Nameless Gray Faces

For a moment, I’d like you to picture a football game — the night the Steelers refused to die.

It lives forever in my personal football lore: December 9, 2021. That night, Pennsylvania’s other team went down 29–0 in the third quarter, only to reel off 20 straight points of their own and give the Vikings their greatest scare since Alfred burned the cakes. 29–0 in a third quarter is considered “garbage time,” the moments when the game is well in hand. 29–0 was not garbage time for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

I wrote about it when it happened because I wanted to talk about those incredible Minnesota Vikings, but the team on the other side of the scoreboard was pretty incredible, too. Pittsburgh rarely rolls over, or backs off, when we think it’s supposed to; their stars get hurt, or enter legal jeopardy, or simply refuse to show up for games, and yet the team just keeps rolling. It’s impossible to know why this is, for sure — Pittsburgh’s water supply, maybe? — but the most obvious reason is their coach, Mike Tomlin.

You should read a little bit about Mike Tomlin, or listen to one of his interviews. You should hear him say “the standard is the standard,” or listen to him explain that “you don’t want popcorn.” But you’re reading this right now instead.

Suffice to say that Mike Tomlin calls the Steelers’ opponents “nameless gray faces” — not as an insult, though some are happy to interpret it as such, but as a reminder. Other coaches care how good the other team’s players are; they ramp themselves up to face Tom Brady or Aaron Donald; they ride a coordinated roller coaster of preparation and performance. Mike Tomlin’s rosters do not ramp up, because he refuses to turn the goodness of their opponents into an excuse. There is no shame in losing to the fastest gun in the West, but Tomlin thinks you shouldn’t care that there is no shame; you should play as though there is shame. Your opponents, therefore, are nameless gray faces, and you get paid to beat them all.

NFL players are individuals, each with their own tics, tells, and talents; the season is a grind, a cycle of exhaustion and violence. Mike Tomlin’s players do not care, and the goal is for you, the football-viewing public, not to care, either.

Tomlin’s staggered stoicism has worked in the ranks of professional football: He is the second-youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl, and he has not had a losing season in his entire 15-year career. (No one — not Belichick, not Landry, not even Vince Lombardi — coached for as long as Tomlin has without a sub-.500 campaign.) In his mind, he has already flattened everyone his players play, and his teams flatten their rivals on the field when they have no business doing so.

On June 24, the Supreme Court ruled that it had no business telling the states that abortion was a constitutional right. Justice Samuel Alito, cosigned by four of the Court’s other five conservatives, announced that the Constitution did not mention abortion, that the 14th amendment did not protect abortion, that only state legislatures had the authority to protect or limit the procedure, and that his forbears in the District of Columbia’s cloakroom had “arrogated that authority” when they ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Alito says more — oh, so much more — about the end of Roe, and why it’s happening, and what it means. But there is much he doesn’t say: He makes no provision for the pre-teen girls who have been ordered by law to carry their rapists’ children to term. He does nothing to create a legal cavity for women who miscarry, or who end their pregnancies for medical reasons. (Several states now claim the power to probe these women for murder. Legal experts predict that they will, with abandon.) And Alito says nothing, absolutely nothing, about the sheer level of surveillance that some states’ bans will necessitate — how is your government to know if someone went to a clinic out of state, or sought abortion pills from the mail and modem, without making Yuri Andropov blush?

The circumstances under which women seek abortions, or end pregnancies — the circumstances, in fact, under which pregnancies end — are complicated; the circumstances under which Alito has volleyed their immunities to the fastest guns in the political West are not complicated at all. (A mild correction: Justice Alito has not volleyed their immunities to the fastest guns in the West. He has volleyed them to, inter alia, a few thousand people in Pennsylvania, and a hundred thousand people in Michigan, and some dude named Scott who hasn’t sat in a room with three women but once since his baby shower.) For anyone but these would-be mothers, and their doctors, and their God — singular and plural, capital and lowercase — to make these decisions is always to arrogate the power to do so.

Ever since Eric Lindros was in diapers, the pro-life movement has had to dip a pinky toe in the waters of persuasion. They told abortion-seekers that the seeds in their stomachs could feel pain, that God had a plan for the both of them, that their babies were already recognizable and adorable. Sometimes the women in question believed them, for better or for worse; sometimes they did not. But those who thought abortion was a tragedy or a terror implemented their convictions the way free countries do, by the power of the silver tongue. Now their toes have slipped into the iron boot, the only shoe you’ll only love only as long as you can’t see it.

We used to be allowed to feel strangely about things, to think that they were neither damnable nor divine. We are allowed to, still — just not at the ballot box, or in debate studios, or anywhere else where this dispute will now be settled. We once had the power to see abortion-seekers as people — people who made difficult, agonizing decisions that they, and not we, own and live with. Those days are over — the entire voting-age population will have to live with it now.

Latter-day doctors will be forced to play Battleship, guessing when the state won’t have them hauled into prison for trying to save their pregnant patients’ lives. When their guidance falls out of line with the whims of the State, the pickle jars from Nightmare Alley will be waiting, lids off. No federal court will ever touch this question again, at least until it’s time to open the jars for gay couples — maybe interracial couples, too. (The Fourteenth Amendment is already backpedaling; the only question now is where it will come to rest.)

I’m not sure how worried I am for the generation that will grow up in the shadow of this Court’s words. Some of the celebrants last month looked so young, their lives stretching endlessly before them; I saw at least one pro-life protestor with a Pride flag on their megaphone. I have no idea how they found themselves on the marble steps; I suspect I’d find them lovable and compelling if I did. Sometimes I wonder whether much will change at all; mass shooting manifestoes surpassed sex mixtapes long ago, and red states already deal with their own brand of poverty and despair.

Maybe the longest-lasting consequence of this is one that didn’t need Justice Alito’s permission to continue, the one that made me wonder so much about the kids at the courthouse: Millions are dying, and dying alone, and therefore dying much sooner than their grandparents did, and millions more will die poor, or battered, or abandoned, because they had to birth and be birthed to begin with.

A million stories could have scribbled themselves on the back of Alito’s 213 pages, and they would have needed even more pages afterwards. Perhaps he could have written on whether our state legislators retain the right to endorse child marriage. (I should hope that would violate the 14th Amendment, but how are we to know, if the Court doesn’t tell us?) This is, unquestionably, the Trump-era Court; he is the ultimate architect of its core, and those who celebrate its decisions are forever beholden to him as to no one else. But it is his court all the more in its understanding of consequences, in its insistence that those who doomed Roe had a job to do, individuals be damned. (Has this assertion — jobs in the face of personalities — not defined our former president, in all the days since he became the former?)

The Court announced its decision on June 24, sure. But we’d actually known Roe’s time was up for nearly two months before, and Alito had started writing its brutal eulogy even before that, when I was still waving feebly to former colleagues in great gray puffy coats. Someone had leaked a draft of Alito’s opinion on May 2; the Court had, in a fit of irritation, confirmed it the next day, and the origin of the leak is apparently under investigation. Several of the Court’s conservatives — and, actually, conservatives elsewhere — expressed fury that someone would pull such a brazen stunt, and some even speculated that the leaker had, well, violated the Court’s privacy in an attempt to pressure it. (Turns out judges really do have a sense of humor.)

After reading the Alito opinion, which is remarkably similar to the draft we saw in May, I came to another conclusion altogether. No one with access to this document thought that the justices would change their minds. Even Chief Justice John Roberts, the lone conservative who didn’t want to overturn Roe, voted to uphold the abortion ban that was actually in question. (The case, I should mention, is called Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, named after the aboriton clinic that sued the state to lift Mississippi’s bar on abortions after 15 weeks — and the state’s health director, Thomas Dobbs. Dobbs, I should note, has washed his hands of the entire saga. “Actually, that law passed before I was even in this job,” he revealed. “Honestly, I have nothing to do with it.”)

If this ruling had reached a blind public in the summer instead of the spring, it’s possible that states would have neglected to make contingencies for it, that clinics would have been shell-shocked, that medical practitioners and pregnant women across the fruited plain would have spent hours, or even days, running wide of state law. We know now, and will soon find out, that their governments would not have hesitated to punish them, and we know their ignorance would have been beside the point. For a brief, exciting 4th quarter in a fight that was already over, they would have been flattened. They would have been Alfred, burning cakes in a fugitive fireplace.

Someone might have decided to tell them that it was garbage time, that they had been transformed into nameless gray faces.

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