Antonio Brown is a person who catches a football. He does not put the ball in the air—another man does that. But among athletes who can catch a football after another man has put it in the air, Antonio Brown is one of the best at doing that. It’s only natural, then, that our modern information society pays close attention to his comings and goings.
Antonio Brown is also an asshole. He once threatened to retire because he couldn’t find a helmet he liked. He missed training camp because a cryotherapy machine burned off the soles of his feet. He put a private phone call with his head coach on YouTube. And all that was only this summer.
Here you have a gentleman who can catch a football and is an asshole to boot—a figure bound to make the information society hot under the collar. “Homina, homina,” it says. (The information society is Jackie Gleason.) As his transgressions mounted, all of a sudden, every tweet, every Instagram post, every cable news clip—every tweet of a cable news clip featuring an Instagrammed screenshot of a tweet—was about Antonio Brown.
Even in 2019, it is possible to be surprised by the extent to which our technology, media, and culture are hard-wired to make us look at assholes. They are wired to do other things, too, some of them wonderful. At a deep level, though, the code is optimized for assholes. Consider the headlines we scan, the updates we scroll through—so many of them boil down to “look at this asshole.” The headline of this column, for instance.
Assholes are inevitable. We like to look at them because for a moment, they can make our own character flaws seem like mere foibles. “I may have committed insurance fraud today, but at least I didn’t burn the bottom of my feet in a fancy freezer!” That kind of thing—harmless. Furthermore, we are obligated, as citizens, to keep tabs on some assholes because they are powerful, or prominent.
Therein lies the rub. The glitch in the system. As the tendrils of the information society swelled, as the “attention economy” became a thing, it also became possible for certain assholes to grow so big that they form a sort of informational gravity well. We pay attention because they’re big, our attention makes them grow, and we fail to look away until we can’t look away. Antonio Brown is one such instance of this glitch. He has passed the asshole event horizon.
You have seen it happen before in a less important context than the NFL: the leadership of the free world. As an asshole consumed our national media in the mid-2010s, many observers thought to ask, “Why are we looking at this asshole?” The keepers of the information society had an answer at every turn. First, “It’s just a sideshow, it doesn’t matter if we cover it.” Then, “People are paying attention to this guy, so we should cover him.” Or, if you were a Silicon Valley type, “The algorithm said so.”
The information society will always find a way to look at the asshole.
Before long the asshole was a contender, a nominee, a president. We are compelled to look. Will we ever be allowed to stop? To find out, stay tuned, forever.
Brown has plunged the football world into the same attention trap. After an escalating series of tantrums, Brown was released last week by his new team, the Oakland Raiders. (They had acquired the rights to his services after Brown pissed off his previous team, the Pittsburgh Steelers.) Minutes later, Brown signed with the New England Patriots. This development was inexorable, for it was the best way to ensure further attention for the asshole in question. The Patriots are a perennial media phenomenon, a team whose drama is reliably amplified for consumption on the national stage.
Why? Well, America simply loves the New England Patriots that much. Whether it’s huggable coach Bill Belichick or relatable everyman quarterback Tom Brady, your average Joe and Jane Lunchsack can’t get enough of these guys. This year, after the Pats won a pulse-poundingly low-scoring Super Bowl LIII (“Battle Of The Punters”), New England hoisted its sixth Lombardi Trophy, and a nation of well-wishers raised their glasses to cheer, “Here’s to six more!”
Into this joyous scene enters the villain Antonio Brown. His transfer to Foxborough raises the unthinkable question: Is it possible for America to hate the New England Patriots?
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. This is the actual question: Is it possible for America to hate the New England Patriots more than it already does? But before anyone had a chance to form an answer, the Brown frenzy took another exhausting turn. Brown now stands accused, in a civil lawsuit, of sexually assaulting a woman who used to train him. The glitch is proceeding right on schedule. This is the stage of asshole metastasis in which the asshole forces us to take sides.
Very few people would take Antonio Brown’s side at this juncture. But there will be some, primarily in New England (for the moment), and that is enough. The relative proportion of the tribes is not important. The asshole only needs the tribal lines to form—needs us to define ourselves in terms of what we think about the asshole, such that it feels morally wrong to avert our gaze.
I’m a Patriots fan. (Aren’t we all Patriots fans on some level? No? Not at all? You’re throwing rotten vegetables at me? I withdraw the motion.) I am desperate for Brown to disappear. I do not want to read the asshole’s Instagram posts. I do not want to hear sports-TV troglodytes use the asshole to relitigate the politics of sexual consent. I do not even want to see the asshole catch touchdowns from universally beloved quarterback Tom Brady.
Nonetheless, I’m caught in the trap like any other fan. I couldn’t bring myself to put a picture of Brown at the top of the column, so I didn’t, but after that minor act of resistance, I did spend a thousand words talking about him. The sheer scale of the asshole made me feel obligated to do so. Yet now, by the same token, I feel obliged to stop.
The Oakland Raiders have rid themselves of their turbulent wide receiver, but that is just one of many goodbyes for the Raiders in the coming months. They are poised to bid farewell to the entire city of Oakland, as the team will move into a new Las Vegas stadium for the 2020 season. As a result, Sunday’s home game against the Kansas City Chiefs is one of the last opportunities to enjoy a beautiful oddity: Pro football being played on a baseball diamond.
The Raiders share Oakland Coliseum (also known, distastefully, as RingCentral Coliseum) with the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Multi-sport stadiums used to be a common sight, in the days before it was standard practice for an NFL owner to blackmail local taxpayers into buying him a shiny palace of his very own. Now, the Raiders are the last remaining pro team to share space with a baseball club. When the 2019 season ends for the A’s, so too will the tradition of NFL linemen scuffling in the infield dirt.
I will miss the awkward vision of a 30-yard-line running through the spot where third base belongs. For a thoroughly autumnal sport like football, the presence of the baseball field poking through the gridiron served as a lingering vestige of summer, reassuring us that the deepest chill was still months away. It also implicitly humbled the league. The NFL wants to be your all-consuming source of entertainment, and the outline of the basepaths ran counter to this—a prominent reminder that there was literally another game in town.
The electrifyingly talented Kansas City quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, was a top baseball prospect before he decided to pursue a career in the NFL. You may be aware of this because it is mentioned almost every time he plays. (Broadcasters are always floored by the notion that an athlete could be good at more than one thing.) Given his baseball roots, it is possible that Mahomes will be confused when he enters Oakland Coliseum this Sunday, and he will instinctively try to throw a baseball to his teammates instead of a football, which is against the rules. Unlikely? Perhaps, but it is nonetheless the Raiders’ best hope for victory.
Ad Man X is an award-winning creative executive at a major national agency in Chicago. He told me that he has been “toiling in the ad salt mines since you were in short pants,” which confused me. Ad Man X has overseen TV ad campaigns, including Super Bowl commercials, for a variety of the major global brands that bring such joy to our daily lives. He has agreed to share his expertise with the likes of you and me, under cover of anonymity.
(Ad Man X will not comment on any TV commercials in which he is professionally involved—all participation in Block & Tackle is completely unprofessional.)
I asked our mole in the advertising industry to review three commercials that aired during the weekend’s NFL broadcasts, probably while you were looking at your phone.
A man watches a video on his computer in which Martha Stewart tells him how to make a hamburger and French fries. As he is cutting a potato, he slices off the tip of a finger and, in his panic, falls to his death.
Block & Tackle: I’m always dubious of the strategy of showing something horrible happening, and then your logo appears on the screen. You can hear the sound of this fellow’s flailing corpse thudding into a vehicle. A woman screams in horror. Then, “Just Postmate it.” Is this an effective approach, in your experience?
Ad Man X: Only if you work at Postmates. I don’t think anybody knows—I think if you showed this to [the average person], they would say, “What the hell is Postmates, and what does it have to do with this guy’s severed finger?”
B&T: I had to take a second to remember what Postmates was because, yeah, I didn’t make the connection either.
AMX: They at least had the guts not to fill all 30 seconds with “reasons to believe,” as advertising people would say, but they could have given me something.
B&T: “Reasons to believe”? What a sickening phrase.
AMX: I just left a meeting where we were berated for “not enough RTBs.” You—
B&T: Wait, wait. Was it described in exactly those terms? “RTBs”?
AMX: Yeah! You have to scoop out a little bit of your soul every time someone says “RTBs.” You would be surprised by all the little acronyms we have.
B&T: This ad features Martha Stewart. I gather it’s part of a series with Martha. In each one, Martha is trying to teach someone how to make a nice meal. Then some terrible thing befalls them, because they were trying to improve themselves. I notice that many celebrity-endorsement commercials take place in this weird zone where, clearly, the celebrity wanted to come in contact with as few human beings as possible. So they’re talking to someone through the TV, or a phone hotline, whatever.
AMX: Oh, yes. This reeks of a great agent. You know that the company went to them and said, “Martha’s agent, we’re going to drive a dump truck full of money up to her house.” And Martha’s agent said, “Great. We’re gonna give you three hours, and she’s gonna do it from her house.” [Laughs.]
I applaud her agent. You can tell that the [advertising] agency and the client [Postmates] got fucked. They were probably too far down the conceptual road. I’m sure that the [Postmates] CMO was all on board with Martha Stewart. Her agent could sense this and then just absolutely screwed everyone.
AMX: The most glaring thing in this commercial is the terrible digital effect of his finger.
B&T: Clearly they decided, “No blood. That’s not going to pass muster with networks.” But their solution…I thought he was doing that old dad magic trick where you lose your finger.
AMX: That’s what I thought! Then I realized he really did cut his finger off. There’s no blood—was it cauterized? Was he chopping with Luke’s lightsaber?
And also, I find this hysterical: There’s the classic, “We have to let our audience know he’s not dead.” Usually, that’s done by the off-camera, “Ohh, that’s gotta hurt!” Or, “I’m okay!” Here, they at least let Martha deliver the line, “I’m sure he’s fine.”
It always cracks me up. “I’m falling off Mount Everest!”—and you’re like, he’s clearly dead. But then: “Uhh, I’m okay!”
Two parents, unaccountably filmed in an extreme widescreen aspect ratio, soothe their newborn twins in a nursery while the mother watches football highlights on her telephone. After explaining the features of the NFL app to her partner, the mother notes that she is partaking in “free phone football,” and the parents repeat this phrase many times, with no evident motivation, as their children slumber.
AMX: Did you come away from that knowing the message they wanted you to hear? God.
B&T: Obviously, the idea here is that if you yell a thing a lot of times, people will remember it. Although, the phrase they chose is so awkward—I guess knowingly so? In any case, the hope is that people will remember it and maybe even say it to their friends when they’re loading wood in their truck, or eating chicken wings. But you can’t just yell something, can you? You have to be a little more shrewd about it.
AMX: Right. The difference between this and “Where’s The Beef?”—the gulf is gigantic. [Laughs.] No joke, after watching this, I did my RTB meeting. And on the way back, knowing I was going to speak to you, I thought, “What was the thing they kept saying in that commercial?” Not 20 minutes later, I had completely forgotten it.
B&T: Is it because the commercial is bad, or the phrase is bad, or both?
AMX: I think it’s all of the above. “Free phone football” is just—I kept wanting it to be that amazing football phone that I could have gotten in the ’80s from Sports Illustrated. That would have made more sense than this “free phone football” shit.
B&T: Yes. You want a free football phone. Me too.
We end with the mom looking at a random clip of the 49ers and mustering a minimum level of enthusiasm. I guess this is the “RTB.”
AMX: What was great—since we’re hammering RTBs—they bookended your RTBs. They open up with what the app does, and then they hammer you over the head with this Hail Mary of a catchphrase, and if you’re still with us, she’s going to repeat what she said at the beginning.
B&T: “Hail Mary of a catchphrase.” That is so right. “Pleeease? PLEASE will you love this? Ooooohhhh, we hope!”
AMX: I always have such sympathy for the creative people, the advertising people who have to present this. I can just see our Don Draper standing in front of a client saying, “I’ve got three words for you. Free. Phone. Football.” And the client says, “That’s it!”
Then when they’re editing this, the poor creatives are like, “Oh. We’ve made a terrible mistake.”
B&T: But it was too late. That’s a recurring theme. At some point, a bad idea gains so much momentum that it cannot be stopped.
AMX: Yes. They’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars, and… [Sighs.]
A flurry of ostensibly meaningful statistics, calculated by an Amazon computer, splashes across footage of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson throwing a pass. An ersatz TV announcer gives voice to Amazon’s vacuous mathematics, ultimately concluding that Wilson is a “monster.” Wilson appears, alone, in a child’s bedroom, wearing a fuzzy lei and a unicorn horn. “Rahrr,” he says. End of commercial.
B&T: At least “Free Phone Football” has a discernible idea. This Amazon ad, I—I don’t know what. I don’t know.
AMX: I don’t—I can’t—I don’t know what they’re trying to do at all in this. Russell Wilson in the kid’s room? Again: He rolled in, he sat down, he delivered that line, and he cashed his check. Clearly they’re paying for his likeness and the use of his footage. But they’re like, [Adopts pleading voice.] “Well, could you—could you come in and deliver a line?” And his agent’s like, “Yup! We’ll give you 38 seconds.”
What baffles me is that—and you know this better than me—the NFL graphics packages are better than this. What you were just watching during the game was infinitely better than the representations of the stats that they’re showing. Amazon is a technology company. My wife always says, “If you can’t make your food look good in the commercial, I’m not coming to your restaurant.” They are not making the technology look good.
It also screams, a little bit, that at some point they realized how flat-footed the concept is, so they tried to goose it up with some early-2000s ESPN style announcer. I can’t remember what the one line was… [Starts to watch commercial again.]
B&T: Don’t bother. I’ve got it in my notes. This was, at least, the choicest line for me: “He’s forced to scramble like eggs in the morning.”
AMX: Yes! That’s what I was trying to find. Oh, God. At least the voiceover guy was paid handsomely to say that terrible, terrible line.
B&T: “Eggs in the morning”? First of all, you can scramble eggs anytime. Second of all, these lines aren’t that hard to come up with, as evidenced by the fact that SportsCenter anchors did it many times a day for years. Not that they weren’t talented. But if you have a qualified writer, and you lock them in a room for an afternoon, they can come up with something better than “He’s forced to scramble like eggs in the morning.” What happened?
AMX: What happened was, they asked the client to approve the line. Nothing sucks the comedy out of writing like having an MBA decide what’s funny. And remember, I am Advertising Guy X. I love all clients! But I’m sure they said to the client, “Okay, here’s 10 lines.” And the client, in the back of their head, thought, “Hmm, what’s the worst line I could pick?” [Laughs.]
“Scrambled eggs!” Don’t let the client pick the lines.
B&T: I thought online media was a sausage factory, but you’re making me momentarily grateful for it.
AMX: Oh, yeah. The grass is always more horrifying on the advertising side of the fence.
I have a healthy respect for the danger that NFL players face every time they suit up for a game. Yet I find the perils faced by the rank-and-file on the sidelines even more daunting. Maybe this is because, while I get a vicarious thrill from the exploits of the players, I never imagine I could do what they do. I don’t put myself in their position. As for the guys who hold the big sticks that mark first-down yardage—yes, I like to think I could take on that assignment. But I never would, since I’d spend my whole workday in terror that a localized storm of muscle, armor, and drug-enhanced rage might, at any moment, thunder into my soft and fleshy frame.
Members of NFL sideline “chain crews” confront this horror on a regular basis. Seen above is just one example, from last weekend’s Atlanta Falcons-Minnesota Vikings contest. Watch the guy in the bumblebee pinnie holding the first-down marker. As Vikings running back Dalvin Cook careens toward the edge of the field, it slowly dawns on our hero that mayhem is headed his way. He makes a lumbering attempt to vacate the path of destruction, but he is understandably hampered by his equipment, a giant rod with a circle on top of it. After crumpling to the ground, our hero rises and returns to his post without delay. Remarkable. I would have left the rod on the ground and exited the stadium immediately, never looking back, and stopping only if I saw one of those places that sells ice cream in a helmet.
Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that simulates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the one true victor in each contest. Put simply, Block & Tackle picks are guaranteed to be correct. When a game’s outcome varies from this column’s prediction, the game is wrong.
In Week 1 NFL action, 11 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, while five games did not, indicating that they took place in a defective reality. If you viewed one of the aberrant games, consult your nearest local astrophysicist or starship bartender for help rejoining the correct timeline. (Overall season record: 11-5)
Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. CAROLINA PANTHERS (ESPN) (timestamped pick)
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Fox)
Minnesota Vikings vs. GREEN BAY PACKERS (Fox)
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Fox): The Seattle Seahawks’ Driving With Gee YouTube series is like Carpool Karaoke, minus music, plus bored football players. In each episode, motivational speaker Gee Scott drives a member of the team around town and tries to be their friend. In the latest episode, Gee asks Seahawks wide receiver Malik Turner about his mom’s home cooking. “I want to start with breakfast, then go to dinner,” Turner says. “I’m with you, man,” Gee explodes, gesturing wildly as he removes his hands from the wheel of a speeding vehicle. “Breakfast is abso-LUTELY the greatest meal of the day!” A fidgeting Turner replies, “Yeah.” For people like me who are connoisseurs of social awkwardness between large men, Driving With Gee is can’t-miss programming.
DALLAS COWBOYS vs. Washington (Fox)
Arizona Cardinals vs. BALTIMORE RAVENS (Fox): The Cardinals have a 93-95 all-time record in regular season matchups against other teams named after birds.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS vs. Detroit Lions (CBS)
Indianapolis Colts vs. TENNESSEE TITANS (CBS)
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS vs. Miami Dolphins (CBS)
Buffalo Bills vs. NEW YORK GIANTS (CBS): Superstar New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley says he is excited to make his return to MetLife Stadium and play for the hometown fans. Don’t believe him? Well, here he is pointing to a rather small placard. So there.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (CBS)
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS vs. Oakland Raiders (CBS)
Chicago Bears vs. DENVER BRONCOS (Fox): My Lyft driver this afternoon, a guy by the name of Fountaine, was the type of man who needs to tell you about his fantasy team, whether you care or not, which you do not. But eventually the topic turned to actual football, and Fountaine wanted to know what I thought of the Bears’ prospects: Would they win the Super Bowl this year, or would they win A HUNDRED Super Bowls this year? “Okay, the defense is good,” I said, “but how are they going to score points? Your quarterback can’t see his open receivers. At all! You know how people get snow blindness on the tundra? Mitch Trubisky gets that, except with grass on a football field.” Now I was having fun, trying to come up with other ways to express the crippling myopia of the Bears’ quarterback. Then I glimpsed Fountaine’s seething gaze in the rear-view mirror, and I remembered that the cheerful mockery of Block & Tackle does not always play well “in the wild.” If only Gee had been my driver. He would have laughed at my jokes, or at least we could have talked about breakfast instead.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS vs. Los Angeles Rams (Fox): New Orleans defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s current mood is “pensive SpongeBob.”
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES vs. Atlanta Falcons (NBC)
CLEVELAND BROWNS vs. New York Jets (ESPN): QuantumPicks foretells a final score of 4-2 in this contest.
Thank you for the warm welcome you gave me upon Block & Tackle’s return to The A.V. Club last week. I am grateful for it. If you’d like to contact me with an item for Block & Tackle, or just to say hello, you can email me: my first name, at symbol, my full name, dot com. Enjoy the games this weekend, and I’ll see you back here next Friday.