Ok, I admit it. I watched the first XFL game tonight. For all the hype I expected something at least mildly exciting, but it was just as boring as regular NFL style football. I guess you can count on hype never to fail to disappoint.

So much speculation was based around what violent innovations Vince McMahon would bring--with his background in professional wrestling, and all that. I think NBC should have received more attention for their role in creating this spectacle. NBC has been developing a style of sports coverage since, at least, the Atlanta Olympics--a style of montage that pretends to delve into the biography of the Athlete only to prove, again and again, that triumph over adversity is what distinguishes athletes from mortals. With the XFL games they've attempted to add an immediacy along the lines of "Reality TV", i.e. a spurious immediacy focusing (with multiple shaky camera angles) on the rude conflicts that arise from the clash of posturing of various types of non-actors.

The most ingenious aspect of the production is the pervasiveness of the camera. In the XFL, camera crews get more of a workout than the athletes on the field; an interviewer is ready at every play to ask the hero just how he feels about missing that last pass.

Which brings me to the point of this node. For whatever reason, Running Back Rod Smart, #30 for the Las Vegas Outlaws did not wear a jersey that read "Smart" (perhaps the reason is obvious.) Instead, Smart's back read "He Hate Me"--I assume we have McMahon to thank for officialy opening this new medium to Atheltic self-expresion. The shirt drew the attention of the XFL's honorable commentator, Gov. Jesse Ventura (I-Mn.), and an interviewer was immediately dispatched to the Las Vegas' 40 yard line.

"Rod Smart, who hates you?"

"He hates me, man. Can't you see his eyes looking at me?"

Hmmm. Perhaps the XFL should borrow a little more from pro wrestling. They're already choreographing the endzone dances. Maybe the teams could also script their taunts and badassery. They need to develop more coherent characters if this league is to succeed.

He Hate Me's jersey is probably the most interesting story the XFL has at this point. When you get down to it, it's AA-grade football (I'd rate NFL Europe as AAA, and arena football as AA or A Advanced -- arena-ball is difficult to quantify, just because it's a different game).

Smart's jersey does tend to inspire people -- in Las Vegas's game against the Los Angeles Xtreme, two defensive linemen for the Xtreme changed their jersey names to "I Hate He" and "I Hate He Too," and in the stands for the San Francisco Demons' game against LA, fans held up signs proclaiming "We Hate He." I'd be fine with it if the announcers would just quit referring to him by the nickname and call him Rod Smart for once.

Rod Smart, the American football player who would famously call himself He Hate Me in the XFL, was born on January 9, 1977, in Lakeland, Florida.

His mother, Valerie Smart, already had a rough life. She got in trouble many times as a kid and was eventually sent to a halfway house across the state in Miami, Florida. She hated it and broke out; not knowing where to go, she hooked up with a guy she met on the street. Val returned alone to Lakeland soon after, whereupon she learned she was pregnant. She was 13 years old.

Rod came out of the womb kicking, through a Caesarian section. Like his mother, he caused problems in his adolescence, but in high school he straightened out his grades and earned a football scholarship to Western Kentucky University. Not a football powerhouse, but a lot better than his mom had done.

To this day, Rod Smart has never met his father. Once, he and Val went to look for him in Miami, but with just a name to go on, the search was unsuccessful. Rod then told his mother, "Mama, I ain't got no daddy. You my daddy."

He Hate Me —

After college, Rod Smart tried to catch on with an NFL team, the San Diego Chargers, but he didn't have a chance. The team kept him around for most of training camp in 2000, but only because he made a good tackling dummy for the defense. They cut him before the regular season started.

Then came the XFL, an upstart league which promised roster spots to NFL castoffs in the winter of 2000-2001. It was hokey, but Smart didn't care; it was a job.

Smart was assigned to the Las Vegas Outlaws and went to their short training camp. Head coach Jim Criner and the Outlaws staff weren't big on Smart; he was fast but small, and he had a tendency to get tackled behind the line of scrimmage as he took risky chances at big gains. In fact, they were planning to cut Smart until he ran for an 80-yard touchdown in the team's final practice, a feat that saved his job.

Smart didn't know how tenuous his job status was until just before the first game of the regular season. A reporter asked what he felt about nearly being cut from the team. Smart was incredulous. Criner had told the media before him?

He Hate Me —

Never before had a serious football team allowed its players to put nicknames on their jerseys. (OK, the XFL wasn't exactly serious.) The Outlaw players were thus surprised when a front-office staff worker went around the locker room a few days before the first game, asking each player what he wanted on his uniform.

At first, Smart couldn't come up with a nickname he liked. He considered L Town, in reference to his hometown of Lakeland, but felt that it wouldn't present a big enough splash.

But soon after, Smart learned about his near-dismissal from the team. That gave Rod an idea, and when the staffer came back to ask for a nickname, Smart wrote down three words: He Hate Me.

The XFL's public relations office didn't know what to make of the grammatically challenged phrase. Was it a secret slur? A gang motto? They decided to strike the nickname and go with a vanilla "Smart."

And Smart was angry again. The XFL's marketing strategy focused on how it was liberating football from the buttoned-up NFL, but in reality it was a joke. First the Outlaws had strung him along, just like the Chargers; now the company responsible for professional wrestling had banned a nickname because it was too hot for TV.

The Outlaws suggested that Smart seek out XFL boss Vince McMahon, who was in Las Vegas to promote the team's season-opening game against the New York-New Jersey Hitmen. Smart did, and McMahon liked the name. He Hate Me was back.

His mother Val? She couldn't make the game. Hard to go to Vegas when you're under house arrest in Lakeland.

He Hate Me —

A media circus had been born. The Outlaws-Hitmen game was on national television, and the broadcasters spent much of the otherwise boring game commenting on Smart's odd nickname.

The Outlaws won, though Smart didn't play particularly well. But that didn't matter — He Hate Me was a national phenomenon. He was interviewed by Sports Illustrated and seemingly every newspaper in the country.

Rod could sense that it was getting out of control and that the mass culture machine was about to eat him up. Between the first game and the second game, he asked if he could change his nickname to Who Is He? — "'Cause I want people to know Rod Smart, and not just He Hate Me, but Rod Smart."

Yeah, right. Smart was told that it was "impossible" to change the jerseys at such a late date, but that was a total lie. McMahon would never let Smart change his nickname. "He Hate Me" was a valuable phrase, and guess who had the rights to it?

It's written in every XFL player contract. Vince owns everything.

He Hate Me —

So the XFL flamed and died like shredded newspaper in the fireplace, and the backlash was swift on Smart, the only identifiable player in the league. This despite the fact that he had a good season, finishing second in the league in rushing yards (to William Avery) even though he was hobbled by injuries.

He tried out for the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos but was cut after one game. Then he joined the practice squad of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, and eventually earned a spot as the special teams gunner of the main team. The Eagles nicknamed him "Heat," an abbreviation of He Hate Me, and generally seemed to accept him. (As of this writeup, he is with the Carolina Panthers of the NFL.)

Smart doesn't mind being the butt of XFL jokes. In fact, he's used to being marginalized by society. As his mom says, "My baby's in the Outlaws and his momma's an outlaw."

He Hate Me —

February 2, 2004 update: Rod Smart played in Super Bowl XXXVIII last night, as his Carolina Panthers lost to the New England Patriots 32-29. Throughout the two weeks leading up to the game, Smart was a minor celebrity in a "former XFL'er makes good" sense. Given the positive media coverage, we can say that Smart is no longer Hated.

Sources:
I am rather indebted to Brett Forrest's 2002 book "Long Bomb: How the XFL Became TV's Biggest Fiasco." All the quotes came from this, and I highly recommend it if you're interested in the XFL.
Also used was this February 9, 2001 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal: http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2001/Feb-09-Fri-2001/sports/15413248.html

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