Brett Favre: The Restricted Archetype

Sportswriters are a tough breed. They take pride in their high-cholesterol, high-testosterone existences and their lack of tear ducts. And yet they’ve spent the last month blubbering over the retirement of Brett Favre.

The collective scribes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated are practically sitting shiva for the Packers quarterback. One could almost be excused for believing he spent the off-season turning water into wine.

Granted the man has had a remarkable career: the record 253 consecutive starts; the record 442 touchdown passes; the record three consecutive MVP awards. In the sub-freezing weather so near and dear to the hearts of Green Bay, Wisc., his lifetime record was 36-9. All the more remarkable when we consider Favre wasn’t exactly raised in an igloo but is from Kiln, a small town in Mississippi.

Yet despite the remarkable career, it was hardly the stuff of folk legend. As Sal Paolantonio wrote, “Yes, Favre won a Super Bowl—11 years ago! But as his career arc spiraled downward, the blind adulation only got worse. Favre’s passer rating in his last 12 postseason games was a pedestrian 77.8. In his last five wild-card games, he went 2-3 with more interceptions (nine) than touchdown passes (seven). In his last three divisional playoff games, he went 1-2 with seven TDs and seven interceptions. That’s a 3-5 record with 14 touchdown passes and 16 picks. In two of his last four postseason appearances, Favre threw two of the most unthinkable playoff interceptions in NFL history, both in overtime—to Brian Dawkins of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2003 and to Corey Webster of the New York Giants in January. In fact, Favre is the only quarterback in NFL history to throw overtime interceptions in two playoff games. In his last nine playoff games, Favre threw 18 interceptions.”

It’s worth asking why a brilliant albeit uneven hall of fame career has led so many writers to short circuit their keyboards with tears. For many in and out of the press corps, Favre is the classic white American archetype: the flawed hero. This archetype is crack cocaine cut with catnip for a sports media blissed out on their own addiction to macho nostalgia.

Favre’s flaws were treated by the press like Cindy Crawford’s beauty mark: They only made him lovelier.

His on-field flaws—particularly the ugly interceptions—were part of a persona. Just gunslinger Brett being Brett.

This applied to his personal life as well. As D-Wil wrote in his indispensable sports blog Sports on My Mind, “When it was revealed that Favre had an addiction to the painkiller Vicodin, the press rushed to his defense and, much like we see from Andy Pettitte and his HGH admission today, Favre was and is hailed as a hero who conquered the evil drug. Though Favre admitted that at first he took Vicodin for pain and then recreationally, which led him to addiction, the press excuses his addiction. Abusing the painkiller just to get high is not mentioned. Even today Adam Schefter and others at NFLN indicated that Favre took the drug to be out there with his teammates. Jim Mora Sr., now an NFLN analyst, said reverently of Favre: ‘Even though he was addicted to Vicodin, he did it for the team. And all through that time not only did he not miss a game, but he didn’t miss a practice.’”

It’s not that Favre is either saint or villain. He’s like most of us not named Bush—complicated. Yet this is a league that rarely takes a deep breath to ponder the complicated. The NFL is a smash-and-grab business, with no tolerance for a year or two, let alone a decade of mediocrity. Favre survived for the same reason Reagan survived Iran-Contra: Love of the flawed hero clouds the senses and elevates hagiography over journalism.

It’s interesting when you compare and contrast Favre with Donovan McNabb, another picture of flawed greatness. Fans booed lustily when McNabb was drafted in 1999. Except for Terrell Owens, who made his life a living hell, he’s played his whole career with unspeakably terrible receivers. Yet McNabb has been in five Pro Bowls and was the 2004 NFC Offensive Player of the Year when he became the first player in history to throw for more than 30 touchdowns and fewer than 10 picks.

Still McNabb isn’t seen here as a warrior undeserving of criticism but instead as someone who perhaps should be shown the door. The Eagles send mixed signals as well, including drafting young quarterback Kevin Kolb last year, presumably to take his spot.

The painful truth is that the Favre archetype remains a restricted club. For all the progress of black quarterbacks, the criteria remain different, and patience is far shorter. McNabb pointed this out last year on HBO’s Real Sports, saying, “There aren’t that many African-American quarterbacks, so we have to do a little bit extra. Because the percentage of us playing this position, which people didn’t want us to play … is low, so we do a little extra.”

He was vilified of course. But he keeps on trucking. As he said in the interview, “Every day that we go through life, you’re faced with a lot of adversity. Now the answer is how do you handle the adversity? How do you respond?”

Brett Favre certainly faced his share of adversity, and responded in ways at times heroic and at other times in ways all too human. Donovan McNabb has simply been sterling.

If Favre were black, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Kiln, Miss., he would’ve lasted in Green Bay. McNabb should be Philadelphia’s Brett Favre, a player the people of Philadelphia shouldn’t shun, but cherish and if necessary, defend.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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