MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's Thanksgiving day in the U.S., and this is the day set aside to offer thanks for all the good things in our lives. Later in the program, we're going to check in with some of the people we're thankful for - our regular contributors - and they're going to tell us some of the ways they're celebrating this holiday. And there's another thing that many Americans are celebrating today, and if half your relatives are already in front of the TV, then you know what that is. Of course, we're talking about football. It's become the most watched sport in the United States.
The stories about it and about the players, good and bad, are often in the news. But ask yourself, how much do you really know about the sport, about what it really takes to succeed, especially at the pro level? That's the question that drew writer Nicholas Dawidoff to spend an entire year with what he says was unrestricted access to the New York Jets during the 2011 season. He wrote about it all in his new book, "Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football." And Nicholas Dawidoff is with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So I understand that you are not exactly a fan.
DAWIDOFF: I'm an enthusiast, but I was - one of the things that appealed to me about football is that it felt so elusive. I thought that this was something which was so intensely meaningful to a lot of people and so popular. And yet, there seemed to be a really interesting and unusual disconnect between something that, again, people cared so much about and how it really worked. And, you know, beyond what you could see on the television screen, it seemed to be the whole life. And the teams came out, you know, to play for those 16 regular-season games a year, which last an hour on the clock. But most of their life was spent in the 32 NFL facilities where the games were planned. And everything just seemed obscure and mysterious, and that's what really interested me.
MARTIN: And of course, this is not your first book. I mean, this is your fourth or fifth, right?
DAWIDOFF: Yeah, fifth.
MARTIN: You have four previously very well, you know, acclaimed books that involved a lot of reporting and a lot of detail. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a New Yorker and am a Jets fan. Although, I will say that they have not necessarily made me as proud as I would like to be in recent years. So I am curious about why the Jets, and why do you think they let you in?
DAWIDOFF: Well, you know, one of the things that's true is that I did spend my time with the Jets, but I thought of this as an NFL project, per se. I think most of the NFL teams follow a fairly similar template. The structure is pretty uniform throughout the NFL. And if you wanted to talk about that, you had necessarily to choose a team. And this all really began for me when I just happened to turn on the radio one day, and I heard the Jets head coach Rex Ryan talking. And I was immediately drawn to him. He was such a vivid, funny, interesting, thoughtful, unusual person. And to me, Rex Ryan was in some ways the apotheosis of what I suspected about football, which was that there was a whole 'nother life within the private realm of the game.
And where so many coaches seem very wary and restrictive in their personal behavior, one of the things that I think was most appealing about Rex Ryan was how open he was. Whoever he was was there in full measure. When there's a sort of a counterintuitive quality for the profession, I thought that that was really appealing. And what I would say was true for me would be true for many, many, many people, which is that he's a very, very seductive person.
MARTIN: Well, you - in fact, you describe him as a politician. You call him a Coca-Cola belt politician, planted atop the back of a flatbed pickup truck, suit jacket flung at his feet, imparting jubilant election-week promises to the little guy.
DAWIDOFF: Yeah, but I think that Rex really is there for the little guy. And, you know, he would tell you that to him, there are a lot of coaches who play injured players. Rex would tell you, you know, they're not a piece of meat to me. And he'll sometimes discourage players who want to play from playing, and he'd say, no, not this week because he thinks that they're too injured and it won't be good for them even though it might be really useful for the team. I think he's just a really, really caring person. And I guess this is beginning now to sound like a Rex Ryan panegyric, but for a writer, you wouldn't want - he's no saint. He has many complications and flaws, and he'd also be the first to tell you that.
MARTIN: It's hard for me to describe in the time that we have here just how much detail you go into, just the level of detail that you go into about the sport, about how the coaches work, about how the players work. But I would like to ask you to describe for me what you found most surprising coming at it, as you say, as more of an enthusiast and not, like, a diehard fan. What do you think would be most surprising?
DAWIDOFF: There are so many surprising things because, you know, this was a world behind the screen. And I felt that almost every day there were things that interested me. And some of them surprised me. But I will tell you that one thing that I found particularly moving was my sense of why football appealed to a great number of the people who play it. And I would say that a large percentage of the people who play professional football grow up in either single-parent or sometimes even don't grow up with their own parents at all, and they're growing up in fairly extreme poverty. And it was always my assumption and the assumption of, I think, many people that the real attractions to football have to do with the particular athletic nature of the game.
It's a game for aggressive young men who like to go out and hit people and, you know, that maybe even there's a sense of viciousness or even thuggery that is appealing. I didn't find that at all. What I found, which really was surprising to me, was that, for a large number of the players that I talked to anyway, a single attraction of professional football for them was that it was a chance to compensate for some of the things that they didn't have when they were growing up. In other words, their fellow players could serve and function almost as, you know, surrogate brothers or uncles, and the coaches could be - I mean, there's one player who told me, he said, you know, football really is my father. I - you know, I didn't grow up with a father, and football became the father for me, not any individual, but many of the people who I really admired who I met through the game.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with author Nicholas Dawidoff. He spent a year with the New York Jets for his new book, "Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football." I am really interested in a lot of the relationships that you talk about in the book, the relationships between the coaches and the players. You do talk about race.
And I will just say that - I'll just own my stuff - as an African-American, I think I have a reflexive kind of suspicion of white reporters who want to pronounce an environment racially healthy or sensitive if you don't - I'm just going to say it. And something that's kind of very much in the news now, I think because of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin issue involving the Dolphins which is still under investigation - where you talk a lot about the racial banter that goes on. How do you describe the environment?
DAWIDOFF: I guess the way I would describe the environment is that this is a highly competitive, elite, professional occupation. And whites are in the distinct minority. And just from what I saw - you know, I asked the players about it. It wasn't just my observation. The manifestation of that is the that way people talk to each other and seem to feel about one another seemed without any kind of awkwardness, or there was no real tension to speak of. And it just felt - I guess the word I would use is very healthy. I mean, people felt very open with one another. There was lots of joking, but the joking was the kind of joking that makes people feel closer to one another, not the kind of joking which makes somebody feel excluded or hurt.
MARTIN: How do you then see that whole Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin thing? I realize that you were not in that locker room, that you were working - you were primarily with the Jets. But it was kind of a league-wide project. How do you see that? 'Cause a lot of people look at that dialogue, and they're just disgusted.
DAWIDOFF: I mean, I was disgusted, and everybody I know from the Jets who I've spoken with about it was disgusted, too. And - to the degree that the head coach talked about it right from the beginning of training camp. He talked about the ways in which a team was composed of many, many different kinds of people.
And I can still remember his riffs about, you know, we have smart guys, and we have dumb guys. We've got, you know, fast guys, and we've got slow guys. We've got handsome guys, and we got a lot of ugly guys. And, you know, he just - it would be this long riff. And he said, but the one - you don't have to like everybody. Nobody likes everybody. But you have to respect each other. And he set that sort of tone with the team right from the beginning. And he did the same with his coaches, and it happened over and over and over again.
MARTIN: Well, where's the line, though? Where's the line? I mean, 'cause on one hand, yes, this is a sport that requires a lot of aggression, you know, focused aggression. So where's the line? I mean, the whole thing with the Saints, you know, paying people for hard hits against people. Where's the line?
DAWIDOFF: Look, in life, we all have a pretty good idea of when somebody means something to be hurtful or whether somebody's saying something in a way that's funny and yet inclusive. And we also know - we can tell pretty quickly whether someone can take it or if someone's easily offended. In football, it's not a good idea to be easily offended. But on the Jets, there were a couple of guys who were easily offended, and people tended not to tease them. But people who were teased generally could take it. I myself came in for teasing all the time.
MARTIN: Tease you about what?
DAWIDOFF: Well, it's a fairly...
MARTIN: You're not short, so.
MARTIN: You're 6-foot. So it couldn't be about your height, so.
DAWIDOFF: No, but it's a fairly conformist environment. And, you know, it's an SUV environment. I drive a Mini Cooper. You know, it's a - I would sometimes go off and exercise when I had free time. And I'd go running, and I'd wear a purple headband, and nobody could believe that. And, I mean, these were the - I would eat beet salads at lunchtime, and this was remarked on. And I thought it was, on one level, pretty hilarious that these, what I considered, very trivial and small things that people were picking them up and teasing me for. But it was also very...
MARTIN: So did they call you beet boy, something like that?
DAWIDOFF: They did not call me beet boy. I walked into a quarterbacks' meeting one day, and they said, hookworm. And I said, hookworm? They said, bookworm. You know, I write books. And then they immediately changed that to worm. And nobody would like to be called worm. And I disliked it. Although, I also knew that this was something that - you know, I sat in with the quarterbacks every morning - and I also knew that if I was going to sit there and watch them lose, I should, you know, have to take something. And that seemed about right to me. And, you know, and I also knew that they wanted to see if I could handle a little bit of teasing.
But, you know, after a while - an unflattering nickname, I'm in my forties - I mean, is this really what I want to be up for at 8 o'clock in the morning every day after really long nights the night before? It wasn't always the most fun, but it did give me a certain insight into the question that you're just asking. I think also, you know, it is a very, very difficult, stressful and competitive environment. And I wouldn't say that that was the most effective thing for them to do in that moment with me, but I would say that the idea is that they want to test people.
MARTIN: Are you different as a result of the time that you spent with these large men doing something very difficult, as you say, for the sake of our entertainment, sometimes hurting themselves badly for the sake of our entertainment? Do you feel like a different person for the time you spent with them?
DAWIDOFF: You know, there's so many ways to feel different. And one way that I felt was professionally different a little bit. You know, I mean, this is the country, right, of feel-good movies with happy endings. And the most single popular thing in America right now is football. And yet, what is - for me, anyway - the predominant emotional experience of football? In the end, it's - I mean, you're supposed to win, but all teams but one lose. And I think that what football coaches have that I admired so much is constant optimism that they can win and that they can make even the worst situations become something triumphant, but also, the subordinate ability to understand failure, to be able to take failure, to be able to understand loss, be able to take loss and move forward. And for you as a Jets fan, maybe that's why you like your Jets so much.
MARTIN: Or just 'cause I was born in Brooklyn.
DAWIDOFF: Yeah, that, too.
MARTIN: Yeah, that, too. Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of "Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football." And he was kind enough to join us on this Thanksgiving day in our bureau in New York. Thank you for joining us.
DAWIDOFF: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.