Inside the NFL

The art of informed conversation

During football season, every Wednesday night at 9, I drop whatever I am doing to watch Inside the NFL on Showtime. The hour-long show is a conversation on the week in football hosted by veteran sportscaster James Brown and featuring former Giants’ quarterback Phil Simms and former Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth.

I am not a rabid fan of football, watching it only occasionally. I was an advocate of giving Michael Vick a second chance, but my interest was in the story not the game (I’m for giving most everyone a second chance). I root for the Pittsburgh Steelers, thanks to my husband, who lived in Pittsburgh for a while—though our kids say watching Steelers games is bad for his blood pressure. Despite these desultory loyalties, I can’t say that I understand the game of football beyond the rudimentary rules.

What I appreciate about Inside the NFL is not the content but the form. I like seeing people talk with knowledge and passion about a subject they know well. The way they share their expertise is what informed conversation should be like. So often in American life we don’t have informed conversation. We have uninformed conversation, where we know a little and spin this for the purpose of getting along; or we have cheerleading conversation, where we all agree on something and simply state our shared agreement over and over; or we have antagonistic conversation, where we get mad and say personal things of little relevance to the point that we regret later. But we rarely have conversation like that on Inside the NFL–probably because we rarely get people together who know a subject well enough to talk about it in depth—to agree, disagree, compare ideas, close-read small aspects of the subject, and make informed predictions.

It’s true that Inside the NFL is a staged conversation or, rather, several conversations—one of the show’s conceits is to have the participants appear in different settings (sitting at a table, sitting in big armchairs, standing around a podium) to delineate different segments: e.g., an analysis of highlights, an interview with a player, predictions for next week. The feeling is always one of camaraderie mixed with opinionated disagreement. These guys respect each other but have their own, highly personalized perspective on the game—the product of the position they played, when they played, the team they played on, and their own values and ideas.

The show has featured spirited conversations about subjects like how much roughness should be allowed in a game. I never thought that I would understand anyone arguing against new safety rules, but Warren Sapp, a former regular, and some of the special guests made a persuasive case against them. Another episode included a discussion about how a coach can help a quarterback become a leader—the coach shouldn’t coddle the quarterback but shouldn’t dictate to him either or he will never have the authority and confidence he needs to lead his team. In yet another episode, the guest, the legendary linebacker Lawrence Taylor spoke about his life on the field and his missteps off it. Simms, who had played with Taylor on the Giants, made clear both the respect he felt for the man and his disapproval of Taylor’s sense of entitlement as an elite player, precisely what had gotten him into trouble. The tone in which everyone comported themselves during this conversation—the mix of sheepishness, self-confidence, and philosophical resignation on Taylor’s part, and the respect mixed with ribbing and dismay that was directed at him—all conveyed the place of this man in the sport, even in the face of scandal.

The closest I can say I come to the sort of informed talk that characterizes Inside the NFL are the lunch conversations I have with my colleagues, about teaching. My lunch companions and I know our institution well and share the same sorts of students, but we each have our own histories—both outside and inside the classroom—and our own distinct methods of teaching. All this makes our conversations lively and interesting. I less frequently have such conversations with fellow scholars on topics relating to literature.  The focus of scholarship differs widely among colleagues at my institution. And at professional conferences, where expertise is shared, conversation of this sort rarely happens because competition and exhibitionism get in the way. Academics are, let’s face it, even more posturing than professional football players.

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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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