a hassle.

This book has the team's owner going to The White House, fucking women on his plane for what appears to be a comically short duration before ejaculation and drunkenly offering female journalists mustache rides. This book has head coach Jimmy Johnson divorcing his wife and ignoring his children to focus on football, while his successor Barry Switzer turned his Super Bowl hotel room into a hooker-filled bacchanalia. There's something for the whole family in here.

What makes this book even more entertaining is that it's probably all true. With four pages of bibliography, over 350 endnotes and a surprising amount of disclosure from former players, Pearlman seems to have done his homework and included all the sizzling details without getting into schlocky territory. Its only two shortcomings stem from a forced and slightly schmaltzy ending and Pearlman's periodic tendency to insert wisecracks or sarcastic oh-and-by-the-way asides that he obviously thinks are very witty but are usually devoid of humor. (Perhaps I only read it that way. I've experienced Pearlman's writing elsewhere online, and in much of it one gets the sense that nobody can be as big a fan of Jeff Pearlman as Jeff Pearlman. Which is just as well, since somebody's got to laugh at his jokes, and clearly I'm not the guy to do it.) Both are cases of his forcing the narrative and getting between it and the reader. Most of the time, he's alert enough to understand that the story is fascinating enough that he should just get out of the way and let it move on its own.

Cowboy haters, of course, will love it. The book establishes beyond a shadow of doubt that players of all races and class had about as much character and restraint as half-starved rats let loose in an unsanitary Taco Bell. Best of all, the book ends in the team's impotence and irrelevancy and lays the groundwork for this year's collapse. The centrifugal forces of out-of-control players under the guidance of a feckless cipher of a coach tore the Cowboys team apart. Yet, even today, Jerry Jones vows to stick with a similar incompetent cipher of a coach, precisely because he "regrets firing Chan Gailey," a similar coach, "after two seasons" during the team's late-1990s collapse. Meanwhile, just as egos tore that team apart, current wide receiver and prima donna Terrell Owens* throws his coaches under the bus, while quarterback Tony Romo explains to the press how fans "don't understand schemes," and Pacman Jones seems determined to commit all the felonies the 1990s Cowboys never got around to.

* — There's really no other place to put this, but for the few people who don't know: Terrell Owens is probably the only person other than Rush Limbaugh of whom it's safe to say that a great many Americans wish he had successfully overdosed on hydrocodone. The "controversy" section of his wikipedia entry is as long as every other part of the entry combined and makes for an interesting case study in how arguably the second or third best athlete ever to play wide receiver could make himself so unbearable that some fans of the sport prefer to pretend he never existed.

In addition to all his coaches, Owens has thrown every quarterback he played with under the bus, most famously Jeff Garcia, who he ludicrously accused of being gay. Not that it's ludicrous that Garcia could be gay. It's irrelevant that he might be gay — well, except maybe to his wife. No, what's ludicrous is the idea that it fucking mattered at all. What was Garcia supposed to do because of being a "gay" quarterback? Drop back and ignore Owens all alone in the end zone and fire the ball into triple coverage because he hoped a grateful safety with three interceptions on the game would let him give him a handjob? Take sack after sack because he found the idea of the defense getting penetration up the middle deeply arousing? Owens' whole assertion was so staggeringly meaningless that the only thing shining through from it was his contemptible bigotry.

In the end, Pearlman's book is about a cast of characters, but it's also about character. Whatever you may say about Jimmy Johnson's — and chucking his family to spend more time megalomaniacally berating his players says a lot — he still had the presence of mind to focus the team's destructive tendencies on the game and on everyone who stood in their way. Under Switzer and later Gailey, all the restraints came off, and collapse ensued. A case can be made that fans can look on in horror and detractors can look on in glee at the same process happening today.

Rating: 4
Even educated football fans who know the team's story back and forth will enjoy the behind-the-scenes excess. Boys Will Be Boys sets a new standard for the sports drug abuse/orgy tell-all and takes its place as a far more accurate and verifiable sports version of the Hammer of the Gods-type biography. Although the book doesn't offer any staggering human or football insights and instead presents a pretty workmanlike biography, the access and salacious detail are more than enough to place it above the pack of sports books.