Thursday, September 04, 2014

Reading Jeff Pearlman's biography of the 1990s Cowboys, Boys Will Be Boys

There are a handful of books and TV shows that I've watched because they were promoted on The Daily Show, but I don't think I've ever read a book because it was briefly mentioned in a Daily Show segment. After ESPN journalist Josina Anderson put together a report on Michael Sam's shower habits, Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee lampooned it on the show by, among other things, reading from the portion of Boys Will Be Boys where it discusses Charles Haley's bizarre sexual practices in both the Cowboys and 49ers locker rooms, places he won five Super Bowls in the span of a decade, still the most of any player in history.

I then read this lengthy ESPN profile of Jerry Jones, who, it could it be argued, has spent a quarter-century trying to win a Super Bowl that would allow him to be considered as a man with football acumen instead of one with more money than taste or sense. Having started watching football in 1995, when the Cowboys dynasty peaked, winning its third Super Bowl in four years, I was surprised enough by this profile of things I never really noticed as a 9-year-old to want to know just how it was possible that a team with a heavy Jerry Jones influence managed to win so many Super Bowls.

I read a preview of Boys Will Be Boys, which was a chapter describing the stupendously relaxed, though depraved might be a better word, approach the team took to Super Bowl XXX. I ended up buying the book to read on the Kindle Cloud Reader, which lets you buy books on Amazon and read them on any device, for $10.95. It was the first time I had bought a book that wasn't a paper book and Amazon's website noted that the book had been delivered for free wirelessly, which is a bit like an airline promising that all its flights come with complimentary cabin pressurization and landing gear.

The book was well-written, but either due to Pearlman's shortcomings as a writer or that of an editor who wanted books about this aspect of professional sports to be written in a certain way, often sounds like a hyperbolic NFL Films documentary. All terms are either vaunted, mighty or lowly. There was seldom an ordinary game, with each game either exposing the moral decay within the team, the egos of those involved, or displaying the sheer masculine talent of the players, which could not be overcome by moral weaknesses. The use of hyperbole works when Pearlman is describing both just how bad the Cowboys were in Johnson's first year or just how astonishing the turnaround was in subsequent years, but by the time he refers to a 20-17 regular-season loss to the Eagles in 1995 as the team's worst defeat of the decade, there had been so many earth-shattering humiliations delivered and accepted that it seemed ludicrous.

Pearlman, either because he wants to depict the Cowboys as they were or because he wants his book to have a shocking realism, takes pride in using as many sexually explicit words as possible. He also, probably several dozen times over the course of a roughly 400-page book, refers to women who hung around the Cowboys as being long-legged, large-breasted and scantily-clad. Such deficiencies are minor in a detailed account, aided by the passage of time, of just how staggeringly good and how staggeringly out-of-control the Cowboys of the early 1990s were. In a way, the resemblance to a bad episode of Behind the Music is necessitated by the subject, even if Pearlman doesn't seem to have a fondness for this topic.

The passage of time also makes it clear just how much football has changed since the Cowboys' dynasty, which had more in common with the NFL of the 1970s than the NFL of the 2010s. The significance of Emmitt Smith to the team seems quaint and his 25 rushing touchdowns of 1995 might as well belong to the pre-merger era, even though LaDainian Tomlinson scored 28 just eight years ago. Troy Aikman, considered a star by 1992, started his career with touchdown-interception ratios of 9-18, 11-18 and 11-10. The players' antics come across as relics of a free era, one before removing helmets, excessive celebration or running onto the field in anger were punished by personal fouls, before the league increasingly tried to control its brand, not that today's players are necessarily better-behaved than those of a generation ago.

The ongoing tension between Jones and Johnson, which left both men feeling empty after winning back-to-back Super Bowls just four years after a 1-15 season, along with the sense that the Cowboys fell backwards into winning Super Bowl XXX thanks to tremendous talent and Neil O'Donnell's mistakes is instructive to understand athletic performance. In sports, there's never really a perfect day or moment. Athletes, teams and performances look perfect only in retrospect, but in reality, they were anything but. The Cowboys always had tension between some combination of players, coaches and ownership, as well as between blacks and whites, but dominated the league for four years while living the lifestyles of drug addicts.

This sort of thing is probably more common than not. There's a perception in sports that everything has to go right in order for great things to happen, but that's clearly not the case. Rather than perfect conditions, it may just be that the only thing needed is for nothing to impede talent. Or, it may be that we don't really understand what it takes for athletes to succeed, which is why alcoholic cocaine addicts chronically short on sleep trounced the well-rested, well-prepared albeit neurotic Buffalo Bills by a combined score of 82-30 in consecutive Super Bowls. This may be why a control freak athlete such as Peyton Manning has one Super Bowl while his younger brother, who has fewer hang-ups and far less pressure to succeed, has two.

Looking at other sports, Nolan Ryan's sixth no-hitter came at the age of 43 after an ERA of almost 9 in his previous five starts, and his seventh came a year later at 44 on a night when he didn't think he could go five innings. In running, Sammy Wanjiru ran arguably the greatest marathon in history at the Beijing Olympics after forgetting his racing shoes in Japan. Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon after deciding that the shoes he had were too painful to run in and that running barefoot would be more comfortable.

Boys Will Be Boys makes it seem unbelievable that the Cowboys could perform as well as they did despite the constant distractions, inability to get along and the physical harm they were doing to themselves, but more improbable would be winning the Super Bowl in the absence of all these things. This is not an argument for coaches to find a cocaine dealer for their players, but to consider that a lot of the things they think harm performance are neutral and that a lot of the things they think improve performance really don't matter.

It's improbable, though, considering how hard coaches work, how insecure their jobs are and the tendency of people like coaches, teachers and doctors to believe in the power of doing something as opposed to doing nothing. If coaches needed to work 10 hours a day instead of 18, they wouldn't make as much money, but considering how plainly incompetent Barry Switzer was as a coach and how little it mattered, but also how pointless Jimmy Johnson's micromanaging kindergarten-like discipline of the Cowboys mattered, owners should at least think about it.

An odd little coincidence that happened while I was reading this book is that Michael Sam signed with the Dallas Cowboys. He's easily one of the most normal people to be signed by the Cowboys, though it's unlikely that he'll win many big games as a Cowboy as long as Jerry Jones is the general manager. The Cowboys have lost seven of the nine playoff games they've played since winning Super Bowl XXX, a statistic that doesn't reflect the fact that they have, somehow, lost three week 17 games in the last three years when victory would have put them in the playoffs. As the ESPN profile notes, no one would keep their job after consistently failing at it for twenty years, least of all in a field like professional sports, where people are fired just because it gives the perception of solving a problem.

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