Two Sundays ago, I watched the AFC Conference game with some friends. Picture a Venn Diagram; label one circle “Fans of the New England Patriots” and the other “People Who Have Studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The person who exists at the intersection of those two circles was sitting on a couch across from me, anxiously eating chips and guacamole. As the Patriots slipped further and further behind the Broncos, talk turned to Arthurian legend, and to knightliness at large.
Peyton Manning, our group quickly agreed, was the Lancelot of quarterbacks. Like Lancelot, he’s unquestionably the most talented of his cadre—a fact confirmed when he was, to no one’s surprise, named this year’s league MVP. He’s also, like Lancelot, doltish and unbeautiful: in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lancelot is, to quote King Arthur, “the ugliest man I have ever seen”; Peyton can’t claim that honor, but he does have a grotesquely large forehead, scarred by the Riddell helmet he is forced to squeeze over it. And both Lancelot and Peyton are doomed to be surpassed by a dim younger relative—in the former’s case, it’s the unbearably pure Galahad, Lancelot’s son, the only knight allowed to glimpse the Holy Grail; in Peyton’s case, it’s his younger brother, Eli, whose childishly transparent expressions of disappointment have been turned into exemplars of gif art, and who already has two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one. Which made Tom Brady his Tristan: not quite as skilled, but achingly handsome.
Metaphors aside, there is a sort of gallantry we expect from our athletes. NFL players do not, of course, swear their troth to a code of chivalry; nevertheless there are rules, largely unspoken, to which professional athletes are expected to adhere. Off the field, if not on, while speaking to the press, if not while concussing one another, we want our athletes, like our knights, “to refrain from the wanton giving of offense”; “to eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit”; and “to live by honor and for glory.”
In practice, this means the language that players—and therefore coaches and columnists and journalists—use to talk about a complicated and dangerous sport has been voided of meaningful content. Some rebel against the code: on one end of the spectrum we have Bill Belichick, head coach of the Patriots, who so stubbornly refuses to say anything quotable that his press conferences resemble performance art. Back in October, he was questioned about the probability of his star tight-end Rob Gronkowski returning after having sustained a string of injuries:
Question: How much closer do you sense we are to seeing Gronkowski in a game?
Belichick: Day to day.
Question: Is it safe to say he’s making progress?
Belichick: He’s day to day.
Question: Do you feel like he’s closer to a return now than he was at this time last week?
Belichick: He’s day to day.
Question: Physically, how did he look in practice last week?
Belichick: He practiced.
On the other end of the knightly spectrum is Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who chooses instead to violate the sacred contract forged between the athlete and the fan by speaking his mind. Later that Sunday, for instance, the Seahawks won the NFC conference game on an interception caused by Sherman, who tipped a ball that might otherwise have been caught by San Francisco Forty-Niners wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Had Crabtree caught the ball, it would have been a game-winning touchdown for the Niners; instead, Seattle is headed to the Super Bowl. In his interview with Erin Andrews after the game, Sherman’s excitement was obvious. “I’m the best corner in the game!” he declared. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you’re going to get.”
The reaction to Sherman’s adrenaline-fueled boasts was so immediate, vicious, and racially tinged—on Twitter, words like “thug” and “monkey” were thrown around; Deadspin rounded up the more offensive responses—that he felt compelled to address the controversy in a column for Sports Illustrated.
There were several other thoughtful ripostes—from Grantland, The Guardian, and Salon—and in The New Yorker, Amy Davidson sounded a somber note: “Some people might find it convenient to dismiss players as thugs. Discussions about the ravages of the game often come around to questions posed mostly to give fans some dispensation, such as: Given where these guys come from, how good were their other choices? What worth did their futures hold away? That sort of rationalizing serves only to make watching a beautiful but violent game less uncomfortable. And that’s the most thuggish thought of all.”
A few days after the Conference Championships, my friend—the Pats-loving Gawain enthusiast—announced he wouldn’t be watching football next season. “For which of the many excellent reasons?” I asked. His reply was blunt: “The physical and mental damage that is integral to the game.” This is precisely the kind of honest answer that adherence to the code of chivalrous clichés prevents most ESPN reporters from giving.
It’s also an answer I’m not quite ready to give. I grew up watching football. I was five when the Niners, my home team, traded Joe Montana to the Chiefs, and if I don’t actually recall the event, I’ve nevertheless deemed it important enough to fabricate memories around. In late childhood, I became a Green Bay Packers fan. My father, also a Packers fan, and my grandfather, a Niners fan, and I would watch football together every week: always Monday night, sometimes an afternoon game on Sunday too. Voice is supposed to be one of the first things you forget about a person when he dies, but I can still hear my grandfather on my answering machine late on a Sunday evening, in my early adolescence; I’d missed the Niners-Packers game earlier that day, and he felt duty bound to report that those bums I so loved had triumphed. There are lots of reasons I enjoy football—the moments of surprising elegance, made all the more remarkable because they are set against a backdrop of grinding brutality; the expression on a bro’s face when I, the brunette in glasses, yell at the television about a blown pass interference call—but that message from my grandfather is the closest I can come to explaining why I keep watching it despite a host of reasons not to, many of them increasingly convincing.
One of the players who will suit up today is a thirty-two-year-old wide receiver for the Broncos named Wes Welker. He’ll be easy to spot: at 5’9”, he’s smaller than most of the other guys; plus, he’ll be wearing an unusually large helmet. The helmet is supposed to provide his head—his brain, really—with the extra protection he desperately needs after suffering two concussions in four games at the tail end of the regular season. Undaunted by injury, Welker is a man who seems comfortable with the chivalric ideals encoded in the media circus that precedes the Super Bowl. Like a good knight, he’s determined “to persevere to the end in any enterprise begun.” Asked on Tuesday whether he would play in the Super Bowl if his doctors advised against it, he replied, “You want to be out there. It’s the Super Bowl. Like, this is what you dream about. You’re gonna be there. I don’t care what it takes.”
Miranda Popkey is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.