The 5 o’clock club is published several times per week during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.
One of my favorite movies of all time is Finding Forrester, a movie that improbably features an septuagenarian agoraphobic writer — a Scotsman by birth who is transplanted to Queens or the Bronx or Bedford-Stuyvestant (I’m not from New York). The movie revolves around his relationship with a black teenager — an intelligent young guy who is struggling to understand his place in the world by playing basketball with his friends and writing in his journal. The relationship flourishes when the boy, Jamaal, repeatedly seeks out the writer, William Forrester, for feedback on his writing.
If you’ve never seen the movie, jump at the opportunity if it comes on your local cable movie channel this year.
Fairly early in the movie, there is a bit of antagonistic parry and thrust between the two characters, with Jamaal surprisingly holding his own with the older and worldly-wise Forrester, but the writer challenges Jamaal early and often, and uses his gruff exterior to hold the boy at bay whenever Forrester feels too emotionally exposed.
One of the first instances of this is a rather abrupt figurative slap in the face aimed at Jamaal:
Forrester: How old are you?
Jamaal: I’m Sixteen.
Forrester: And you’re black. It’s remarkable.
Jamaal: “Remarkable”? It’s remarkable I’m black? What does me being black have to do with anything?
Forrester: You don’t know what to do right now, do you? If you say what you really want to, I may not read any more of [your writing]. But if you let me run you down with this racist bullshit...what does that make you?
Jamaal: I’m not playing this game, man.
Forrester: I say you are playing it.
As mentioned, Forrester, being an agoraphobic, doesn’t venture outside - a fact that is obvious to Jamaal. In a scene a short time later, as Forrester stands looking out his window through a set of binoculars, describing a bird he can see in a nearby tree, Jamaal asks him a question:
Jamaal: You ever go outside to do any of this?
Forrester: You should have stayed with the soup question. The object of a question is to obtain information that matters only to us. You were wondering why your soup doesn’t firm up? Probably because your mother was brought up in a house that never wasted milk in soup.
That question was a good one, in contrast to, “Do I ever go outside?”...
...which fails to meet the criteria of obtaining information that matters to you.
Jamaal: All right. I guess I don’t have any more soup questions.
Jamaal: Why’d you say all that stuff about me being black?
Forrester: It had nothing to do with you being black. I wanted to find out how much bullshit you’d put up with.
The issue of the soup question doesn’t end there.
Near the end of the movie, Jamaal is in a position to win the state basketball championship by making two free throws with no time left on the clock. In an earlier scene in the movie, he had, under a lot of pressure, sunk 50 consecutive free throws, so when he misses both free throws to cost his team the championship, there is reason to believe that he may have done it intentionally — a sort of “FU” to the school administration who had pressured him and shown him a lack of respect.
William Forrester is curious.
Forrester: Let me ask you a question... those two foul shots at the end of the game... did you miss them, or did you *miss* them?
Jamaal: That’s not exactly a soup question, now is it?
Which shuts William up quick-smart.
I’d like to draw a few parallels between the Redskins organization, the Washington DC sports journalists who cover the team, and this movie that I like so much.
First, let’s consider the first scene above — the one where Forrester tells Jamaal that it’s “remarkable” that he’s black, then smirks at him as he openly challenges him to call Forrester on his “bullshit”, knowing that Jamaal wants what William can give or take away at any time.
The Washington journalists have a line to walk with Bruce, Dan and the Redskins. Sure, the organization knows that the writers have to ask some questions, but the Redskins are known to yank credentials away from writers who push too hard, not to mention that being a sports reporter isn’t exactly the same as being an investigative journalist. I mean, there’s not a huge obligation to push hard to uncovers stories of corruption and mismanagement. It’s just football.
1) I can guarantee you that if we are allowed to ask questions, he will get tough, direct questions that need to be asked.— Craig Hoffman (@CraigHoffman) October 7, 2019
2) Be prepared to be disappointed anyway. Bruce is an EXPERT politician. He sticks to his own script as well as anyone in this town. https://t.co/65cFtgihdI
On Monday, when the reporters gathered to hear what Bruce Allen had to say, there was a level of defiance and challenge in their questions similar to Jamaal’s “It’s remarkable that I’m black?!”
But no individual in the group really pushed it; the group didn’t ‘gang up’ on Bruce. It was all rather civil, and all played within the rules and guidelines that Bruce and Dan would be comfortable with. In fact, one reporter, in particular, appeared to lob a fawning underhand softball question down the middle of the plate as a seeming favor to Bruce.
In effect, Bruce played the role of Forrester, challenging the reporters with, “if you let me get away with this, what does that make you?”
The journalists, individually and collectively, would surely say, as Jamaal did, that they weren’t playing Bruce’s game, but I’m sure that, in his mind, at least, Bruce would have replied, “I say you are playing it.”
I can’t really blame the members of the press corps. Again, they’re only sports writers, so they don’t have some moral obligation to go on the attack. Also, if any one of them surpassed his or her peers in the level of aggression, he could find himself cut off — no more access to the facility, to practices, to the locker room, to the players, to the coaches. It would, in effect, render that reporter impotent and unable to perform his job. I wouldn’t put my career at risk if I were in their shoes.
To actually make Bruce Allen uncomfortable would have required the entire assemblage of reporters to go into an aggressive attack mode, and to follow up each other by repeating the same questions again and again in an effort to embarrass Bruce, much the way the New England reporters harried Bill Belichick over the Antonio Brown incidents.
But this strategy requires the reporters to sense blood in the water, else they risk their livelihoods, and, really, it probably isn’t worth it just to try to push Bruce Allen into an unlikely “Colonel Jessup” moment where he loses his composure and admits culpability for a decade of dysfunction in Ashburn.
I loved the whole concept of “soup questions” in the Finding Forrester movie; The object of a question is to obtain information that matters only to us.
I’d like to borrow from the movie to develop a corollary idea - “soup answers”.
I’d like to posit that the object of a press conference is to provide information in answer to questions that matters to the audience — in this case, Redskins fans.
Forrester chides Jamaal for asking a question “which fails to meet the criteria of obtaining information that matters to you”. I want to chide Bruce Allen for his failure to meet the basic criterion of a press conference - answering questions with information that matters to Redskins fans.
No doubt Bruce Allen and his boss, Dan Snyder, felt that Bruce put on a stellar performance. He had the usual self-satisfied smirk that nearly always adorns his face when he addresses reporters — the one that says that he believes he is smarter and smoother, that he has more power, and that no one can catch him in a trap.
He thinks we don’t know what he’s doing, but Bruce is as transparent and as substantial as Saran Wrap.
Bruce answers like a politician.
I don’t mean that as a compliment. He ignores the question asked, and sticks to his talking points.
He doesn’t give soup answers. Instead of substance, he offers air.
Watching Bruce’s press conference reminded me of the line that was repeated so often in the Game of Thrones novels: “Words are wind”.
Words are ethereal.
They are unfulfilling.
They are flatulence.
That’s the perfect description of what we got from Bruce Allen on Monday.
Let’s consider some of the questions asked, and Bruce’s failure to meet his basic obligation in a press conference — to answer the question that was asked.
Bruce, throughout your time with the ‘Skins, there hasn’t been much success, and you’ve held various roles — GM, VP, Team President — what’s your level of accountability for that lack of success?
So, the question was: “what’s your level of accountability”?
Bruce immediately avoids answering. He says, “We’re all involved in this” and “I don’t ever want to hide from our record”. He adds, “all we can do is work”.
Then Bruce poses a question that wasn’t asked — but one he’s happier to answer.
He says: “Do I believe in the group that is here? Yes.” He does this as if repeating what the reporter had asked — and then goes on to answer that question! This is a basic avoidance technique that I teach to freshman students at university. Bruce thinks it’s “next level shit”.
Bruce praises specific people in the organization. Within a few seconds, he is overflowing with enthusiasm about all the great workers on the team.
The smug bastard actually says the words out loud: “I’m not saying that I care more than anyone, but....”
What Bruce didn’t do was to say one single word about his level of accountability. He didn’t give a “soup answer” — his words are wind. Flatulence.
You’ve been the primary decision-maker for this organization for nearly a decade now; in that time, you guys have won only 38% of your games. When you look back at that decade, what do you feel like you could have done differently to not be standing here now having moved on from a second head coach in that time?
So, the question was: “What do you feel like you could have done differently in the last ten years?”
Bruce immediately addresses the final words of the question, without addressing the question itself: “I promise you I’ve never thought of standing here mid-season with a coaching change.”
Again, I teach this to 19-year-olds learning the basics of question answering. If you don’t like the question, grab a few words that you are happy to talk about, repeat them, and act as if you are addressing the question that was asked. Force the questioner to ask it again and look like he’s badgering you to gain yourself some sympathy. Of course, in Bruce’s press conferences, follow up questions are against the rules.
After this simple and transparent diversion, Bruce goes ‘motherhood and apple pie’. He talks about “hopes and dreams” and fans and players, and repeats that, “all we can do is try to improve tomorrow”.
He thinks people believe the bullshit he’s slinging. He thinks we don’t notice what he’s doing because he’s in a protected environment where reporters who want to keep their credentials have to play by his rules that don’t allow for follow ups.
Bruce, of course, does make a show of addressing the question by talking about changing the past: “I’d like to change the result of a game or two”, but that does not address the question that was put to him — what could you have done differently?
This isn’t a “soup answer”.
His words are wind.
Will there be an opportunity to talk to Dan about the franchise that he owns at some point?
This is a great question.
Bruce ducks it completely: “Dan makes himself available from time to time.”
This isn’t a “soup answer”.
His words are wind.
There have been plenty of reports and conversations about whether the front office and Jay were on the same page with regards to drafting Dwayne [Haskins] at 15. What can you say to that — if everybody was on the same page, and also what are your thoughts on the development of Dwayne this year, up to yesterday?
So, a double barrelled question:
- Did the front office and Jay agree about drafting Dwayne Haskins at 15? (Yes or no question)
- What are your thoughts about the development of Dwayne? (asks for a critique of the coaching staff)
Bruce starts out by rambling, talking about the difference in publicity between a 1st round and 7th round pick, apropos of nothing. This kind of clumsy stalling tactic isn’t really worthy of a practiced “politician” like Bruce. His rambling opening thrust was unrelated to the question asked, but he was speaking just to give himself time to think.
He then tells a nice story about the coaches participating in the meetings where the draft board is set.
Bruce, true to his pattern, skips the question about the draft itself, never mentioning whether Jay did or did not agree with the pick.
Bruce stresses the level of excitement the organization feels to have Haskins on the roster, and — instead of addressing Dwayne’s development “this year, up to yesterday”, Bruce talks about the future, “When Coach Callahan decides to put him in.” In his mind, Bruce is “spinning” the question to his advantage, which is a technique my freshman students learn in Week 3 of the course.
Bruce stresses that Jay “was excited” about Haskins — in OTAs and training camp.
But, still no word from Bruce about Jay’s opinion during the draft and still no assessment from Bruce about what he, himself, thinks about Dwayne’s development so far. Bruce gives us the blank stare as if the positive spin he threw out instead of an answer will satisfy everyone.
Of course it doesn’t.
These aren’t “soup answers”.
His words are wind.
Yesterday, your stadium was pretty much taken over by Patriots fans. The players heard it, the opposing players heard it, the opposing coach mentioned it yesterday. Where we’re at right now, can you apologize to the Washington Redskins fans who have been so loyal for so long? And what are you gonna do, starting today, in your capacity, to make things better?
Another double barrelled question:
- Can you apologize to fans?
- What are you going to do, starting today, to make things better?
Two excellent questions.
Bruce immediately deflects by talking about the Patriots fans instead of himself: “I appreciate that the Patriots have a great fan base. And, they’ve had tremendous success, and Bill Belichick’s probably the best coach in NFL history, so I’m sure many of the fans put their tickets on the secondary market and made some money on it selling it to people from the Northeast.”
Bruce repeats that “all we can do is try to improve our product”. He then rehashes the fact that the team was blown out in all 5 losses. He says the Redskins fans and the nation’s capital deserve better.
Did he answer the question about apologizing to fans?
He certainly didn’t apologize.
But, in a way, I guess he did answer the question. By not addressing it, he made it clear that he doesn’t feel he has anything to apologize for.
Did he offer any real answer to the question of what he will do, in his capacity, to make the team better? Well, nothing more than a weak sauce, “all we can do is try to improve our product”.
Bruce made it perfectly clear that he has no idea how culpable he is for the decade of destruction that this franchise is in the midst of.
Bruce also made it clear that he has no plan at all, aside from a coaching change, for what to do next .
He is clueless about the past and the future.
These aren’t “soup answers”.
His words are wind.
This was all basic, if ineffective, question avoidance that I teach to college freshmen, and that we see everyday from politicians — but we don’t usually see this kind of avoidance from business executives, who have to maintain the respect of others.
Perhaps the real low point came at the end of the press conference, when Bruce Allen was asked about the “culture” of the Redskins and he actually answered the question.
After two decades without much success, “How would you describe the culture surrounding this football team?”
Bruce, incredibly, lit up with a huge smile.
“You know, the culture is actually damned good!”
He went on to talk about hard work and effort, perhaps missing the point.
Now, I do have to admit — Bruce answered this question directly and enthusiastically — but I feel like I have to add another adverb to the description of how Bruce answered: either disingenuously or delusionally.
Bruce either doesn’t understand how toxic things are, or he will smile and lie because that’s what he thinks his job is.
Two “soup answers” Bruce did provide
In the end, Bruce did answer two questions clearly in Monday’s press conference. He was pretty clear about what time the decision was reached to fire Jay Gruden (around 8 o’clock, 7 o’clock Sunday night), and he was absolutely clear that Jay wasn’t fired “for cause” (indicating that the franchise won’t attempt to get out of paying his remaining contract).
Now those were soup answers!
Too bad Bruce wasn’t able to conjure a few more.
Watch Live: Team President Bruce Allen Speaks to the Media https://t.co/sIe87f3Gpl— Washington Redskins (@Redskins) October 7, 2019
Is Bruce correct in his assertion that, the Redskins franchise culture is "actually damned good!"
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