Brett Favre: The Chimercal Trickster of American Sports

by Guest Contributor invisman52, originally published at Max Protect

After Brett Favre threw an interception at the end of the NFC Championship Game–a fatal mistake that cost his team a chance to make the Super Bowl–I knew that if the Saints would go on to win the game in overtime, many in the media would bemoan the end of Favre’s incredible, improbable season.  (At age 40, he had the best statistical season of his career.)  Since the Saints did win the game in the extra period, I was immediately attuned to how those in the football punditry would react to the game.  To be fair to Favre, with the exception of that crucial late-game turnover, he played remarkably.  Yet, in a twisted sort of poetic football justice, and if Favre retires, his last pass as a Minnesota Viking will be an interception.  His last pass a New York Jet: an interception.  His last pass a Green Bay Packer: an interception.  For all of Favre’s success, he has also thrown more interceptions than anyone in the history of the league.

Many will attribute this fact to his longevity and durability, that Favre has played so many games.  This argument is often coupled with the notion that Favre is a “gun-slinger,” risking whatever it takes to help his team win.  But what underlines most of this line of defense is a love affair that many in the media have for Favre; and it is much more than a so-called “man crush.”  What is clear to me is that what courses through pundits’ constant approbation and excusing of Favre is a deep, racialized identification.  That is, many white pundits in the media are quick to absolve Favre of any kind of blame because of his particular brand of whiteness–a whiteness that I argue is consciously performed.

First of all, Brett Favre plays with the kind of selfless abandon that a coach at any level would hope to get from each of his players.  Favre sacrifices his body and is a dedicated worker.  He does not care about flash, only success.  This is seemingly evident even in the ways in which Favre carries himself: he is often rugged and unshaven, shows up to press conferences in dirty hats and “regular clothes” (i.e. not tailored suits, but jeans and t-shirts off the rack), constantly talks about working on the farm and driving his tractor.  He does commercials, but they are not for glamorous products.  (See above: Wrangler Jeans is probably his biggest campaign.)  In sum, Favre emerges as a kind of regular joe, an everyman that through study and perseverance made it to the highest levels of his profession.  Ostensibly, Favre is a model of what self-determination and a tireless work ethic can achieve.

Yet this is only part of the story.  Underneath the scraggly beard and crusty, three-year old baseball cap is a man who is extremely spoiled and selfish.  For instance, when he played with the New York Jets two seasons ago, his teammates described him as “distant.” They were not only talking in psychological terms, but in literal physical ones as well: Favre had a separate locker room from the rest of the team.  Furthermore, Favre is hardly an everyman (even in the world of professional sports) as his Minnesota Vikings’ salary and contract perks attests. When the Vikings reached out to Favre and he agreed to join the team–and after an ongoing back and forth which produced the worst kind of media speculation and titillation–the head coach, Brad Childress, met him at the airport as the quarterback emerged from the owner’s private jet.  This is not what happens to an everyman, but rather to a special man, to an uber-man.  Favre gets singular treatment because, well, he often deserves it.  It is too bad, though, that the media refuses to acknowledge the whole picture.

But some might quibble with my argument and suggest that Favre’s everyday guy act takes place where it matters most: on the field.  To that, I say the chimera of sports has fooled you again.  No doubt, Favre likes to joke around and jump into his teammates’ arms after they score a TD.  This looks great, like he is “a kid” just “having fun out there.”  And to many, this is his greatest attribute, it is what makes Favre “Favre.”  (There is an article on the Vikings site that calls him “boyish, bionic” Favre.)  However, he is hardly just a kid out there chucking it around because, as this season shows, he is incredibly spoiled and does not follow orders.  As many documented at the end of 2009 when the Vikings were going through a late-season swoon, losing 3 out of 4, Favre refused to come out of the game as the coach ordered.  He also changed many plays at the line of scrimmage, plays that the coach wanted the team to run.  What was remarkable about this episode, is that many in the media excused Favre for his belligerence.  Former quarterback and ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer went so far as to say that Brett Favre was bigger than the NFL and that Favre knows more about the game than Childress and ought to able to do what he wants. Only Favre can be called bigger than the NFL–the center of the ultimate team sport and entertainment juggernaut.  The problem for Dilfer and others of his ideological ilk, is that Favre is not bigger than the league (and, to be frank, not even the best quarterback during the time of his career.)

Now that the Vikings are out of the playoffs, the speculation has begun as to whether or not Favre will retire.  This off-season song and dance has been going on for at least the past 3 years and it is tired.  For those that do not follow sports, allow me to offer a brief precis of this exasperating variety show: Brett Favre goes to Mississippi.  On his farm he relaxes with his kids and goes “fishin’” and “huntin.’”  Interested teams kowtow to Favre and beg him to come back and play.  There is a period of about 8 weeks in which he changes his answer–yes-no-maybe-yes-no-maybe…  The team eventually moves on without Favre and promises another player that he will be starting quarterback.  After off-season workouts and the first two preseason games are over–the most grueling part of the year–Favre decides he can’t give up the game (NFL: I wish I could quit you, he intones) and supplants whomever thought he was getting his shot to play.  This script is not one of an everyman, but one of an extremely talented, in high demand, and pampered player.

The question becomes, then, where do I see an operation of race in (the coverage of) all this.  I argue that a good deal of the media and fans look past (or refuse to see) Favre’s damning qualities and instead fixate on his boyish, rugged, and everyday performances.  They see Favre and see someone whom they could be like.  He looks like a regular dude out there having a blast; it looks like something we all could do.  They project on to Favre an aura of normalcy; he becomes the aspirational figure.  (It could never be Peyton Manning, as he is too mechanical and cerebral.  It could never be Tom Brady, as he is too statuesque and immaculate.  Favre is the regular one.)  Where race comes in is that white men in particular too easily identify and feel for Favre because they get “the white guy” Favre, where that comes from, and its quotidian tastes for jeans and a fishin’ pole.  He is like Andrew Jackson in that way: a kind of working-class hero who on the surface is of and about the folk and its interests, yet when you pull away the layers you see extraordinary privilege and singular qualities.

After the game last night, I turned to NFL Gameday Final on NFL network.  Rich Eisen, the host, seemed to be emotionally shaken-up that Favre lost; so, too, did Steve Marricui.  Both men are white.  Marriuci’s upset is understandable as he is personally close with Favre.  But Eisen said he was upset because he hated to see Favre go down; he is just an everyday guy out there trying to win one for the team.  Deion Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Michael Irvin were not buying his line of argument and wanted to get back to what happened on the field of play–namely, an awful interception that, in a crucial way, cost his team an opportunity to win the NFC Championship at the end of regulation.  Sanders and Irvin are both black.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that they did not identify with the Favre narrative.

Rather, I argue that when we look for heroes and aspirational figures, we are hard-wired to look first at those with whom we share racial identification.  Of course this is not wholly problematic, per se.  However, it too often forces us to miss the rotted forest for the verdant and shimmering trees.

The case of Favre is particularly thorny because it is so multidimensional, and conflictingly so.  On the one hand, his charm, bodily sacrifice, and hard work (during the season) are ideal models for young athletes.  At the same time, however, the specialized treatment and expectation of privilege that accompanies Favre is exactly the opposite of what we say we want sports to teach our children.  Contra Dilfer, it is atrocious to excuse a player’s disregard of a coach by saying he is bigger than the game or league itself.  Can you image someone saying that about Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds, or the Williams sisters?

In the final analysis, when he finally does retire what must be kept in mind is this: Favre is a first ballot Hall of Fame quarterback who had the greatest durability in the history of the NFL.  At the same time, he was not an everyday guy and is full of personal and professional flaws that too must be accounted for.

I understand that all people need heroes; it is just the reasons many give for their admiration of Favre too often glosses over the totality of the man.  (But perhaps that is part and parcel of hero-worship.)  If people consider his entire record, they might begin to see Favre as he truly is: one of the greatest slingers and trickster figures in the history of professional sports.