Fake Right

Are the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers the sports world equivalent of Edmund Burke  or are they both merely a front for creeping franchise socialism? Some lessons from the season's strangest ideological Super Bowl.

Published January 8, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

here's a sure sign that the end of ideology is nigh: Conservative pundits not only couldn't bring themselves to rally behind Bob Dole as America's candidate, now they can't even agree on a football team. Forget the future of Newt Gingrich. Right-wing opinionmakers are now anguishing over whether the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers best embody the spirit of American conservatism.

The trouble started last month when Fred "the Beetle" Barnes -- known to millions of exasperated television viewers as the witless guy in the blue-framed glasses on PBS's "McLaughlin Group" -- published a column in the Weekly Standard praising the Cowboys as not only "America's team," but as "a conservative team," par excellence.

Barnes would seem to have a hard case to prove -- especially now that the Cowboys' fortunes on the field have slipped and the defending world-champions are becoming better known as a dissension-ridden, law-challenged clique of spoiled superstars. Even if wide receiver Michael Irvin and tackle Erik Williams prove they're innocent of the charges of rape-at-gunpoint recently brought against them, no one is likely to nominate either as a role model for America's youth. (Time Magazine, which reported on the Packers-Cowboys flap in its Jan. 13 issue, sniped gaily at Irvin and Williams as perhaps "the biggest fools in the land.")

But Barnes neatly sidestepped the nettlesome character issue. Instead, he appealed to the great intangibles of football glory -- and a few carefully selected counter-examples. He maintained that the Cowboys, by virtue of their fan base, their playing style and their personnel, embody the spirit of American conservatism. Team owner Jerry Jones "sure doesn't act liberal," Barnes observed in the high style of the televisual hectorer. "Nor do the fans," he added confidently.

The evidence, such as it is, mounts: Former Dallas Coach Tom Landry is a cohort of good ol' boy Senator Jesse Helms; long-time quarterback Roger Staubach pals around with Jack Kemp and is "a prominent Texas Republican;" Coach Barry Switzer is "a winning-is-everything type."

Now, it's true that as a child -- raised by liberals -- I'd always been rather fearful of the Cowboys, especially the eminence grise of Coach Landry, who would stand impassively on the sidelines during Cowboys games, sporting a gray fedora hat and looking for all the world like he was presiding over a mob hit. And the Cowboys in general have been exceptionally irritating in their will to cultural hegemony, their all-but palpable longing to annex their trademark blue star (allegedly a symbol of Texan independence) to the American flag. It was, indeed, this very impulse that led the Cowboys (or their marketing group) to declare themselves "America's team" in the first place.

But this cultural politics of the pigskin is a tricky business. Weren't there a whole host of liberal Cowboys players -- from former Yale seminarian/running back Calvin Hill to sometimes black nationalist/running back Duane Thomas? And isn't pretty much every football coach a "winning-is-everything type"?

I'm not the only one troubled by such apparent inconsistencies, it turns out. Three weeks after Barnes' Cowboys broadside appeared, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot -- known to millions of exasperated television viewers as the preppy, right-wing foil to centrist windbag Mark Shields on PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" -- denounced Barnes' football allegiance and hoisted aloft the Green Bay Packers as the true heirs to Edmund Burke.

To Gigot, the Cowboys are, if anything, a symbol of what is wrong with America, not what is right -- not to say Right. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Gigot argues, is a rank "self-promoter" who "wants to buy into the [NFL] partnership to make a name for himself, but then cut his own special deal with sponsors" -- a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract Jones negotiated mano ` mano with Nike that cut other franchises out of the action. "This isn't entrepreneurship," Gigot sniffed, "it's breach of contract." And one can only imagine Gigot's sniggering in that aristocratic way of his at the news of the Irvin-Williams incident, which happened after his column went to press.

Good right-thinking fans should forswear Cowboy decadence for the simpler virtues of the Green Bay Packers, Gigot argues. Not only do the storied Packers embody the hard-work-and-sweat, crush-the-opposition brand of gridiron warfare pioneered by their immortal former coach Vince Lombardi, they "embody tradition and communal loyalties." The Packers are, he points out proudly, a nonprofit corporation municipally owned by 1,915 citizens of the city of Green Bay. The Packers' board members and president "all donate their time," with a kind of generosity that represents "the kind of voluntarism and decentralized management conservatives often praise."

But isn't municipal ownership without a profit motive, well, socialism? Not to worry, Gigot says; the team's ownership structure "owes more to Edmund Burke than to Karl Marx. The real socialists are today's big-city mayors who throw tax breaks on fast-buck owners, who can still flee for a bigger subsidy somewhere else."

Whoa! That would be 15 yards for an unnecessary historical analogy. I'd figure Edmund Burke more as a New England Patriots fan. In any event, he didn't really have all that much to say about the joint stock provisions of professional sports franchises. And even if the Packers could claim the Burkean birthright, well, so could Marx, who cribbed catchphrases like the "cash nexus" from Thomas Carlyle, a cantankerous heir to Burke's Tory ideology. And as for those big city mayors: If socialists are the distributors of huge corporate tax breaks, what does that make conservative icon Ronald Reagan?

In fact, if you take a good look at the National Football League, you will behold something very much like a socialist welfare state in full throttle, barreling downfield like Barry Sanders on a draw play. NFL team owners pool their TV revenues to even the playing field for the benefit of small market teams. (Gigot placidly assures us that this is the civic-minded conduct of "business partners," but since when do business leaders give a leg up to competitors?)

The league has also instituted a generous expansion program that has allowed upstart teams like the Jacksonville Panthers and the Carolina Panthers to win playoff berths in record time, thanks to handouts like extra draft picks and salary cap exemptions. And what are salary caps if not the worst kind of social engineering, somewhere to the left of wage-and-price controls? (Can't you just picture the outrage if Ralph Nader proposed to foist them on American CEO's?) Where's the drive to acquire market share? Where's the initiative? Where are the time-honored constraints of reward and punishment and individual responsibility?

And now, of course, in the final irony, Barnes' silver-and-blue redeemers of the right have been dispatched in the second round of the playoffs by the arriviste, entitlement-happy Panthers. Let's see ... a suspiciously wobbly conservative standard-bearer from the Great Plains falls to a well-funded, flashy operation from the Southeast. Football has not merely demolished the conservatives' mythology of the free market, but has cruelly subjected them to a redux of the '96 presidential campaign. In the future, they'd better stick to golf.

By Chris Lehmann

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