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Relax, Jets Fans. It’s Just Football

Pundits are piling on New York Jets coach Rex Ryan for turning his team into a ‘circus.’

Let’s start by conceding the obvious: the Jets, at the moment, are a wreck of a football team. In 2012, they fielded a grossly under-talented roster, started a franchise quarterback who is clearly not a franchise quarterback, built a ground-and-pound offense around a running back who isn’t capable of putting a team on his shoulders, shelled out money for a backup quarterback who rarely played, and trapped themselves in a salary-cap situation that could spell disaster for many years to come.

But as this awful season has unfolded, much of the criticism of the Jets has gone beyond mere football. The Jets, according to reporters and pundits, are not simply a team with a disappointing record; they are also a soap opera, a circus, a self-involved, eye-roll-inducing, drama-filled reality-TV show. Before the season started, the New York Post put Rex Ryan, Mark Sanchez, and Tim Tebow on its cover dressed as clowns. A “circus-like atmosphere in the locker room” (ESPN), a “gridiron soap opera” (CBS This Morning), a “bizarre, circus-like season which has included as many soap-opera turns as ugly defeats” (Yahoo Sports), and “the Snooki of pro sports” (NPR—yes, even NPR piled on) are all phrases you might have heard used to describe the Jets during the past few months.

This perception was so pervasive that, as the season got underway in September, the team’s owner, Woody Johnson, found himself having to deny that the Jets were a circus. “I certainly don’t feel that way,” he told reporters. “We’re deadly serious about what we’re doing here.”

But Johnson got things doubly wrong. First, his Jets are indeed a soap opera—a messy, bizarre, buffoonish spectacle of a team. And second, that’s something he, and the rest of us who care about the Jets, should stop being so embarrassed about. In fact, I would go one step further: the world would be a far better place if more sports operations started behaving exactly like the Jets.

I know that sounds sort of insane, but hear me out. For starters, there’s no obvious causal relationship between the level of drama surrounding a football team and the quality of the product on the field. Yes, there are soap-opera-esque bad teams like the Jets and deliberately, painfully, obnoxiously boring good teams like the Patriots. But there are also boring-as-hell bad teams (no one would describe the Mike Mularkey-era Jacksonville Jaguars or the Chan Gailey-led Buffalo Bills as buffoonish, reality-show-like spectacles), as well as soap-opera-esque teams that manage to win games.

Indeed, one of those soap-opera-esque successful teams was the Jets of 2009 and 2010. And at the time, Rex Ryan, the man whose oddball bluster has set the tone for the entire Jets organization, was actually being applauded for having turned the team into a transparent, amusing, drama-filled, headline-hogging circus. Ryan, observed Nicholas Dawidoff in a terrific 2010 cover story for The New York Times Magazine, had “found a way to make the game fun again.” He was the ultimate contrast to Bill Belichick, whose brilliant but unsmiling approach to football rendered the game “dehumanizing.” Wrote Dawidoff: “It was sport, after all, not national security, and the implication—that not even football was allowed to be pleasure—made Sunday afternoon seem a little too much like Monday morning.”

Two years later, it turns out that Ryan may possess somewhat less coaching genius than he was widely credited for in 2010. (For whatever reason, and I don’t have the technical expertise to know why, his innovative defensive schemes don’t seem to be fooling opposing teams anymore.) But if anything, I would argue that Dawidoff actually understated Ryan’s importance as a cultural figure. Ryan seems to understand himself fundamentally as a performer—a radical and nearly unheard-of attitude for a coach at any level of any sport. He clearly cares deeply about winning; no one could possibly dispute that. But in behaving like a fun-loving circus master, he has always given the impression that he knows exactly what sports are: entertainment. Nothing less but also nothing more.

The teams the Jets have fielded during the Ryan era—with their tabloid-ready personalities, from Mark Sanchez to Tim Tebow to Plaxico Burress to Santonio Holmes to Braylon Edwards (twice)—have reflected this sensibility. And in doing so, I think they have served as a useful reminder about what sports can, and can’t, be. Nearly all the problems that flow from sports in our society come from the outsize importance we attach to them. We aren’t satisfied to let sports be entertainment, and to let the people who make the product be simply entertainers. Which is how we end up paying college coaches millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, or giving them insane amounts of power over the universities that employ them. Think about it this way: wouldn’t the sports world be better off if we had more coaches like the genial, self-aware Rex, who seems to think of himself as nothing more than a football-obsessed reality star—and fewer monomaniacal tyrants who conflate sports with ethics or warfare and regard themselves as historical figures?

You could pick any number of soap-opera moments from recent Jets history to illustrate the fundamentally light-hearted sense of reality-TV drama that Ryan has brought to the team. Some were definitely intentional (his funny turn as a Patriots fan in an Adam Sandler movie or the press conference where he showed up dressed as his brother); some were maybe intentional (his infamous instruction to his team, captured on HBO, to “let’s go eat a goddamn snack”); and some were surely unintentional (his possible involvement in a foot-fetish video). But probably my favorite soap-opera moment of the Rex era came three years ago in Florida, when a picture emerged of Ryan giving the middle finger to a Miami Dolphins fan who was heckling him. The Jets took a humorless position on the whole matter, fining him $50,000; and Rex—doing what he was expected to do—released a humorless apology, calling his own behavior “stupid and inappropriate.” But I loved the photo. In it, Ryan is wearing as broad a smile as you will ever see from a guy giving someone else the finger. It is the look of a man who, even as he interacts with an obnoxious fan, is truly having a blast—a man who likes being a source of entertainment for others and who, in the process, is also entertaining himself.

As the Jets enter a long off-season, they obviously need to rebuild. If they’re going to keep Sanchez, they need a receiving corps that can make him look good, and an offensive coordinator who can help him improve. And that’s just the beginning. But I also suspect there will be a lot of pressure on the Jets from pundits to tamp down the reality-show act—to become a bit less entertaining and a bit more like a conventional team. I hope Rex, Woody Johnson, and the organization they lead give the proverbial finger to that suggestion. It’s the rest of the sports world that needs to become more like the Jets, not the other way around.