Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Threat of Ocho Cinco

It wasn't too long ago that the Cincinnati Bengals offense was built around two Johnsons, running back Rudi and wide receiver Chad. In a whirlwind 24 hours, it appears they are now down to zero, after Rudi was cut and it was revealed that Chad legally changed his last name to his self-proclaimed nickname "Ocho Cinco" (after his jersey number).

While the story is still breaking as this is being written, I expect that the mainstream sports media will respond with swift disapprobation. I have already found one columnist who eloquently states "he's just plain dumb." We will hear the usual cliches about how he is detracting from the team by drawing attention to himself, how he is more interested in showboating than winning, etcetera, etcetera. Ocho Cinco provided fuel for their fire when he told the Bengals website "Have I ever had a reason for why I do what I do? I'm having fun." Of course, the same article heavily implies that Ocho Cinco's motivations are fiduciary, and they might well be.

But in a league where players are routinely evaluated on their marketing potential, and many are lauded for making themselves attractive brand names (think Brett Favre and Peyton Manning), why would a perceived cash grab necessarily raise the football establishment's ire? In short, what is it about the former Chad Johnson's approach that makes his way the "wrong way"?

To find the answer, I think we have to go all the way back to October 29, 2006. Johnson came out for pre-game warm-ups with his jersey nameplate displaying "Ocho Cinco" rather than the league-mandated "C. Johnson" (with the first initial to differentiate himself from teammate Rudi). His own teammate ripped off the offending nameplate, though he was still subjected to a league fine of $5,000, even though he didn't even wear it in a game.

I think this moment was highly significant. It has never quite been forgotten by NFL fans, and now this latest move ("Ocho Cinco 2.0" as the receiver himself terms it) can be seen as an escalation of that previous conflict. I find the name on the back of the jersey to be a highly symbolic and important site, where the very viability of the multi-billion dollar industry is asserted.

I've actually written before about what I perceive to be the odd practice of consumer investment in player jerseys. When people purchase this form of merchandise, they are actually negotiatiating a potential source of tension. Does one choose to represent identification with the (abstract) team, for which victory is desired, or the (concrete) player, who makes such a victory possible? The jersey, with the team identity on the front, and the individual identity on the back, represents a compromise between these potentially conflicting forces. The consumer finds a way to represent an allegiance to both.

However, it is worth pointing out that the jersey is part of something larger, not coincidentally called a "uniform." The league mandates that uniforms truly are uniform (with the NFL particularly notorious for their enforcement of these mandates), and that includes what should be displayed on the players' nameplate. Although historically nicknames have been a prevalent aspect of sports mythology, the Ocho Cinco incident emphatically reveals that they are not welcome on player jerseys.

To understand why the player nameplate is such an important site, and why the NFL feels so strongly about the need to maintain control over it, consider the case of the XFL. Pro wrestling mogul Vince McMahon's short lived professional football league attempted a business model predicated on building an alternative to the NFL model, one that involved deconstructing elements that the NFL had in effect sanctified. In other words, irreverence would be the order of the day. Whereas the NFL acquired the nickname "No Fun League" after cracking down on on-field celebrations, the XFL encouraged flamboyancy. Instead of the staid decorum in evidence for NFL games (think of the narrative voice of NFL Films), XFL PA Announcers engaged in "trash talk."

But if you ask any football fan their enduring memory of the XFL, or ask them to name an XFL player, odds are they will state, "He Hate Me," referencing the enigmatic jersey name worn by a player named Rod Smart. I will not go so far as to suggest that Smart's jersey doomed the league, but I will assert that it is symbolic of why the XFL failed. When we watch pro football, we want to forgot two things. First, we want to forget it is a game at all. We want to think that our three-hour time investment is a serious pursuit. Second, we want to forget that we are watching individuals who might want different identities for themselves than the ones we want them to have. It is okay for pro wrestling to deconstruct the definition of "sport" and blur the boundary between sports and entertainment. But when it comes to team sports like football, the practice of opening up the space on the back of a players' jersey to individual disposition is a dangerous proposition.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many of Johnson's...umm, I mean Ocho Cinco's, antics are documented on this website:

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Luke said...

Exactly right on

10:53 PM  

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