Every Sport Could Use A John Madden
9:00 AM EST on December 30, 2021
On the cover of my paperback edition of John Madden's 1986 book One Knee Equals Two Feet, Madden is bursting through the narrow space between his first and last name. A football is superimposed into the open palm of his left hand. He is sort of grinning and sort of grimacing, and wearing one of those structured grandparental collared shirts that every middle-aged man in America wore between the years of 1949 and 1986; he is, by John Madden standards, not really all that disheveled. As was generally the case with the television-analyst version of the man, Madden appears to have been photographed while saying "Hey!" His first book, which was also written with the former New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, made this explicit; it was entitled Hey, Wait A Minute (I Wrote A Book!). The publisher would reuse the very same image of Madden As Kool-Aid Man, blasting through Hey!-fully with football sort-of in hand, on the paperback cover of his next book, One Size Doesn't Fit All. All three were bestsellers.
Where a certain type of sports book is concerned, it is not just reasonable but useful to judge by its cover. Madden was extremely famous by the time the first book came out, and already regarded as one of the great coaches in the sport's history. I was a kid, though, and only knew him as The Hey! Guy From Football. It was strange and startling, in reading the book, to learn that my John Madden, the rumpled and voluble sports muppet that burst into my family's TV room on Sundays drawing squiggling ovals around Harry Carson and Carl Banks, had also been the intense boy-genius coach he'd been with the Oakland Raiders.
Some of this was context. Bill Parcells, then the head coach of the Giants, was supplanting Tom Landry as the model of what a football coach should be. Parcells was a snarling and proudly unappeasable hard-ass who, brilliant though he was, seemed primarily concerned with signaling and cementing his own dominance over everyone beneath him. A bumper crop of extra-sour crabapples already hung ripening off his coaching tree; a whole generation of men just like Parcells were coming, and many of them are still in charge. Madden, whose mastery and understanding of the sport was never less than evident but which expressed itself on television in ways that were loopy and offhand and lighthearted, seemed like a different kind of being entirely.
In some crucial ways, he was. Notionally, One Knee Equals Two Feet was about football, and how to watch and appreciate it—the title refers to the standard that governs whether a receiver has possession of a pass inbounds—and I imagine I probably learned some things from it. But many of those lessons were illustrated by or just pressed into action to justify telling some stories about the Oakland Raiders teams that Madden had coached in the previous decade. I knew about those teams mostly as rough legend—through stories from my dad, or just by reverse-engineering some sort of story onto the Raider faces glowering up at me from their football cards. I knew those Raiders as men gritting and squinting in smoggy '70s sunlight, hard-bitten types whose heads were wreathed in uncanny coils of steam or pinched into place around stern and mirthless faces. Many of the players on other teams of that era looked like TV cops, or just regular cops. The Raiders looked like TV villains, or just regular villains. The stories in the book were about how Madden reached and reasoned with those guys, and sometimes even got them to do what he asked. They all won a lot of games together—authentically together, if the stories were to be trusted, on the strength of relationships that were not without the expected macho conflict but which were also bound by a sort of mutual orneriness and trust.
To say that all this blew my mind as a kid is both true and also not really very meaningful; I was a kid, so everything blew my mind. But what I remember being surprised by, more than anything else, was that the John Madden telling those stories was somehow also the Hey! guy from television—that my goofy television football uncle was also the leader of these rowdy brigands. This was a big part of how Madden's celebrity worked. The stuff that you could see, which was Madden as a hulking shambolic goofus who talked constantly and excitedly about whatever was on his mind, naturally obscured a brilliance that came through less loudly. He seemed to delight in this, too, waving a figurative (or literal) turkey leg around as if to distract from how entirely on top of this shit he was.
If this presentation made Madden into something of a caricature, it didn't seem to bother him. It made him rich, as it happened, but he seemed quite comfortable being a comic figure and a maestro at the same time—you could notice the incisiveness and clarity with which Madden broke down the plays that he diagrammed live on television, or you could notice that he tended to draw big lopsided circles around the pulling guards and cheating safeties that he was identifying, but the two occupied the same space, simultaneously. That it was all coming from a place of pleasure—real delight at the intricacy and strangeness of the game, and the brilliance of the players—didn't just make it all easier to absorb, although it did have that effect. As Tom wrote on Wednesday, it also welcomed you into a place of happy understanding. He said smart things in silly-sounding ways, which also happens to be how a lot of really good classroom teachers work. Madden had a master's in education, but in retrospect that combination of performance and education, theatrical goofiness and real rigor, was coaching—he helped you understand, and got you to care.
Those are valuable skills for a television commentator or anyone else, but the NFL is not really about this kind of demystification anymore. In its current iteration, the NFL is less concerned with winning people over than reminding them how significant it is; the battle has been won in a way it was not during Madden's tenure, and the NFL now celebrates and consolidates and brands and rebrands that victory much more than it does anything else. As befits a league that sees itself as a sort of unofficial auxiliary branch of the armed forces, mystification is very nearly the point. This is where the difference between Madden and, say, Jon Gruden is at its most obvious—Madden saw his job as fundamentally being about clarifying and communicating, the other in the catechistic recitation of coachy bluster and jargon. It's not just that Madden would be too singular and silly a figure for the contemporary NFL, although he would be. It's that what he did best isn't something the NFL is currently much interested in doing.
There are still some broadcasters who do something like what Madden did, if not quite as well: Recent players like Aqib Talib, Greg Olsen, and Tony Romo offer a perspective that wasn't on offer at all when I was a kid. But there are far more color commentators, in football but also in baseball and basketball, who understand their jobs as sour and theatrical tasks dedicated to explaining why you, the viewer, are or should be disappointed by what you're watching. They play the coach, or the ex-player, in ways that are fundamentally negative: performing exasperation, mining every moment for the failure that made it possible, and so working backward from every outcome to explain why it should not have happened, or been permitted to happen, or would not have happened in their day. This is not just the opposite of what Madden did. It is also much less fun.
So here's one last thing to miss about John Madden: that he started with the excitement of what the game was, and explained every moment in a way that suggested he thought that those moments were not just valuable, but meaningful in their own right. Because there is so much happening, and because everything depends to such a great extent on everything else, football can be difficult to understand. As a kid, I found it overwhelming. It was to Madden's credit as a broadcaster that he was so devoted to making it comprehensible. It was his greater gift that he made it seem like something worth learning and caring about, if only so that you might have as much fun with it as he did.