Nixon Calling the Play


“Here’s an interesting thesis,” Lapius said, folding the paper longitudinally, and peering at the edito­rial page.


“What is an interesting thesis?”  I asked S.Q. Lapius, peering over his shoulder and trying to read the small print.


“This fellow says that President Nixon merely epitomizes the average American.  That his problems merely represent some cumulative total of what we all are guilty of.  Namely sharp practices, con­niving, contempt for our fellow citizens, and adherence to the adage that anything short of murder goes as long as it helps us get ahead.”


“Surely that seems a bit extreme,” I said.  “Murder should be included too.”


“You know, Harry, remarks such as that are not very constructive, are they?”


“Maybe not, Simon, but I don’t like being lumped together with President Nixon.  I have nothing against him personally, mind you.  As a matter of fact, I even won a few bucks on him on the last election.  But I see no advantage at this stage of becoming what might be his sole supporter.  After all, why should ordinary citizens like you and I be implicated in an orgy of national guilt because Nixon has problems?”


“No Harry.  I think that this fellow has something.  Sure Nixon has problems.  You remember when he was just starting out they used to ask, ‘would you buy a used car from Nixon?’  But the fact is, that if the used care salesman is dishonest as a breed why do we tolerate and make jokes about it.”


“Actually we have sort of accepted the sharp practice and chicanery as the American way for too long.  We sympathize with people who cheat on their income tax, and take pride in the loopholes, pad our expense accounts.  We don’t do this directly.  Actually our accountants do it reflexly.  But we certainly don’t discourage them.”


“Simon what are you saying?  That the whole country is one big collective crook?  That’s silly.  As a matter of fact I just heard the president say he wasn’t a crook.”


Lapius smiled.  “Maybe you are right, Harry.  It’s just that I’ve always thought of America in terms of hard, honest, competitive ethic, and of course that’s how I’d like her to be.  As a matter of fact, until yesterday I was willing to accept that proposition that in the main that’s what America was.”


“What happened yesterday?”


“A football game.”


“And that changed your mind?  What happened in the football game?  Did they hand out too many penalties?”


“No.  Actually it seems a minor point but I think it important.”


“You think what important?” I was interested now in the football game.  I didn’t know who had played or who had won, but I suddenly became intrigued with this great game that changed Lapius’s mind about the character of America.


“You know the rule about coaches not being allowed to call plays from the sidelines?”  Lapius asked owlishly.


“Of course.  Instead they send in players to the huddle with the plays they want run.”


“But this year this is a new wrinkle.  The player with the play is just a messenger.  He hands the play to the quarterback, turns around and scampers off the field.  He doesn’t even have to play.”


“I know that Lapius,” I said impatiently, “But what changed you mind about America?”    


“That did it.  The messenger.”


“Why, for goodness sake?  That’s ridiculous.  I don’t follow you.”


“Look at it this way. Harry.  Why can’t the coach call plays from the sidelines?”


“Because he’s not allowed to.”


“But why isn’t he allowed to?”


“I don’t know.  I never thought about it.”


“That’s one trouble with America right there.  Too many people not thinking about it.  Anyway, the reason that coaches weren’t allowed to call plays was because years back the athletic societies thought that it would be nice to have football no more than a test between the two teams of college kids.  Not a test of the brains of the coaches.  So they made a rule that the coach couldn’t sit on the sidelines and waggle his score-card to signal plays to the quarterback.  So the coaches got around this by sending players in to play, shuttling guards, who brought the plays in, stayed for one play, and then gave way to the other guard with the next play.  This was really a fraud, but the referees couldn’t stop it because there was no rule against substitution.  But this year, the player bringing in the play doesn’t even have to play one single play.  He is strictly a messenger.  So in actuality, the coach is signaling from the sidelines.  By allowing the coach to send in a messenger, the league has institutionalized a procedure that flouts its own original rule, that the coach shouldn’t call the plays.  So although he still isn’t allowed to call the plays, he is allowed to send in a messenger to talk to the team.  I think that this is the kind of thing America has been doing.  It has been hiding behind the rule book, finding loopholes, then changing the rule book ever so slightly to accommodate the new in­fraction. Finally the original meaning of the rule is lost.  After all, isn’t it true that when the motormen in New York decide to go on strike, they threaten the city that they will follow the rule-book to the letter?”


“Don’t you think it is silly to prevent the coach from calling plays?”


“Sure,” Lapius said, “That’s a dumb rule to begin with.  But instead of getting rid of the rule, they paper it over with new rules.  Well it doesn’t really matter,” Lapius continued, “I don’t like football that much anyway.”