Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
It was hard to think about writing Block & Tackle this week. On Tuesday, I watched a manifest idiot declare that he would be the next president of the United States, and for once in his life, he wasn’t full of shit. The future of public policy, of civic decency, and of our constitutional republic exists in a haze of uncertainty. Despair prevails, at least in half of the populace, which in retrospect would have been the case no matter who won. The toxic divisiveness of the Trump campaign ensured that we were voting to determine which part of the country would be drained of hope. In this context, how could I self-respectingly use my platform to talk about NFL football, of all things? Every time I thought about Block & Tackle this week, I kept returning to what felt like an unavoidable truth: Football doesn’t matter. But paradoxically, that’s why it does matter.
Soon after the presidential election was decided, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama made admirable pleas for national unity. “We’re all on the same team,” Obama said. That is a nice and true sentiment as far as it goes, which is not terribly far at the moment. When voters reward a campaign that’s fueled by grievances against swaths of the populace, it’s hard to show up the next morning to smile and slap each other’s backs at the Team America ice cream social. The cognitive dissonance is too profound. But we can support different teams and still be decent to each other. NFL fans do it all the time. We all root for our own squads, yet we love the game as fellow fans—or, as I put it last year, as fellow assholes.
Of course there are rivalries and grudges galore in the world of football. That’s part of the fun. Only a minority of lunatic fans, however, treat these tensions as much more than the contrivances that they are (an idea I touched on in last week’s column as well). In the wake of a hard-fought Monday Night Football showdown, a Raiders booster and the Broncos diehard who sits next to her at work can rehash the game without risk of their friendship ending in acrimony. We move on with our lives because sports don’t matter, which makes them wonderful practice for the hard stuff. You flex your forgiveness-and-understanding muscles on the inconsequential things so you can put them to use on heavier matters.
Before I started Block & Tackle, I thought one of the toughest challenges would be to spread my attention across all the teams in the league. Like most NFL fans, I’d always followed my home team closely and sampled the rest of the games according to my whims. My concern was whether I could find a way to care as much about the 31 franchises who were not the New England Patriots. I shouldn’t have worried—this change of mindset required practically zero effort. It simply happened. Every week, I dug into the various teams’ websites. I watched the players in videos. I read their social media musings. In no time, those “other guys” transformed from opponents to people. If you told me 10 years ago that I would sing the praises of the Indianapolis Colts’ plucky spirit—that I would even root for them, with their indefatigable quarterback and their sad-eyed head coach, as they faced off against the Packers—I would not have believed it. Surprisingly, all I had to do was try.
It’s not that easy with political matters. There’s a Chicago radio station where I frequently appear as a guest, and the newsreader who’s usually on duty in my time slot—let’s call him Ralph—has always been kind to me, encouraging my broadcast pursuits. “When are we going to give this guy a show?” Ralph said one day when the two of us happened to be in earshot of the station’s executives. Ralph is a sweet guy.
I learned this year that Ralph is also a right-winger who despises the Clintons, and he regularly made these sentiments clear on his Twitter feed. Whenever Ralph’s political views would piss me off, I’d force myself, with some success, to see him more as the kind human being I knew him to be, rather than as a member of the other team. My Block & Tackle experience helped. A sort of muscle memory came into play.
It is certainly more straightforward for me, a white guy, to summon this comity than it is for someone whose very identity has been denigrated throughout this year’s hateful election cycle (a cohort that includes pretty much everyone but white guys). And frankly, not all ideological chasms can be bridged—or ought to be. I find the current pleas for unity from our political leaders to be commendable but maddeningly unrealistic at the same time. I am not ready to come together as fellow Americans when we apparently do not even agree on what America is.
Since Tuesday night, my thoughts have continually flashed back to social studies classes where I learned about the values of our democratic society with ever-growing pride and awe. Blind justice. Reasoned debate. Equal opportunity. Even as I came to understand the many ways that we failed to live up to those ideals, I felt we were defined by our aspiration toward them. And now we have elected a man who repudiates them as a matter of course. I’m heartbroken that the office of the president—whose history I have studied and whose dignity I have held in the highest regard for as long as I can remember—will now be occupied by a narcissistic, hate-peddling ignoramus. It seems impossible that I might extend compassion to people who facilitated this calamity.
Yet still I recognize the need for understanding, to find a common experience on which we might build common aspirations again. It’s just too hard to imagine “one America” right now. So start with something easy. Watch football, and make yourself a fan of a different team for a week. Get to know their roster. Reconstruct the story of their season so you know what the stakes are as the next chapter unfolds. Then watch them play on Sunday and see what it feels like to hope for their victory. Sports—and all of pop culture—allow us to try on different viewpoints with stakes that are essentially nil. Those experiences can prepare us to be more thoughtful in more charged arenas of policy and values, where the stakes are real.
I realize that mentally shifting your loyalties, even on a temporary basis and even with something as frivolous as football, can feel like an act of betrayal. It’s not. You’ll always come back to your team, just as you don’t abandon your own principles when you try someone else’s belief system on for size. The important thing is that we redevelop our skill for mutual understanding, which has atrophied dangerously as we’ve isolated ourselves in silos of information and culture. Football is a painless way to practice that skill, because it doesn’t matter, which makes it more important than ever.
It’s been a tough few days. I’m holding back tears every time I start a new paragraph. So forgive me—I’m going to forgo our usual zillion-word exercise in NFL tomfoolery, and instead I’ll go through the weekly picks and call it a night so I might resume the post-election soul-searching that preoccupies a lot of us.
Then there are some interruptions in the weeks ahead. I’ll be traveling next week to work on a documentary project, so next Friday morning, The Compleat Phil Simms will be published in lieu of a full column. And the week after that, The A.V. Club will be on break for Thanksgiving. (I’ll post picks on Twitter.) Before I leave you today, let me reiterate something that I occasionally express in the comment threads. This column is fueled by three loves: a love of the game, a love of the players, and a love of the readers. Let’s share some of that love in the comments. We need it.
Here are Block & Tackle’s “never wrong” final score predictions for the Week 10 slate. The predictions must not be doubted. They are truth. They are the only truth. If a game differs from the prediction listed here, it is simply being untruthful—shamefully so.
Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens (last night, 8:25 p.m., NFL Network): Baltimore 27, Cleveland 17.
Green Bay Packers vs. Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Green Bay 31, Tennessee 20.
Minnesota Vikings vs. Washington (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Minnesota 17, Washington 13.
Atlanta Falcons vs. Philadelphia Eagles (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Philadelphia 35, Atlanta 34.
Chicago Bears vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): Tampa Bay 24, Chicago 12.
Los Angeles Rams vs. New York Jets (Sunday, 1 p.m., Fox): New York 19, Los Angeles 11.
Kansas City Chiefs vs. Carolina Panthers (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Kansas City 4, Carolina 2.
Houston Texans vs. Jacksonville Jaguars (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): Houston 23, Jacksonville 14.
Denver Broncos vs. New Orleans Saints (Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS): New Orleans 24, Denver 21.
Miami Dolphins vs. San Diego Chargers (Sunday, 4:05 p.m., CBS): San Diego 28, Miami 10.
San Francisco 49ers vs. Arizona Cardinals (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): Arizona 27, San Francisco 13.
Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 4:25 p.m., Fox): Dallas 29, Pittsburgh 20.
Seattle Seahawks vs. New England Patriots (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC): New England 28, Seattle 24.
Cincinnati Bengals vs. New York Giants (Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN): New York 17, Cincinnati 14.
Block & Tackle prediction record for 2016 season: 133-0
Untruthful games last week: 3
Overall truth-untruth ratio in 2016: 80-53