Somehow, though I haven’t watched a single minute of NFL television coverage yet this fall, I have been unable to escape the Coors Light beer commercials featuring shrunken mini-likenesses of famous former NFL coaches. In one spot, the former Jets and Chiefs coach Herm Edwards (or a tiny likeness of him, digitally stitched into the frame) teaches a pack of boneheaded tailgating football fans how to really party in the parking lot before a game. Whittled down to the height of a beer can, Edwards instructs the earnest giants who surround him in the magical art of Cold vs. Super Cold. Once he has explained the meaning of the Coors Light beer label turning blue, he demands a “bring it in” cheer, but the tailgaters only offer their index fingers so as not to squash the tiny coach. When the commercial ends, the viewer is left with a complex admixture of half-asked questions and incipient desires: Why not have a beer that’s unusually cold right now? And, more important, Why should I be amused by a mouse-sized tough-guy disciplinarian? What’s supposed to be funny and appealing about that scenario?
Before the Penn State scandal broke on Nov. 5, I thought I had these Coors Light commercials more or less figured out. They were designed to appeal to men who love watching football but feel inadequate as spectators—not tough or manly enough to be true fans. When the tiny coaches lean against towering beer bottles and scream their exhortations, the watcher is reminded of the violence and intimidation inherent in the game, but is at the same time reassured. After all, there is Herm Edwards, who always had a kind of threatening glare, but he’s so diminutive that you could flick him away with a single hand. (Although there’s no need to flick Edwards away in this case, because he’s asking you to do something you’re already kind of good at: swilling beers. Put me in, Coach!)
Awful and tragic and overwhelming as the Penn State story is, I feel it’s somehow connected to our culture’s cramped archive of football-themed beer ads. But now, as details continue to trickle out of central Pennsylvania like toxic sludge dribbling out of a coalmine, I can see I missed the mark in my initial theory about Herm Edwards and the super-short coaches of Super Cold (other commercials feature Mike Ditka and Jim Mora). So I’m still wondering: what does the act of belittling football coaches suggest about our vision of sports and manhood in America?
This NPR wrap-up of the Penn State football scandal is one of the clearest, most concise I’ve seen, so I’ll offer the link and sum up in the briefest manner possible: Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State player and defensive coordinator, was charged with sexually abusing eight boys over the course of a decade and a half. Many of the instances of abuse allegedly took place in the showers of the Lasch Football Building on the Penn State campus. Several different people witnessed Sandusky showering with boys, and news of Sandusky’s behavior spread to the iconic head coach of the Penn State football team, Joe Paterno, and to the university’s president, Graham Spanier (who, believe it or not, has a background in family counseling and sociology). Information was shared, inquiries were conducted, but none of these supposedly exemplary leaders did the right thing. Now Spanier and Paterno, a craggy, paternal, benevolent-seeming football coach if there ever was one, have been fired, and many Penn State students, fans and alumni are outraged that “Joe Pa” hasn’t been allowed to go out on his own terms. How was Paterno supposed to know what exactly was going on and what to do about it? He’s just a football coach.
Except in this country we don’t see football coaches as “just football coaches.” We tend to ascribe to them—coaches in general, maybe, but football coaches in particular—certain wisdom about the hearts of men. A good football coach, we like to think, has character and knows how to judge character. He motivates by believing in and appealing to the character of the men he includes on his team. This brand of motivation goes beyond football, we tell ourselves. This is the reason so many of us (myself included) loved watching the television adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights: because the show revolved around a humble high school football coach who taught lessons about the ethical dimensions of living. “You are a molder of men,” the coach’s wife tells him in one episode. In another episode, a full season later, one of the coach’s protégés tells him the same thing: “You are a molder of men.” We can almost believe the phrase when the wife says it, because she loves her husband, because he’s such a great guy. But when we hear the phrase again, in the mouth of another character—Coach, you’re a molder of men—we realize it’s ridiculous. And we realize we are ridiculous for so badly wanting this to be true: coaches mold men. The book Friday Night Lights never makes such assertions; instead, the author suggests that football glory is as likely to ruin a young man’s character as to teach him about responsibility. But in the TV show, in episode after episode, Coach Taylor teaches his players how football can illuminate a man’s soul.
Of course Paterno should have been fired: his stature as a football coach had no bearing on his common sense; he showed a horrendous failure of leadership off the field. And this brings us back to the tiny coaches in those insipid ads. Why would we want to see these authority figures as innocuous little toy men? Because we understand that we care too much about what football coaches do. These guys have our spiritual wellbeing in their hands, and we feel guilty for making them so important, making the sport our religion. In the commercials we poke fun at them, shrink them down, pretend like they’re only good for shilling cold beer. Look at the little coach! But when the game comes back on after the commercial break, when we see the coaches prowling the sidelines with those authoritative headsets covering their ears, we half-believe they can hear our prayers.