FX's Wednesday night bro-comedy The League is not particularly known for nuance or incisive cultural commentary. Yet for one moment in the second season, between all the taunting, borderline psychopathy, and questionable draft-day parliamentary procedure, the boys put their pint glasses down and articulate one of the most apt examinations of the way we discuss sports and race in public media. In the middle of a seemingly innocuous discussion, one of them begins:
Andre: I met this doctor, Dr. Maxwell. Real class act.
Pete: Is he…black?
Andre: How'd you know?
Pete: Nine times out of 10, when a sportscaster is referring to someone as a "class act," they're talking about a head coach who's black. "Tony Dungy, what a class act."
Kevin: Totally. “Lovie Smith—class act."
Andre: I never noticed that. I mean, it happens all the time?
Kevin: It's not just football. Sportscasters use these code words in all sports. If they're talking about a Latino player in baseball, like, "Ozzie Guillen is a..."
Ruxin: “Firecracker.” Latin guys are always firecrackers.
Pete: “Spark plug.”
Kevin: “Spark plug in the clubhouse.”
Ruxin: Wes Welker is like a “gym rat,” a real scrappy player.
Kevin: Which is code word for "white."
Ruxin: Always a white guy.
Noticing this sportscaster code language is a fantastic way to walk into a Baader-Meinhof phenomenon—once you learn about it, you start seeing it everywhere. And it makes a whole lot of sense why. American sports are absolutely rife with cultural commentary, but commentators are paid for their sports expertise before their cultural nuance. Slipping into this kind of code language is a safe way to acknowledge the presence of minority presences within sports culture without divulging into a full-out discussion about racial identity in front of a national audience at 1 p.m. on Sunday.
Thankfully, live TV is not the sole arena for discussing issues of minority presence in American sports, and leagues to different extents have explicit binding policies aimed at addressing more worrying disproportions in the sport, such as the scarcity of black head coaches. However, one of the most interesting of minority presences in the NFL is the “scrappy” white player archetype, the answer to the growingly hilariously and confusing question of just exactly how one acts “white” on a football field.
For thousands of white middle school boys across the country, learning how to act with a modicum of swagger on a football field is a bizarre, drawn-out, and distinctly American rite of passage--one that most of them will fail. Confidence, swagger, and celebration on American football fields is inevitably intertwined with some images of American black masculinity. Twelve-year-old boys, as stable in their notion of self as their hormone levels, have been looking up to the likes of Chad Johnson and Ray Lewis in a league that is 67 percent black and hasn't seen a white defensive back for some five years.
Amid this landscape enters one Justin James Watt, 6-foot-5, 289 pounds, hailing from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and fresh from yet another week of individual sporting dominance. J.J. Watt has, by any measure and even to the unaccustomed eye, had a simply Herculean season so far, to the extent that he’s earned the nickname "Jesus Jesus Watt" from other Texan fans.
But in the background, in between snaps and in the neutered silences of media-coached press conferences, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Watt is how utterly unremarkable and by-the-book the man is. Among the archetypal scrappy, gym rat constituency of white NFL players, Watt must be the rat king.
No high-profile player has so thoroughly brought to life the trope of the scrappy white dude. Watt makes news because he has no social life whatsoever. After signing a new contract worth over $100 million, the leading quote in the papers was that he "had no idea" how to spend that kind of money. Texans beat writers, after coming down off the initial rush of that scoop, must have sat comprehensively dismayed, wondering how the hell they would ever get another story out of this guy. Are the NFL glory days/embarrassment of the sex boat so far behind us? (No, but that is quite another article.)
The closest Watt has gotten to another headline was after a fifth week victory over the Titans, when he sacked debutant quarterback Zach Mettenberger and instead of his usual all-American salute celebration, pantomimed taking a selfie as the rookie still lay on the turf. After the game, he commented that such social media tomfoolery is not appropriate for the gravity of professional football: “It’s just kind of a reminder, this is the National Football League, not high school. Welcome to the show.”
Public opinion, at least on the Internet, swayed like a mast. On the subreddit devoted to the NFL, a forum of some 300,000 fans, a top comment on the story reads, “Give me a fucking break. It's a selfie, I know Watt thinks he's the best ever and his entire life is football but these players have lives outside of the NFL.”
However, by the next week the "incident" had already faded. By the time the next Adrian Peterson child-abuse allegation details surfaced, it was as if it had never happened. It was the ceiling of Watt’s hubris, and it was passé in two weeks. Watt is the most explosive player off the line with the least explosive media kitsch appeal. The degree to which the man meets our own stereotypes seems to simply bore us. Thank God for his out-of-this-world stats, or else there'd be nothing to sensationalize at all.
But perhaps the time frame of one season, or even his whole four-year career, is far too narrow of a perspective to take. To fully examine Watt's milquetoast icon status, we are going to have to wait at least another generation or two. In 10 years, will young boys be imitating the incorrigible gym-rattiness of J.J. Watt? Are they doing it now? If they are, how would we even know? After all, in the life of the gym rat king, there is no time for selfies.