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Bernie Kosar vs. the Shield

Bernie Kosar is in trouble for being critical into a live microphone while announcing a preseason game. But who's really offended?

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The most important thing to remember about Bernie Kosar saying some carping, critical things into a live microphone during the local broadcast of a preseason game between the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams is that it isn't important at all. Look back at that sentence and draw a mental line through every unimportant thing, and you'll be left with a bunch of definite articles and prepositions and not much else.

This is a local broadcast of a preseason game between two moribund franchises. This is a variously troubled ex-player being catty about an opposing team's backups for a television audience that chose -- presumably as part of some sort of hazing ritual or cruel prank or dubiously ethical experiment on the deleterious effects of prolonged exposure to Kellen Clemens -- to watch the fourth quarter of a preseason game. Maybe cross out a few of those prepositions, on second thought. There's nothing to see here.

Which makes it all the more impressive how much has been said about it since Kosar slurred -- which is, as Dawgs By Nature points out, just the idiosyncratic way that Kosar kinda-sorta communicates -- through some sarcastic critiques of the St. Louis Rams offensive personnel. It's worth noting that what Kosar said was, while tartly exasperated in its phrasing and frankly avant-garde in its diction and not terribly nice to poor Kellen Clemens in any way, not just correct but actually quite astute.

That's astute relative to most televised NFL commentary -- which is universally better enunciated, to be sure, but which also tends strongly towards neutered maundering about Execution and Character and is, at its vast low end, just one great booming jock-chuckle, an endless Shannon Sharpe malapropism echoing deafeningly forever while the words "Presented By Coors" flash.

That's also relative to the response that Kosar's commentary has drawn, which was huffy umbrage from Rams coach Jeff Fisher and a bullet-pointed exegesis concerning various airports and widely available flavored coffees a stern Twitter lecture from Peter King in his Respect The Shield message police mode. The eager, earnest ouroboros of access and advocacy that defines The Peter King Thing is another subject entirely, and anyway reflects a broader reflexive fealty to the status quo among the NFL media that is not at all limited to Peter King. But it's worth wondering why King -- by all accounts and appearances a pleasant and easygoing man, a grown-up dude with a picture of a happy doggy as his Twitter avatar -- chose this particular non-outrage as his moment to send a no-excuses message.

King has since apologized for the first tweet, but hasn't said much about the queasier second. What rankled Fisher enough to demand an apology -- which has, quietly and hilariously, become our culture's new Angry Tuff Public Figure move -- was that Kosar was critical of his players on television. Whether demanding a wide-ranging apology from Kosar and his employers for what amounted to accurate criticism is or isn't a good move is finally Jeff Fisher's call to make; lord knows there are enough scowling mad-dad types on cable news channels kayfabe-ing Deep Offense to provide plenty of cover for him.

King, for his part, explains that he was offended by Kosar's routine because he thought it was not just over the top, but "wrong." In his apology, King explains that he was "trying to be funny in an unfunny situation." Which is sort of silly in itself, but maybe we're getting somewhere, now. Because, regardless of how harmlessly intended or received Kosar's jokes were, this is not an unfunny situation.


It has its unfunny aspects, of course. There is, most inescapably, the decades of routine football punishment that Kosar absorbed, thickening and slurring his speech -- the NFL's brutal (and off-message) subtext is there in his every garbled syllable. There is the fact that some of the players he criticized or their families might have been upset at hearing -- presumably not for the first time in their football-playing lives -- that some armchair fortysomething thinks they stink, which is not the biggest thing, maybe, but isn't all that nice. There is the wrenching ontological challenge that is watching Kellen Clemens play quarterback for an extended period of time. But there is nothing really unfunny about all this, except for the implicit idea that the proper approach to a NFL game -- a preseason game, or any other -- is prayerful, scrupulously on-brand reverence.

That part is a bummer. But even that winds up someplace funny, if only because taking the NFL's grandiosity as seriously as the NFL does invariably collapses on satire. For all the jokes that there are to make about Roger Goodell's Vigilante Dad approach to discipline or grinning legalisms in the face of an increasingly overwhelming epidemic of brain trauma, none cut deeper than the dead-seriousness of the things themselves. There is no joke to be told about Jerry Jones' jumped-up Buddy Garrity routine that is funnier than Jerry Jones' jumped-up Buddy Garrity routine.

More broadly, the NFL's combination of gooey gladiatorial goofiness and weirdly kitsch patriotism is impossible to take seriously. The league would unquestionably stick Cleatus The Gesticulating Fox NFL Robot and an anthropomorphized Bud Lite can in the cockpit for a Blue Angels flyover if it could, and will as soon as it figures out how. If it's tasteless and a little insulting to wrap this most ruthless of business models in steroidal sentiment and flag motifs and tell us that It's America, It's Us, it's mostly just ridiculous. That's fine, in a sense -- living with puffed-up corporate pomposity is a fact of all our lives, but it remains our right to deflate it as needed.

Taking itself so seriously -- all this rum-dummy-dum It's A Man's Game In The National Football League stuff, the attempt at flattening out the game's real and wild greatness under a metastasizing corporate code of conduct -- is a reasonable enough approach for the NFL. Taking all that seriousness so seriously, though, is decidedly a strange angle for the broader NFL media, which has embraced it with the slack awe of gadget blogs hymning the next iPad and pursued it with flackish zeal.

Of course it is in the league's interests that it be packaged, presented, sold and consumed in precisely the ways that the league has calculated to be most effective. Of course the television networks working with the NFL to do that will go along to the extent possible in selling and spinning all this. Of course. But that's for them, and the games we watch are for us.

And while the rest of us -- who watch games and cheer, and laugh, because football as a game is funny in the best ways -- might object to the league banning outward displays of personality from its personnel, we might as well acknowledge that the league has its reasons. Then we might as well laugh. It's probably not a good idea to hold Bernie Kosar up as a shining example of fearless heterodoxy -- he was pointing out that Kellen Clemens is a lousy quarterback, not criticizing the league's concussion policy -- but it's also worth noting that he didn't do anything more offensive than speak irreverently about some football that was not strictly worthy of reverence. What else should anyone talking about football do?

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