By Raul Groom
word most commonly used by the average shirtless, steaming
Packer fan to refer to the field of play does not, on its
face, seem to make any sense. The football field is not a
grid – it's marked off into twenty 15'x 160' rectangles, with
two 30' by 160' rectangles on either end, painted with the
colors of the home team. To the men who make their living
crashing into one another and falling down on a frozen field
in Wisconsin, the turf may sometimes feel like iron,
but there are plenty of terms that would express "Hey,
this field is hard" that are a lot more intuitive. You
could call it "The Anvil," maybe. But gridiron?
Even many dictionaries are baffled by the weird idiom, giving
the primary definition under a heading titled pitifully football.
The secondary definitions are no help, either – some wimpy
actorly bullshit about ropes dangling over a stage and an
allegation that the word "gridiron" can be used
to mean "a grill for cooking meat or fish." That
definition calls to mind the linguistically horrifying possibility
that the word is simply used to refer to anything that resembles
an iron grid. Maddeningly, among the many acceptable definitions
for the word "grid" we find "a gridiron."
Football resources are no help either. We get this from
Playfootball.com – "A football field is sometimes called
a gridiron because its lines were once marked off in a grid
pattern." No evidence is offered for this dubious and
unsatisfying explanation. Some sites just tell us that the
football field "resembles a gridiron." This is an
insult to anyone who has ever looked at a football field,
green and white and hashmarked and resembling a gridiron not
one little bit, but we are expected to swallow it. One could
be forgiven for believing, after taking in all of this uneducated
hooey, that the term has no etymology, that it was yarked
out by a drunk Notre Dame alum one November night in the late
forties and just kind of stuck.
But if there is anyone reading this from the Northeast,
he is probably more likely than almost anyone else in the
world (even Chicago football weenies) to be able to come up
with what I would wager – offering 8-1 to anyone who can prove
me wrong – is the correct derivation. The blood of fishermen
and seafaring plunderers still sharpens to a crisp red in
the lungs of those people, and the knowledge that comes with
a life on the water lies latent in their shivering brains.
As a disproportionate number of Pats partisans could probably
tell you, a nautical dictionary gives the primary definition
of "gridiron" as
1. n. An openwork frame on which vessels are placed for
examination, cleaning, and repairs.
A gridiron, then, is a place of intense scrutiny, where
flaws are identified and judgments are rendered. As Lombardi
was reportedly fond of saying around this time of year, "Gentlemen,
this is football."
Our President is a fan of the game, as we found out comically
a few seasons ago when Bush whacked his face on something
while snacking during a postseason tilt between the Ravens
and the Phins. Initially a lot of people speculated that Bush
was lying about the pretzel and had hit his head falling off
the wagon, but in the intervening months, a lot of evidence
has emerged to support the mainstream view that our Commander
in Chief is simply a monumental buffoon who can't watch football
and eat pretzels without falling over.
There seems to be no dispute that George is a genuine football
enthusiast, but I have often wondered exactly what it is about
the game that the younger Bush likes. The President is certainly
no fan of scrutiny – if he and his inept ilk were forced to
ply their trade in the open, in front of thousands of screaming
yahoos who'd just paid $8 for a Polish sausage, they would
not be long for this world. In the two and a half years since
Bush was inaugurated – just before the Ravens crushed the
G-Men in Super Bowl XXXV – every NFL team has held at least
32 grueling, snarling, blood-dripping tests of strength, endurance
and treachery in full view of God and man, while the President
of the United States has held a grand total of nine press
Worse still, each time Bush appears in front of the intrepid
watchdogs of our Fourth Estate, the game seems to contain
a little less of the salty flavor of Chiefs v. Raiders and
a little more of the bland, artificial tang of Enforcers v.
Rage (of the now-defunct Xtreme Football League, for the non-junkies
in the audience.) Maybe Bush is a Tommy Maddox, just waiting
for his chance to prove his true greatness, but somehow when
I watch the man I can't help thinking we're saddled with President
He Hate Me. Regardless, we'll never know unless he one day
takes his act to the big stage, but if you're counting on
that you should get a little coverage by tossing a couple
hundred bucks on the Houston Texans to win it all, at 250-1.
Bush will be run out of town like a SARS-infected coy dog
before he'll ever hold a real press conference, one that isn't
scripted right down to who wins the opening coin toss.
Of course, it's possible that George likes scrutiny only
when it's directed at others, which would explain his infatuation
with the national sport, which he has never played (though
he was a cheerleader at Yale.) However, Bush is no bigger
on being the subject of scrutiny than he is on being its object.
Bush now admits he didn't bother to read a 90-page intelligence
report on Iraq during the run-up to war - which report, we
have now learned, might have saved Bush from being bullied
into war by an unnamed TV network - and he isn't pissed that
his National Security Advisor didn't read it either. He blacked
out significant portions of the 9-11 commission's report on
the grounds that releasing the data would compromise National
Security, apparently believing that the best way to keep America
safe is to make sure that no one has any idea what the hell
is going on. At least you can't fault his consistency.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that for Bush, football
season, which runs from the beginning of August to the end
of January, has generally been characterized by a marked lack
of scrutiny – either of him or by him. After spending the
2001 preseason kicking around the ranch in Crawford, Bush
hit the trifecta and saw a gruesome terrorist attack and its
depressing aftermath absolve him of all responsibility for
anything except making stirring speeches about kicking ass.
Karl Rove even found a way to use Sunday afternoon to sell
the war in Afghanistan – bombing began right around kickoff
time during Week Five. I remember a fellow Cleveland fan remarking
approvingly, and without irony, that the timing was a great
way to make sure the bombing campaign pulled killer ratings.
That second honeymoon lasted well into the offseason, but
by the time most teams had their 2002 draft picks in pads,
it was time for another distraction. Bush and Cheney turned
a bright but historically fuzzy spotlight on the crimes of
Saddam Hussein, and the President stretched the wrangling
over the war all the way to the 2003 draft before he finally
let slip the Dawgs. During that time, George couldn't be troubled
to scrutinize anything more complicated than the Sunday TV
schedule, as evidenced by the reams of key intelligence data
of which he and his entire administration were apparently
Now here we are again, at the beginning of another August,
anxiously awaiting the return of the shiny colored hats that
keep our favorite players' brains inside our favorite players'
heads. This time, though, the Bush clan seems to be at something
of a loss as to how to make sure the national desire for keen
observation and merciless examination remains confined to
stadiums and Superdomes where it belongs. Though the Democrats
are avoiding the gay marriage debate like the plague (unnecessarily,
as I argued in a previous column) the War on Well-Dressed
Men does not have quite the same raw power as the War on Terror.
With U.S. troops already committed to all the invasions
and pacifications they can handle, the cupboard is looking
a bit bare for Bush's handlers, who are sweating a as the
USS Dubya floats into port for one last tune-up before the
2004 Presidential race begins in earnest. Without another
grand distraction to occupy the nation's political longshoremen,
the administration faces its worst nightmare.
President Bush is about to be hoisted on the gridiron, and
this time, the whole world is watching.