Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The peculiar public privacy of NFL locker rooms

The peculiar public privacy of NFL locker rooms

Block & TackleBlock & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football

The New England Patriots were exhausted yet exultant. They had faced down the Philadelphia Eagles in a tense Week 11 game filled with trickery and punts, escaping with a 17-10 win. Now, in the postgame moments, came an intimate congress among men who fought alongside each other on the synthetic turf of battle.

“Bring it in here nice and tight,” said New England special teams captain Matthew Slater to his teammates as he warmed up for a post-win pep talk. The stench of triumph suffused the air as the giant men pulled close to each other, huddled away from the madding crowd, ensconced in their sanctum. They prepared to savor a moment that would belong just to them. A camera operator inched forward to more closely capture the tender communion. A different camera operator shuffled ahead to make room. A person holding a microphone on a boom arm lifted his arms to accommodate a third camera operator, whose shot included the first camera operator and a second boom mic. The Patriots’ private moment commenced.

The locker room is presented to fans as the players’ personal space, a premise contradicted by the fact that the locker room is presented to fans. This is a time-worn paradox. The notion of locker room privacy is a necessary fiction for the storytelling of sports media. If the field is where athletes armor up to perform superhuman feats in the heat of battle, then we need a place to see the heroes’ alter ego—a place where they remove their uniform, let their guard down, and become rounded, relatable characters. We yearn to see the “real” players. To achieve this effect, the locker room is treated as the private counterpoint to the public space of the field, like a sort of Batcave, but instead of bats hanging from the walls there are football helmets (or, for baseball players, bats).

Rather than a bastion of privacy, the locker room is more of a neutral zone beyond which, by custom, the prying voyeurs of the media do not advance. The boundary between public and private. And teams accordingly treat it as both. Take the head-coach victory speech, which has become a staple of NFL television in recent seasons. This ritual carries the air of intimacy even as it is clearly designed to generate footage for postgame segments and highlight shows. Privacy for public consumption.

In the locker room after his team’s Week 10 upset of the Chiefs, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel gestured at the TV crew buzzing around the space. “All these cameras, they didn’t come here to see the Titans,” he told his team, hoarse and grinning. Vrabel’s implication was that CBS would have expected the media-darling Chiefs to occupy the winning locker room, and his Titans had upended the conventional wisdom. The team hooted its approval, as football players love to upend things.

Vrabel was scoffing at the media as a way to draw his players close with an us-against-the-world spirit, and at the same time, he welcomed the cameras’ presence as an emblem of victory. Vrabel essentially told his team: Strangers across the country are watching you change your clothes, so life is good. Meanwhile, the losing Chiefs suffered the indignity of disrobing in private.

Illustration for article titled The peculiar public privacy of NFL locker rooms
Screenshot: CBS

Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker nodded in agreement. He happened to be caught wearing only a towel and sandals when the speech began, oops, although he did find time to throw on a fetching necklace and a gold wristwatch. This is the height of locker room fashion, and I mean that as a compliment, because it’s a styling that is very effective in this peculiar publicly private setting.

Walker’s confident towel-only look is an invitation to CBS: Walker makes himself an image that validates the network’s desperate “INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM” framing. The camera operator does not reject the bait, keeping Tennessee’s tight end in the sweet spot of the wide-angle lens. But Walker exploits the exploitation. With the accessories, for instance, he shapes his televisual image, so that even in slip-ons, he can still cut a profile as a man of means and taste. A pricey watch and a necklace—that’s all—because anything more would smother the fresh-from-the-shower mystique. The whole look is savvy image-making: Walker stages an impromptu fashion shoot on network TV under the guise of a candid moment in his changing room. Not everyone can pull off this deft straddle of public and private. If you want to try it yourself, some advice: It helps to look like Tennessee tight end Delanie Walker.

As a cultural symbol, the locker room acquired a dark edge in 2016 when a tape emerged on which a guy, the one who’s president now, boasted that his celebrity was so great, he could grasp women’s genitals against their will. The candidate later defended this accounting of his prestige as “locker room talk.” The phrase was an attempt to cast an episode of depravity as mere posturing, bluster, which possessed meaning only in the context of a sheltered, all-male enclave. There was also a more insidious connotation to Donald Trump’s framing, an unspoken assertion that this is how all men talk when they think no one else is listening.

Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh delivers a locker room speech  after the team’s victory over the Houston Texans as defensive tackle  Domata Peko and his stomach tattoo look on.
Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh delivers a locker room speech after the team’s victory over the Houston Texans as defensive tackle Domata Peko and his stomach tattoo look on.
Screenshot: Baltimore Ravens

In the wake of that affair, pro athletes from every major sport spoke up to dispute Trump’s imagery, as well they might. Trump had cast the locker room as a place where men showcase their darkest instincts—you know, to look cool. In the pro sports world, especially in the late hours of an NFL afternoon, the locker room serves the opposite purpose. It’s a brighter place where viewers can see that the berserkers of the battlefield are, under their masks, decent guys. A crowded locker room speech showcases teamwork, camaraderie, and the satisfaction of hard work. In interviews, players reflect on the game in calm clichés, and the frenzy of competition gives away to the rehearsed grace of 53 men who would like to go home now.

For Trump, the locker room is a coarse place where men fantasize about ghastly violence, together. For the NFL, it’s a respite from violence and a supposed glimpse of true humanity. On some level of our collective subconscious, we translate the literal nudity of a locker room to a metaphorical nakedness—as the men shed their armor, they also discard their emotional armor, is the idea. Of course, if you watch the locker room celebrations on a given Sunday, nobody is actually naked when the cameras are on. You don’t see any privates, to be blunt. By the same token, the players and coaches of the league don’t reveal their private selves, either. But they do show us, in the locker room, what they hope we imagine their private selves to be. And they show us their giant stomach tattoos. They show us both things.

Joe, you shoulda caught that

Illustration for article titled The peculiar public privacy of NFL locker rooms

In last week’s Block & Tackle—still available via the World Wide Web—I mention the announcer cliché of “he shoulda caught that.” This is when a TV person wearing a navy blue blazer announces that he is disappointed by an exhausted man running at high speed on a football field who failed to catch an oblong leather ball. Forgive the hypocrisy as I say to Monday Night Football play-by-play announcer Joe Tessitore: Joe, you shoulda caught that.

Admittedly, I’ve said it more than once, as Tessitore drops his share of passes. But for the moment I’m expressing my disappointment with a typical Tessitore drop that came on Monday, during a sparkless first quarter of the Chiefs-Chargers game. Tessitore invited sideline reporter Lisa Salters on the air, as she was standing by with a report, of sorts, on the status of Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill. The director switched to a shot of Hill lying prone on a table while a man wearing an earpiece and a grim, determined expression stimulated Hill’s leg with a vibrating power tool. Salters explained, “Looks like they’re trying to work on his right quad with some type of massager.” Then, with a wry note in her voice, she added, “Guys, is that what it looks like to you?”

This was a pass by Salters to Tessitore, and a good one. Salters only had a couple of seconds to wrap up her report before the ball was snapped on the field, but she used that brief window to tacitly acknowledge the oddity and ineffable humor of the image on the screen. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing…?” is the gist of her toss back to Tessitore.

Now, “Guys, is that what it looks like to you?” is not a difficult pass to catch. Tessitore only has to accept the playful energy that Salters sends his way—he could laugh, echo her hesitation, or just put an audible smirk in his voice as he proceeded with the play-by-play, whatever. But as I’ve said, levity is not in Tessitore’s Monday Night vocabulary. Instead of catching Salters’ pass, Tessitore said:

A. “The hopes of Kansas City may rest on that leg.”
B. “He is getting treatment there on the BACK of his leg.”
C. “One of the most important legs in the National Football League.”
D. “The Chiefs will need BOTH of Hill’s legs if they want to make a playoff run.”

The answer is B. Tessitore said, “He is getting treatment there on the BACK of his leg,” for no apparent reason. I’ll concede that it is amusing to hear Tessitore use his “I Am A Sporting News-Man” voice to remind America that when the front part of a football player is facing down, that means his back part is facing up.

As for Salters’ sly innuendo, Tessitore apparently didn’t catch it. Joe, you shoulda caught that.

Illustration for article titled The peculiar public privacy of NFL locker rooms
Photo: Rogue Fitness

By the way, the Chiefs’ trainer appeared to be using a Rogue Fitness Hyperice Hypervolt on whatever part of Hill’s leg required attention (front, back, I can’t keep track). Holiday shoppers take note, the Hypervolt goes for $349 on the Rogue Fitness website, and it makes a terrible Christmas gift for your loved ones. Just awful. Bake them a cake or something.

The poetry of Tony Romo

CBS lead analyst Tony Romo currently occupies the Simmsian Chair Of Football Verse, a hallowed post in the field of sports poetry.

If People Come Across

When that happens inside
you get your hands up
into an offensive lineman’s face

this isn’t the penalty

As you’re seeing people:
high tower,

If people come across the middle:
Arcega-Whiteside comes across

And the penalty’s 71
you’ll see

Well it’s not on 71
it’s 71, defense

—Tony Sedimentary Romo

The best and worst of Week 11 football graphics

Best: For the Chiefs-Chargers game at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca, the Monday Night announcing crew made a couple hundred mentions of the stadium’s thin air and lofty altitude. Nonetheless, in case the home audience did not get the message, ESPN also created this splendid visualization that asks, what would it look like if the Denver Broncos’ stadium and Estadio Azteca decided to be stadium friends and live right next to each other?

Worst: Sunday Night Football attempted to depict the shortcomings of the 2019 L.A. Rams offense by assaulting viewers with a half-dozen different statistics, removing those from the screen, and then spewing out another handful of numbers, I guess with the expectation that we can all just construct a mental spreadsheet on the fly in the middle of watching a football game. For its visual metaphor, SNF went with the stock market, or more precisely, the stock market of the future as it might be seen in a 1980s sci-fi action film. Overall, it’s a composition that says, “Look, the point is, last year’s arrows go up and this year’s arrows go down, okay? Old Rams good, new Rams bad. How many ways are there to say it? Leave us alone! [Sound of graphic artist quietly sobbing at workstation.]”

Your Week 12 QuantumPicks

Block & Tackle is the exclusive home of the QuantumPick Apparatus, the only football prediction system that evaluates every possible permutation of a given NFL week to arrive at the 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 11 NFL action, 12 games corresponded with the QuantumPicks, and two games were incorrect. Still too much unreality. Try to do better this week, football.

(Overall season record: 98-66.)

Teams determined to be victorious by the QuantumPick Apparatus are indicated in SHOUTING LETTERS.

Thursday Night Football

Indianapolis Colts vs. HOUSTON TEXANS (Fox) (timestamped pick)

Sunday Games — Early

Denver Broncos vs. BUFFALO BILLS (CBS)

PITTSBURGH STEELERS vs. Cincinnati Bengals (CBS): The QuantumPick Apparatus foretells a final score of 5-2 in this contest.


Carolina Panthers vs. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (CBS): The Carolina Panthers made three posts to their Instagram account this week to congratulate running back Christian McCaffrey for his overall rating of 99 on the Madden 20 player listings (which are adjusted by EA during the season so that the video game athletes correspond vaguely to the actual players’ performance). Don’t get me wrong, 99 is an excellent score—much better than 62—but Carolina fans must be a little concerned that the team is so excited about virtual football as opposed to the real thing. Or maybe Carolina fans are too busy playing Madden to care.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. ATLANTA FALCONS (Fox)

NEW YORK GIANTS vs. Chicago Bears (Fox)

MIAMI DOLPHINS vs. Cleveland Browns (Fox): The Browns’ week was defined by the fallout from the way they finished their Week 10 Thursday Night Football game—namely, with a melee whose lowlight was Cleveland defensive end Myles Garrett bludgeoning the skull of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph with Rudolph’s own helmet. Garrett was suspended for the season for his role in the brawl, which somehow made the closing minutes of a low-scoring Thursday night Browns-Steelers game even more difficult to watch than it already would be. Garrett deserves the individual sanction, but the Browns are such a dirty and reckless team overall that they’re lucky the league didn’t get fed up and ban the whole squad. The NFL could simply find someone to fill in for the Cleveland Browns—Greg Kinnear, maybe—until another professional football team comes available. But no, Cleveland will be allowed to take the field on Sunday, because somebody has to play the Dolphins.

DETROIT LIONS vs. Washington (Fox)

Gif: CBS

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Fox): For five consecutive seasons, the Philadelphia Eagles’ leading rusher has left the team after the season, and I learned this in the best possible way. The wings. They just never stop flapping.

Sunday Games — Late

Jacksonville Jaguars vs. TENNESSEE TITANS (CBS)

Dallas Cowboys vs. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (Fox): Despite struggles by Tom Brady and the New England offense, the Patriots have a record of 9-1 thanks to their formidable defense. (It helps that the list of quarterbacks faced by the Patriots so far includes Colt McCoy, Daniel Jones, Luke Falk, a flea-bitten old mule, a rickety fence, and Sam Darnold.) If the Patriots remain true to form, the Cowboys’ punter will be called into action often—but beware, New England return team: Dallas punter Chris Jones hits hard.

Sunday Night Football

GREEN BAY PACKERS vs. San Francisco 49ers (NBC)

Monday Night Football

BALTIMORE RAVENS vs. Los Angeles Rams (ESPN)

Teams on bye

The Arizona Cardinals, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angeles Chargers, and the Minnesota Vikings—these are the NFL’s most wanted. On Sunday, 28 other teams will fulfill their sworn duty to go outside (or, in a few cases, stay inside) and slam into each other so we, the citizens, can get our rocks off. But these four squads will be hiding from their obligation. They are fugitives from, if not actual law, then some manner of football law that I made up, which is just as serious. I do not want to be in the room when NFL Commissioner Roger Stokoe Goodell learns of this rampant truancy. He will lay down the (imaginary) law something fierce.

Programming note

Block & Tackle will not publish next week, in observance of Thanksgiving. The column will resume the following week. By then, Thanksgiving will be sufficiently observed.

Talk backle to Block & Tackle

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. You can also reach me via Twitter. Thank you for reading, and for the funny and smart comments. Keep on long snappin’.

John Teti is the host of the smash-hit pop culture podcast Pop Mom. Once, he was the editor-in-chief of The A.V. Club. Another time, he hosted The A.V. Club's TV show.