Harrison Butker Overestimates His Range

As a general rule, something has to go extremely wrong for an NFL kicker to drive a week of discourse. When Steelers kicker Jeff Reed trashed a Sheetz bathroom and berated its graveyard-shift employees back in 2009—”caused damage to a towel dispenser as he was infuriated at the fact that there were no towels in it,” in the words of the local police’s statement—it did not occasion any somber statements from the Steelers or exhaustingly snarky japes from Wawa. It did not spark a national conversation about the crisis in the Kicker-American Community. While there is a through-line between Reed’s toilet meltdown and Harrison Butker’s disastrous commencement address at Benedictine College—a kicker marooned in a non-kicking situation, embarrassing himself and inconveniencing others—it has not disappeared quite as quickly as Reed’s incident did.

Not yet, anyway. Before it can go away entirely, and before Butker can return to Being Unapologetic In His Masculinity in a corner of the locker room that people take great care to avoid, everyone needs to get on the record. The NFL, in response to the kicker’s broadsides against diversity, reiterated its institutional dedication to inclusion. GLAAD pointed out that it was a strange choice on Butker’s part to celebrate the proud graduates by treating them to a tight 20 minutes of free-associative Trad Cath boilerplate. The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, the co-founding institution of Benedictine College, put a big statement on the front page of their website saying that they “do not believe that Harrison Butker’s comments in his 2024 Benedictine College commencement address represent the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested.” Kansas City’s official Twitter account made a point of noting that Butker does not actually live in Kansas City.

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Our broader politics are not what you would call “healthy,” but if you rap its knee with that little rubber mallet, some part of it will reflexively jump to support a kicker whose own teammate doesn’t speak with him. Kansas City’s Twitter account took its post down after Missouri’s distressingly online attorney general put up a post “demanding accountability” for having “doxxed” the kicker; the city’s mayor implored Butker Defense Squad members “seeking to harass, bully, and intimidate [that] have sent slurs and threats to and shared photos of women employees with no involvement with recent City posts” to “please just stop.” Butker’s jersey began selling briskly to people willing to entrust Fanatics with its goal of doing whatever the opposite of virtue signaling is. In acknowledgement of Butker’s clammy cover version of his masculinist reactionary pablum, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley reaffirmed their friendship by posting an alarmingly glossy photo of the two, seemingly acting as co-hosts of a show called Normal Guys Tonight.

As a text, Butker’s speech does not provide much to hang your hat on. It is a trad placekicker’s tremulous gripes about contraception and women working outside the home and Covid and whatever else, just a big pious blurt. He took the stage like a teapot boiling with grievance, and did not explain himself or address the graduates so much as he tipped himself over and poured himself out. This fit with the alternately goofy and vile tradition of commencement addresses, in which young people at a point of momentous transition in their lives must first pause to be upbraided by a wealthy stranger for some amount of time and on the topic of the stranger’s choosing.

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A sort of loneliness radiates from Butker’s speech; there is the sense, in his words as in Aaron Rodgers’s increasingly dire podcast riff sessions, that all of this displeasure has been bubbling away in there for quite some time without an outlet. Mostly, though, there is just disdain, not just for all the sinful things of the world but seemingly everyone and everything else in it. This routine is dull and grating when a credentialed elite careerist like Hawley does it—watch this Yale Law grad and Blackstone Legal Fellow doing his best to hit those church-in-the-mall beats on The Power Of Purpose—and it is not any more compelling when the guy who kicked the longest field goal in Super Bowl history nervously recites his grievances at a bunch of college kids from out of a three-ring binder.

As a dull provocation from a middling student of some extremely dull provocateurs, Butker’s speech is at least illustrative. There is no room for anyone else in this worldview, no space for anyone to live or breathe. It’s striking how Butker is unable or uninterested to connect his own faith with those of the coreligionists listening to him; this whole belief system vibrates at the frequency of cable news, and so there’s nothing for him to share but a list of demands. If Butker’s speech works as a commencement address, it is only as an opportunity for new graduates to learn how they will be treated by the sour and vengeful mediocrities who are also the most powerful people in the world they are joining: as a series of shadows whose only purpose is to be harangued, so that they might learn to be less displeasing. The advice Butker offered at Benedictine College is not really trying to be a part of any kind of conversation. It’s just a kicker moving further and further out, to see what he can get away with.

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