Tuesday, November 20, 2007

NIck Saban as the Jabberwock

The big news of today seems to be the firestorm Nick Saban caused by his comments using catastrophic historical events to compare to Alabama's loss to the University of Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday. Personally, I think it is a firestorm of hogwash.

For one thing, people have often used historical events as a metaphor for catastrophe. We have seen bad losses referred to as "Pearl Harbor" games, "holocaust" is commonly used to describe debacles. But for some reason, when 9-11 gets brought into the equation, people feel the need to stand up and shout, "Wait a minute -- this is over the top!"

One fine day, we Americans are going to have to lose our hypersensitivity to metaphors that include 9-11. It is an unfortunate form of political correctness that we really must get past. We have gotten past Pearl Harbor. We have gotten past the Holocaust. These were all terrible events, but the communicate something visceral and important, and when people use them metaphorically, it is a reflection of seriousness and determination. When we think of terrible events, we often think of what was lost exclusively, and forget the braveness, effort and sacrifice it took to recover. The recovery, to me, means far more than the catastrophic event that precipitated it. That is the real metaphor Saban intended to use.

Saban's metaphor may have been too much for some, but I understood what he was saying, and leaving hypersensitivity aside, his point was apt. Catastrophic losses (and make no mistake, this was catastrophic for Alabama and the rest of the SEC) at this late juncture in the season when teams are supposed to be at their best, require more to recover from than dropping a game to Mississippi or Florida State, as any disastrous circumstance requires more to recover from than a simple setback. Many people may think, "But it's just a game!" Yes, but it isn't to Saban -- it is the method by which he earns his living and feeds his family. It isn't just a game to many Alabama fans, either -- it is one of their passions.

Lest you think I am biased, I don't care one iota about Saban -- I am a UK fan, and Alabama is just another foe to be beaten when I am wearing the Blue and White. But when I have my SEC hat on, Saban is in charge of an important part of SEC tradition, one of the crown jewel football programs in the conference. When Alabama is embarrassed, the whole league suffers. If Saban can't handle that charge, I will happily take as much umbrage with his performance as any but the most partisan 'Bama fans would.

Some of the real over-the-top stuff that I see in the media today include this from Kevin Scarbinsky (Hat tip: From the Bleachers):

That's right. The head football coach at Alabama included the lost lives in New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Hawaii with the lost games against Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe in his very serious discussion of "catastrophic events."

What historical tragedy will he reference Saturday when Alabama loses a sixth straight game to Auburn? The Holocaust?
This is platitudinous hyperbole. Saban referred to 9-11 in a highly modal context, but sportswriters seem to feel perfectly justified in ignoring that fact to bash him. Besides, people refer to the Holocaust all the time for descriptive emphasis. Maybe he just forgot.

Huntsville-Times columnist Mark McCarter gives us yet another example (again, hat tip to From the Bleachers ):
Saban arrived with a rich reputation for his insensitivity. Usually it's directed toward media or minions.

On Monday, that insensitivity stretched well beyond the protected confines of his kingdom when he concocted such an insulting, ill-advised analogy. An experienced, expensive coach has to do better.

Maybe Saban was just too wrapped up in emotion and hyperbole. Maybe, like some fourth-and-two play, he didn't give it enough thought. Maybe it was dramatic effect. Maybe it was self-preservation, a bold statement to a fan base where some are already second-guessing the investment.

Whatever the reason, to borrow from his war-time comparisons, Nick Saban bombed.
Once again, where is the context the media has so demanded from bloggers and others using their comments to make examples of their remarks? It is absent.

"Sensitivity" is a word we often use when we don't really mean it -- instead, it is designed to prepare others for a visceral, emotional reaction. Nothing produces anger in the politically correct like the charge of "insensitivity," and the media employ that word like a rhetorical vorpal blade against any who dare invoke its sacred cows -- "Snicker-snack, you evil Saban, we'll take your head!"

GhostofNeyland at Third Saturday in Blogtober disagrees with me, and thinks Saban was off base:
Look, before I start, in no way do I think that Saban was comparing Alabama losing to Louisiana-Monroe with the terrorist attacks on 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. (I think this is the link where you can go down to the Saban teleconference and listen for yourself). That’s not what I’m trying to imply. And I promise you I would have written the same blog about this had coach Phillip Fulmer made the references that Saban did.
...
But to even invoke events such as those which not only shaped our history as a great nation but also were horrific tragedies that cost our families thousands of precious lives, is uncalled for in my opinion. Saban should not have mentioned those events during any type of football press conference. He’s let some of the psychotic Alabama fans (that’s not the vast majority of you guys, thank God) get to him, apparently.
I understand where he was coming from, but history is history. Saban making metaphorical references to history is not disrespectful to anyone, especially in the manner in which it was done. We do not honor the dead by placing historical events off limits for any type metaphor, however remotely dissociated from the loss of life.

The real problem, as we have seen, was his inclusion of 9-11. I believe that a Pearl Harbor metaphor by itself wouldn't have drawn a single remark, or the Holocaust if it were fitting (which it isn't) except for the predictable irrational charge of anti-semitism inevitably leveled when anyone uses "holocaust" in a "non approved" manner. What about Sherman's rampage through Georgia where many more people (including civilians) were killed? Nobody minds using those, and they shaped our history just as surely as 9-11. No, those events aren't as fresh in our minds, but I get the impression this outrage over Saban's metaphors are less heartfelt and more calculated than their purveyors would like to admit.

Brian Cook at Fanhouse also thinks Saban was wrong:
This is not quite a direct comparison -- Nick Saban, despite what LSU fans might tell you, is not history's greatest monster -- but it is high up on the list of embarrassing things coaches have said over the past 10 to 15 years. Even leaving aside the "America, eff yeah!" aspect of things, losing to ULM is just losing to ULM and not, say, a nation-altering surprise attack by foreigners, no matter how many kids on the ULM team speak Cajun. Trust me: I'm a Michigan fan. You get over it.
Well, he is right about one thing -- you get over it. The problem isn't that -- it is the almost pathological aversion we have to mentioning 9-11 in any kind of allegory or metaphor, and the virtual 100% certainty that anyone even approximately doing so will be "snicker-snacked" by the media as well as some bloggers. I don't believe either those unfortunate victims or the brave police and firefighters who died in that catastrophe would want their memory being placed above that of others who have perished over the course of history in disasters or war which are commonly used for hyperbole, allegory and metaphor. No right-thinking person would.

Let history be history. Let us learn from it, and move forward.

9 comments:

C. Paul said...

Good read. I tend to agree with you that it has been blown way out of proportion.

That said - he could have chosen better imagery for his reference.

Happy Thanksgiving.

bubba said...

I completely agree. And we gave it to Ghost of Neyland in the comments.

BestofSEC said...

c. paul:

I think you're right. Thanks for the kind comments.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours as well.

Bubba:

I'll have to check out those comments. Thanks for reading.

Michael I said...

Give me a break. Folks simply do not go around comparing bad days to Pearl Harbor or the Holocaust. Already we overuse words like meltdown, or disaster, or even crash (and burn). But to ratchet up acceptable hyperbole beyond these metaphorical stretches, to make today's event (whatever it is) seem THE most terrible and awful, is a sad commentary on how screwed up society is -- not just Saban. Context, reality ...anyone? You are bad wrong, dude. At least I hope your are, otherwise pass the zoloft and prozac.

BestofSEC said...

Michael:

First you tell me people don't make such comparisons, and then you contradict your own point. I could give you thousands of examples where people compare big losses to everything from Pearl Harbor to the Apocalypse. But since you typed your comment, clearly your hands aren't broken. You can use Google as well as I.

As you say, people use somewhat extreme metaphors all the time. It is part of human nature to exaggerate. My point is, why should we hold Saban to a different standard than we hold everyone else to?

As far as your comments on how screwed up society is, well, it is the society we have.

I am not wrong, dude. You are not wrong. We just have different opinions. Lots of people do. No prescription medication necessary.

mlmintampa said...

I think to rally his kids, he probably referenced 9/11, which FSU once did in terms of "Let's Roll" shirts. Of course, saying that to the media is totally different. If he kept it to a comparison of how America rallied after those events, he would have been ok. But, isn't amazing how we can say football players are "warriors" fighting a "war in the trenches"?

BestofSEC said...

mlmintampa:

Indeed. Sometimes, the metaphors and comparisons are strained to the brink of credibility.

But as I say, it's human nature to exaggerate.

Philip, the Equal Opportunity Cynic said...

Best,

I generally agree with you, especially about how we attach special significant to "insensitivity" surrounding 9/11 because it's more recent. (In fairness, there are also many more living direct relatives of the victims.)

But to me the real point is this: These writers, Scarbinsky and McCarter and all the rest, directly benefit from a culture in Alabama that blows everything about college football way out of proportion. If losing games can't be compared to death, then perhaps public safety officials or the surgeons at the UA Medical Center should make more than the guy who teaches a bunch of college kids how to play a ball game.

So you'll hear those writers tut-tut all about how Saban's comments lack all proportion, but perhaps this week more of them should be publicly giving thanks that the Alabamans reading their papers suffer from the same blind spots.

BestofSEC said...

Philip:

Great point.

I'm sure these guys know that they have a built-in audience for this type of criticism, and will get lots of letters patting them on the back for skewering hyperbole that, according to them, disgraces the memory of the 9-11 victims.

If only they were as dedicated to honesty as they are to their readers.