Tuesday, November 18, 2008

There Goes Nothing

The Times has folded Play, its quarterly Sunday magazine devoted to sports.

For one possible explanation, it might be worth looking back at the lede on "Here Goes Nothing," the aptly-titled profile of Jets quarterback Bret Favre on the cover of its final issue published on October 27, by Jeff MacGregor. It's a flagrant example of the unfortunate pyrotechnics some writers attempt when given no access to their subject:


And, in times less dire than these, perhaps even true. Still, it’s not the most stirring motivational signage ever posted in an N.F.L. practice facility, where the homilies usually bend to the visceral: getting up once knocked down, honorably bloodying the nose of one’s opponent, that sort of thing.

In fact, “Football Is Important” sounds suspiciously corporate. The kind of toothless sentiment you’d see engraved on the boss’s commemorative desk set or tacked to a bulletin board in the lunchroom. Maybe if we italicize it.

'Football Is Important.'

Eh. But there it is, in forest green letters two feet high painted across the gleaming new entrance to the gleaming new weight room at the gleaming new practice facility of the gleaming New York Jets.

The Atlantic Health Jets Training Center is the team’s new weekday home, a 27-acre campus made entirely of money, set down in the suburban groves 30 miles west and a world away from the Jets’ namesake city. All reflective glass and polished metal, it has about it the deadly serious look of a missile-defense installation or a National Security Agency listening post. Laid out in grids before it are the plush, perfect lawns of four practice fields. There’s one indoors as well, in that blank cathedral of a field house.

This is the sterile factory that the Jets’ owner, Woody Johnson, built to produce important football. Here his players are going to punch the clock and churn out the widgets of success as blueprinted in the Jets’ System. Masterminded by the head coach, Eric Mangini, the Jets’ System — and its various subsystems — is just one of 32 such systems currently deployed across the N.F.L. industrial complex. And as every football fan knows, these systems are all different, yet somehow all the same. Such is American professional football at the beginning of the 21st century: systems for offense; systems for defense; systems for special teams. A system of systems.

It’s all very complicated and scientific and dull. Pro football commentators on television are no longer “color men”; they’re systems analysts. And every N.F.L. playbook is now the size of a Manhattan telephone directory.

For 25 years in the N.F.L. — roughly parallel to the rise of the computer — the System has been ascendant. At once a weapon in the coach’s battle against chaos and a holy talisman against chance and the random bounce, the System is intellectual insurance against human confusion and statistical weakness. It offers a coach not just digital predictability but plausible deniability. The System promises to abate risk, to assuage a coach’s nervous uncertainty. And to assure that he’ll have a job next week. The System is what coaches whistle as they walk past the graveyard.

In any case, welcome to the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center of Florham Park, N.J., so new they’re still laying carpet and grouting tile, a place where Eric Mangini and Woody Johnson had hoped only to engineer a record better than last year’s 4 and 12.

Then something happened. Call it fate. Serendipity. They looked up into the dazzle of high summer and found themselves with the first Jets franchise in 40 years that might actually capture the imagination. And a fast chance to stuff all those decades of not-quite-good-enough back down the history hole.

Brett Favre, football’s last analog quarterback, unretired.

Funny how things work out.

MacGregor used every literary trick imaginable in his 4,314-word piece to hide the fact that Favre wouldn't speak to him; but nothing could camoflauge the fact that it failed at the most fundamental task of a magazine story -- to offer the reader unique insight and access unavailable in the pages of a newspaper.

For daily readers of the Times and its team of top-notch pro football reporter -- Greg Bishop, Joshua Robinson and columnist Harvey Araton, whose November 12 Favre column captured the quarterback with eloquence and insight -- the MacGregor cover story offered nothing new.

Play launched memorably in 2006 with "Roger Federer As Religious Experience," a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace on the tennis star, followed memorably by Michael Lewis's October 2007 meditation on field-goal kickers, "The Kick Is Up And It's...A Career Killer." But any bar set so high presents problems for its editors, and in Play's case those levels were never reached again. Sadly, the Favre profile better exemplified the recent no-impact approach of Play Magazine in its final few issues, and perhaps helped explain its demise.

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