Saturday, April 18, 2009

On Madden

Why most of us have such affection for Big John Madden is his relentless romanticism, of which I doubt he's aware. One day there was a tropical downpour but due to the artificial turf the play on the field wasn't that bad. Big John said, ''You know, this ought to be played on grass. I like it when the guys are all muddy and gooey and slipping and sliding around. That's football.''
--Frederick Exley

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that John Madden's exit from the broadcast booth has been met, largely, by indifference and relief. Madden has been overexposed for so long that even his celebrity impersonator has seen his career come and go. He has forever been the punchline to his own jokes, and even as he mellowed in recent years, he often seemed hopelessly suspended in his own ether. Madden was a romantic, and either you found it endearing (like I did) or you found it nauseating. In the midst of researching my book on sports in the 1980's, I found this quote in a 1986 article from Advertising Age, regarding Madden's spots for Ramada Inn:*

I know beauty is only skin deep, and I know Mr. Madden is a clever football commentator, but, for Pete's sake, the man is gross. He has a big head. He has a big mouth. He has big features and big hands on a big body. His hair and voice come at you with a big bang.
...Mr. Madden doesn't talk. He raves. You can feel his spit through the tv screen.

I'm guessing that's probably the nastiest review Ad Age has run since Jared started downing six-inch cold-cut combos twice a day. But subtletly was never Madden's thing. He is polarizing because he embraced the absurdity of the very medium in which he worked, not to mention the absurdity of modern sports. You can fault him for many things: He was awkward and excessive and had a knack for uttering things that were patently obvious, and he used the telestrator as a comedic prop, but his utter imperfection, his Homer Simpson bent, was his shtick. He believed in throwbacks, and in the primal nature of football, but he embraced modernity at the same time. He was the anti-John Facenda; he was the voice of the football as an irreverent entertainment, which was something we had not seen until the 1980's, when the games began melding with pop culture in unprecedented ways--and was also, not coincidentally, the beginning of the era of reality-based video games. Through this transition, Madden was our oft-befuddled guide**.

So you can argue (as Harvey Araton did in The New York Times) that Madden glorified violence and you can argue that Madden should have been more socially aware and you can argue that Madden didn't really know much about football in the first place, but you cannot say that John Madden didn't matter. He made football seem both romantic and silly, at a time when football--after suffering through several P.R. nightmares in the early '80s--needed to take itself less seriously.

And I am hesitant to believe that any generation has a definitive voice, but if you look back at the changes in sports and in media over the past two decades, no one is more emblematic of that new reality than the gooey man with the big head and the big mouth, raving on about the mud.

*Which I must say I do not remember at all.
**And he happened to make a cajillion dollars in the process.

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