The whammy, unpacked
Late last year a gang of far-flung sports-type writers and editors gathered donations from dedicated Kickstarterers and launched a site that, to date, has done a fine job sounding unlike any other sports journalism/opining in the blabberether. I'm biased toward The Classical in part because it has the boutique feel of a group of writers who are writing for one another, and it doesn't stop to overexplain jokes or to point at itself (WHOA, LOOK! THERE'S MY NAVEL AGAIN!) or really to screw around with much that its authors don't find compelling. The filthy secret of most journalism is that most of it is written by people who don't find the particular topic of the day of particular interest; I mean, what are the odds that every single piece of news fascinates its author? That is, unless you don't ask people to write stories that don't fascinate them. Then you might get original pieces on southeast Asian boxing camps and on Woody Paige's slackadaisical space-cadetism instead of the transactional minutiae that clogs most news feeds.
I'm biased toward the Classical, too, because it ran a piece of mine I'd been kicking around for a while: a look at intimidation, viewed specifically through the lens of "the whammy," a term that stood out to me in the Joseph Heller novel "Something Happened" when I read it in high school. The short version is, some jocks, like the office drones in Heller's book, leverage a bevy of psychological tactics to establish informal hierarchies. The point of doing this is to achieve power, and in sports, it's to better clobber people. If you can get the whammy on an opponent, my thinking goes, it's at least as good as being a step faster.
You can read the original piece here. I want to add that the sports psychologist I spoke with for the piece, Arnold LeUnes, who was quite gracious with his time, sent a coda that should append the piece. I posited that one feature of the whammy is to move an opponent's "locus of control" from internal to external. (This can inspire feelings of helplessness, which is quite a handy thing when you want to kick someone's ass.) LeUnes told me I overshot a bit on my descriptions of internal vs. external locus of control: "While there are some who have found a relationship between an external locus and depression, I am not sure that is a widely endorsed view among psychologists. It is quite adaptive in sports and life to remember that coaches, parents, police, professors, and priests all exert a lot of influence on our lives. An external locus can reflect an awareness of external influences and thus may be a good thing and actually a deterrent to depression. I am not saying that the relationship is not there, but I would not sell it quite as enthusiastically as you have. My 2 cents worth." So carry that in your pocket as you consider the whammy.
I'm also going to add below some of the essay's b-sides, at the unwitting suggestion of writer Patrick Hruby, who listed the whammy piece among his favorite sportswriting of 2011. Hruby wrote: "My only problem with this piece is that it wasn’t longer; I suspect a writer with more time and a bigger travel budget could dig up much more." I did find two other whammy depictions in the course of reporting, but they were discursive enough that they were dropped on the way to the final draft. Here they are:
The whammy is the necktie stain of sports; once you notice it, you cannot unsee it. When Notre Dame’s NCAA-record streak of 43 wins over Navy ended in 2007, Navy linebacker Matt Wimsatt’s post-game quotes were just caked in whammy. “I can’t wait to talk to everybody back home,” he said. “This is definitely bigger than just one football game.”
You can’t explain a number like 43 years as pure whammy. In most of those years, Notre Dame was demonstrably good and Navy was borderline to bad. I count only 14 years during that streak in which Navy even had a winning record. But in nine of those years, the Midshipmen had a final record equal to or better than the Irish, even with that annual matchup always going to the Irish. Even a nine-game win streak between two teams of similar capabilities is approaching whammy territory. Forty-three in a row is desperate.
When that streak finally broke, it took an eventual 8-5 Navy team three overtimes to beat an eventual 3-9 Irish team (coincidentally the worst team in South Bend since that 1963 squad that counted one of its two wins over a 9-2 Navy team, thus launching the streak). In 2008 the Irish beat Navy by 6, apparently righting the balance. Then, in 2009, a decent Navy team rolled into South Bend and beat a ranked Notre Dame squad that was favored by 11. In 2010, with the Irish favored by a touchdown, Navy drilled them by 18.
From 0-43 to 3-1. That’s not coincidence; it’s an exorcism.
In hindsight, so much of coaching seems aimed at getting athletes not to learn helplessness. Every great upset in history shows the fruits of that refusal, which is at the heart of avoiding the whammy. As soon as Goliath got his ass beaten at the line of scrimmage in the Valley of Elah, despite his prodigious whammy on the Israelites, coaches have tried to un-teach learned helplessness. The result is that 90 percent of coaching advice is just contra-whammy, trying to undermine doubt and instill bulletproof swagger. (The other 10 percent is partially coaches who do nothing but exert petty whammy-advantage over their players. LeUnes recalls an old A&M coach who treated his subordinates thusly and lost consistently. The coach’s successor remarked, upon taking over the program, that he’d never before seen such a collection of whipped dogs.) Quoth Mark Twain: “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.” The whammy corollary: Belittle your opponents’ ambitions.
Confidence is the anti-whammy. Whereas whammy inspires you not to bother, confidence is that quality that doesn’t care that you shouldn’t bother. It, like the whammy, is often irrational but feeds on the rational. Coaches love to talk about confidence, and to get their players talking about it. How better for a grown man to convince a bunch of college kids that running laps will give them magical powers?
John Wooden was just bursting with these hardwood fortune-cookie slogans — gleeful hatcheteer Tommy Craggs once called him a “cornpone oracle” whose every utterance “seemed destined to be cross-stitched on a throw pillow” — about tenacity, ability, hard work and a bunch of other yadda yadda meant to herd 6-foot-6, 20-year-old cats into making the extra pass. Yet we can turn to Wooden for insight into the whammy. Quoth the coach: “Motivating through fear may work in the short term to get people to do something, but over the long run I believe personal pride is a much greater motivator.”
The steps here for you, dear whammymaker, are plain. If you want to outplay or outcoach someone, instill in that person the opposite of what Wooden would want for them. The whammy knows this instinctually, and it attacks pride. One fine illustration of this comes to us via another Los Angeles icon, Marcellus Wallace, who owes his best lines to Quentin Tarantino. When he sits Butch Coolidge down to put the fix in, as Al Green croons in the background, he issues a full-blown whammy to the aging boxer:
Marcellus: I think you gonna find – when all this shit is over and done – I think you gonna find yourself one smilin’ motherfucker. Thing is Butch, right now you got ability. But painful as it may be, ability don’t last. And your days are just about over. Now that's a hard motherfuckin' fact of life, but that's a fact of life your ass is gonna hafta get realistic about. See, this business is filled to the brim with unrealistic motherfuckers. Motherfuckers who thought their ass would age like wine. If you mean it turns to vinegar? It does. If you mean it gets better with age? It don’t. ’Sides, Butch. How many fights you think you got in you anyway? Hm? Two? Boxers don’t have an old-timers day. You came close, but you never made it. And if you were gonna make it, you would have made it before now. (Holding out an envelope of cash.) You my nigga?
Butch: It certainly appears so.
Marcellus: The night of the fight, you may feel a slight sting. That's pride fuckin' wicht you. Fuck. Pride. Pride only hurts. It never helps. You fight through that shit. ’Cause a year from now, when you kickin' it in the Caribbean, you gonna say to yourself, "Marsellus Wallace was right."
Butch: I’ve got no problem with that, Mr. Wallace.
Marcellus: In the fifth, your ass goes down. Say it.
Butch: In the fifth, my ass goes down.
Now, if you watch the scene unfold, Vincent Vega, clad in the UC-Santa Barbara Banana Slugs shirt he cribbed from Jimmy after a morning mopping up Marvin’s brains, ample-bellies up to the bar and gives Butch a hard look as the boxer orders a pack of smokes. Butch looks hard at Vince. “You looking at something, friend?” he says. Vincent corrects him: “You ain’t my friend, Palooka.” When he says it, Vince smacks his lips and lets his head sway a smidge, smug to the point of bratty.
Butch is thrown. “What’s that?” he says. Vincent replies: “I think you heard me just fine, punchy,” and leans forward a few inches.
They stare. Marcellus calls Vince away. Butch stays at the bar, and can only watch Vincent saunter off. For the aging boxer, unaccustomed to having paunchy goons meet his gaze a bar, Vince’s cockiness is an affront. Vince knows Butch has been bought, that he’s a puppet. It’s in this moment that, if I were to guess, Tarantino wants us to see Butch’s double-cross formulating. He’s deciding to reclaim his agency. He’s shaking off the whammy.
Except the whammy isn’t the removal of agency: Only physical domination can truly do that, which is why torture is dehumanizing. The whammy is in fact more seductive. It’s the invisible, weightless thing that sweet-talks the whammee to forfeit agency. It does this by promising defeat. In a certain state of mind and body, this is actually a soothing thought. It’s what Vince Lombardi warns against when he says fatigue makes cowards of us all. The whammy is there to punish struggle. And if I may veer androcentric: Men will recognize this condition as metaphorical castration. People use “testicles” as a metonym for gumption because if any body part is responsible for pushing men into and past situations in which the answer is “no,” it is his reproductive organs. Either sex may claim “backbone” or “intestinal fortitude” in place of “stones.” Yet, as I suspect the whammy is chiefly a phenomenon found in male-dominated hierarchies, we can draw a short line from saying “Green’s got the whammy on me” to saying “Green’s clipped my nuts.”