Democratic Underground  

The Gridiron
August 8, 2003
By Raul Groom

The 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 "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 conferences.

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 unaware.

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.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage