Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 31, 2009

Freedom Fighting in the NFL

The physical effort writer Stefan Fatsis put in to compete at an NFL training camp is nothing compared to the daily mental grind players are subjected to across the league.

Michael Gluckstadt

When Stefan Fatsis first joined the Denver Broncos training camp as a placekicker in 2006, he didn't set out to expose the totalitarian style of management favored by NFL franchises. And yet, a year after the release of his book on that experience, A Few Seconds of Panic: A Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, Fatsis cheekily compares himself to Czech anticommunist reformer Alexander Dubcek. "There's no reason that NFL teams have to be run like East Germany," Fatsis tells Gelf. "There's no requirement that secrecy, tension and disrespect be their governing management principles."

Though it may be a while before democracy comes to flourish in NFL locker rooms, Fatsis's former club currently is demonstrating the problems with the current system. Denver's new head coach, the young Josh McDaniels, has followed his mentor Bill Belichick's lead in implementing a tightly guarded management system. The result for the Broncos has been an embarrassing trade of their starting quarterback, and a public tantrum by their star receiver.

Stefan Fatsis, shown taking notes as wide receivers coach Steve Watson, wearing a cap in the huddle, addresses the Broncos. Photograph by John Leyba.
"The NFL is a bizarrely old-fashioned workplace where bosses still believe that the constant threat is the best motivational tool."

Stefan Fatsis, shown taking notes as wide receivers coach Steve Watson, wearing a cap in the huddle, addresses the Broncos. Photograph by John Leyba.

In the following interview, which has been conducted via email and edited for clarity, Fatsis tells Gelf about players' reactions to his book, his thoughts on traditional sports radio, and why he no longer feels pleasure as a fan of sports teams.

Gelf Magazine: Now that A Few Seconds of Panic has been out for over a year, have you gotten any interesting responses from players about the NFL life you depict in the book?

Stefan Fatsis: My favorite came in an email from an offensive lineman who was cut the summer I was with the Broncos and is now out of the league: "You so eloquently captured the mind f**k that is the NFL." That said it all, because this book isn't about a 40-something reporter going to fantasy camp (I never fantasized about playing a pro sport, not past the age of 12, anyway) or about a summer in the life of a particular team. It's about the bizarrely old-fashioned workplace of the NFL, where paranoia is the dominant management strategy; where communication from bosses to employees, if it happens at all, is often incomplete or misleading; where bosses still believe that the constant threat is the best motivational tool. Then there's the physical and psychological toll. We've heard lots of moving stories about retired players, but not much about players like my offensive-lineman friend, who wound up in a long bureaucratic and legal fight over injuries that were apparently misdiagnosed by another team; he played in a full game one week and had to retire the next. So, yeah, mind-fuck summed it up pretty nicely. When the book came out, I wrote a Scorecard piece in Sports Illustrated about the miserable life of the NFL player. A former NFL lineman actually wrote a letter to the magazine calling it "the best description of the mental and emotional challenges of playing in the NFL that I have seen in print." We stuck that on the back cover of the paperback.

Gelf Magazine: What did the front-office personnel think of it?

Stefan Fatsis: Broncos then-GM Ted Sundquist told me after reading the book that he was surprised by how much the players disliked their jobs and the front-office executives who control them. Well, I was surprised that he was surprised, because Ted is one of the most genuine, decent, and self-aware sports executives I've encountered. But I was also thrilled when he said that if he ever got another chance to run an NFL team, he would communicate more with players, provide more information, and listen more. If that happens—and it should—I'll consider myself the Alexander Dubcek of pro football.

Gelf Magazine: Did anyone seriously object to it?

Stefan Fatsis: I never heard from Todd Sauerbrun, the angry, amusing, self-destructive, ephedra-taking, career-killing punter who served as a kind of literary foil for my rather pathetic placekicking efforts. And the now-retired center Tom Nalen told me I misquoted him; he couldn't possibly have used a profanity. But no, other than a few middle-aged male reviewers who didn't seem to understand that the reason the players opened up to me was that I was willing to suit up with them—I wasn't a "real" Bronco, one wrote; well, no shit, Columbo!—no one who actually has anything to do with football complained.

Gelf Magazine: Are the experiences you document exclusive to the NFL, or do you think they're prevalent across pro sports? Stefan Fatsis: I think they're particular to the NFL. The physical depravity and long-term health risks, the Lombardiesque management code of toughness and, crucially, the absence of guaranteed contracts make the culture of the league unlike that of any other sport. I chose to do a Plimpton in football not only because I knew I could learn to kick credibly enough to stand on a pro field—and I couldn't think of another job in another sport that I could—but also because I knew there would be a great human story to tell. I don't think that would be the case in other sports, which is why you won't see me playing point guard for the Lakers next year.

Gelf Magazine: Which league takes the best care of its players?

Stefan Fatsis: Being a professional team athlete is about being disposable. It's not like any of the other leagues are going to make some Fortune magazine list of best workplaces. But the leagues with the strongest unions—baseball and basketball, I'd argue—are the ones that protect their players the best. Football's union has gained a sizeable chunk of league revenue; the players who do make a team are paid well, if usually not for very long. But I do think some of the resentment inside NFL locker rooms stems from a feeling that football players risk so much more physically and psychologically than other athletes, but often find themselves without any help at all once they aren't needed anymore.

Gelf Magazine: With the circus surrounding coach Mike Shanahan's departure, the Jay Cutler trade, and, most recently, Brandon Marshall's antics, the Broncos organization has looked dysfunctional this offseason. What do you think the problem is there?

Stefan Fatsis: The journalistic narrative is total dysfunction, and it's a damn fine narrative indeed. Or you could look at it as a complete organizational restructuring that got off to a terrible start, but whose results will take years to determine. It is inarguable that the dominos started falling when Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired Mike Shanahan after 14 years of what Bowlen told me he considered a marriage. That move made some sense: After three straight lousy seasons, the business of the Broncos needed recharging; Shanahan's organizational omnipotence was maybe growing detrimental; Bowlen wanted to transition to a new head coach well before he handed the club to one of his children; and he wanted to regain control of the franchise for his final years in charge.
The problems began when Bowlen hired young Josh McDaniels to replace Shanahan. From what I've heard first- and second-hand from inside the team, McDaniels has installed the archetypally closed-door, patriarchal style he might have picked up from his mentors—his high-school-football-coach father and Bill Belichick. He also maybe tried a wee bit too hard to put his stamp on the team, dumping coaches and players by the busload (often without a courtesy call) and alienating the team's excellent but immature young stars, quarterback Jay Cutler and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. I can't imagine McDaniels arrived in Denver with the goal of damaging the image and operation of one of the NFL's most consistently competent franchises, but it sure doesn't look good. Which brings us back, conveniently, to my book. There's no reason that NFL teams have to be run like East Germany. There's no requirement that secrecy, tension, and disrespect be their governing management principles. And yet these qualities persist, even among coaches young enough to consider alternatives.

Gelf Magazine: Has the experience of writing the book changed the way you watch sports?

Stefan Fatsis: Not much. I stopped being an OH-MY-GOD-MY-TEAM-LOST-I-MUST-WEEP-NOW sort of fan many, many years ago. Which makes me a bit of a poopy-pants, I guess. But it also lets me focus on what I find meaningful and interesting: the physical and mental brilliance and beauty—and the impossibly high degree of difficulty—of what athletes do. Especially the kickers. Kickers are awesome.

Gelf Magazine: You sound pretty jaded as a sports fan. At what point did you lose the passion?

Stefan Fatsis: I'm not jaded. And I'm still passionate about sports. Today, for instance, I caught the final inning of the Little League World Series, Tiger Woods's missed putt on 18 at the first round of golf's playoff thingy, and my old pal Jay Cutler's return to Denver for a preseason game (BOOOOOOOO!!!!!). If I've lost anything, it's the avid fan's irrational and imbalanced love, that life-or-death emotional investment in players and teams. After writing about sports for years, and then experiencing one close-up, I just appreciate the complexity of games and the giftedness of athletes too much to freak out because someone dropped a ball. Having said that, I like it more when the Yankees win and the Red Sox don't. And when players I know and like do well. When Jason Elam kicked a couple of field goals the other day for the Falcons, I smiled.

Gelf Magazine:You mention the US national soccer team among your favorites. After their recent run at the Confederations Cup, do you think they could make some noise at the World Cup?

Stefan Fatsis: Those vuvuzelas are definitely going to make some noise. As for the USMNT, I'll leave the technical analysis to others, but (assuming qualification) there's no reason the men can't advance beyond group play to the knockout stages, as they most recently did in 2002, when they were an arguably blown call from reaching the semifinals. Does that make the American men world class? No. I've been arguing for years that the march of the US into the ranks of the Euro and South American powers will be too slow for our impatient sports culture to comprehend but also that it is inevitable. Association football as we know it today has been played for about 130 years. The US fielded a national team of amateurs as recently as 20 years ago. We're on the right path, but it will take decades more to develop a team filled with international-level stars. So barring some miracle-on-grass run, I think the US won't reach a World Cup final until 2018 or 2022 or 2026 at the absolute earliest, and I reserve the right to push the championship date another decade into the future. Backed to my midlife sports-fan anomie for a minute. I will sing and scream with nationalist fervor for the USMNT (except, of course, when I'm sitting in a press box).

Gelf Magazine: What books and projects are you working on next?

Stefan Fatsis: Well, I'm coaching my daughter's U-8 soccer team and running Scrabble clubs at my neighborhood public elementary and middle schools here in Washington, so that fills my days. But I did just finish an essay for a favorite-baseball-player anthology to be published by Da Capo Books in spring 2010; I wrote about Bobby Murcer. And I have a book idea I'm planning to start working on this fall. But I'm not talking about it yet.

Gelf Magazine: I've been listening to your Slate podcast with Mike Pesca and Josh Levin. Your legal-dictionary terms are a far cry from the usual sports radio talk. Why did you decide to go with that format?

Stefan Fatsis: You mean the format in which participants use grown-up words, speak in complete sentences, listen to each other, don't repeat simplistic points ad nauseum, and form coherent arguments about the complex, often very gray issues in sports? We went with that format because we're East Coast, liberal, smarty-pants intellectchewels who really do believe that three reasonably well-informed and thoughtful people can talk rationally about sports for a half hour without raising their voices or using a one-minute countdown clock—and that there's an audience for that kind of conversation. I've spent my 15 years as a sportswriter—after covering Greek politics and Michael Milken, among other things— mostly at the Wall Street Journal and NPR. The wins and losses, and who's to blame for them, have never mattered much in my work, or in my brain. (The demystification of football and the humanization of the people who play it is, I think, a central point of A Few Seconds of Panic.) The Slate podcast is a natural extension. Josh (a Slate editor) and Mike (an NPR sports reporter) view sports the way I do, and I think more and more consumers do, too. As I type this, we're up to No. 13 on the iTunes list of top sports podcasts. Watch out, World Soccer Daily Podcast! We're coming after you next!

Gelf Magazine: Pesca and Levin are both big Twitter users. Don't you have anything to communicate in 140 characters or fewer?

Stefan Fatsis: I don't get going until at least 151.

Gelf Magazine: I'm sorry to tell you this, but @wordfreak has already been taken.

Stefan Fatsis: And @afewsecondsofpanic is probably the username for Cialis.

Related in Gelf

Fatsis spoke to Gelf last year about making sportswriting personal.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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