Buried in the midst of the steaming detritus of ESPN’s blockbuster expose on the sad sack Cleveland Browns, like a deformed M&M at the bottom of the bag that you simply can’t bring yourself to eat, is an anecdote about Browns owner Jimmy Haslam refusing to draft quarterback Teddy Bridgewater because he didn’t care for the man’s handshake. Or as reporter Seth Wickersham wrote it, “Some of the football guys in the room wanted to wait and pick Bridgewater in the second round. But the team had soured on Bridgewater after his interview dinner and workout with team brass; something about Bridgewater’s handshake rubbed Haslam the wrong way, he told team executives.”
At first glance, this is some truly retrograde horseshit. The very notion that one can judge a person’s character and fitness for a job based on the way they grip your hand is absurd — the sort of dime-store sociology that went out of style with alfalfa sprouts and Herbie, the Love Bug films. But such is the nature of the NFL’s talent evaluation system, where “intangibles” matter far more than they should.
Prior to the advent of the detailed analytics that have overtaken talent assessment in sports, platitudes and generalizations were the stock in trade. “He looks hungry,” one might say. “He’s a good family man,” another would offer. The film adaptation of Moneyball, which told the story of the early 2000s Oakland A’s and the sabremetrics revolution in baseball, dramatized the tension between the old-school scouts who went with their gut and the new-age stats-based analysis that made the cash-poor A’s an unlikely contender.
Yet even though geeks, nerds and numbers freaks have risen to the heights of sports in both a front office and media capacity, there are still holdouts who can’t help but make snap judgments based on their personal biases. For example, the Buffalo Bills have a bizarre fascination with modest, God-fearing quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Nathan Peterman while failing to develop flashy black QB Tyrod Taylor or to draft anyone with a pulse — a preference that has led them to only one playoff appearance in the last 20 years. The Browns, on the other hand, took a chance on the exact opposite of Allen and Peterman: Johnny Manziel, an outsized personality who flamed out spectacularly. Manziel not only couldn’t hang in the NFL, he succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse and was accused of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend in 2016.
His handshake, however, must have checked out. That is, the Browns drafted him in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, regardless of the fact that Manziel had run-ins with the law during his college career. Ten picks later, the Minnesota Vikings drafted the aforementioned Bridgewater, a black quarterback from the University of Louisville. Bridgewater went on to become the 2014 Pepsi Rookie of the Year (not to be confused with the Associated Press Rookie of the Year, The Sporting News Rookie of the Year or the movie Rookie of the Year, which is about baseball). In 2015, he was named to the Pro Bowl after leading the Vikings to the playoffs. Bridgewater is now a backup to Drew Brees in New Orleans (relegated to backup status only after a catastrophic knee injury), but it’s no stretch to say he’s had a far more productive career than Manziel, despite his handshake deficiencies.
In fairness, all human beings are judged on a variety of superficial attributes. Someone might not want to date me due to my height. I might not get a job because the employer hates beards. Maybe some people don’t like how effortlessly charming I am. But men specifically have been making way too much out of handshakes for thousands of years. Depictions of them date back as far as the ninth century B.C., where joining hands was seen as a symbol of an agreement reached between heads of state.
That tradition has carried on today, though in a significantly less dignified manner. At least in the case of President Donald Trump, who uses the customary handshake between world leaders as a way to intimidate his counterpart or to test their resolve in a grunt-y, awkward tug-of-war that looks like two powerful politicians are fighting over the last Girl Scout cookie. In that way, the handshake is a battleground for the macho alphas among us, eager to show how firm their grip is and how coarse their hands are from carrying wood or punching inanimate objects. It’s essentially a surrogate for just beating the shit out of each other or comparing bank accounts.
Not surprisingly then, the handshake isn’t intimate. It isn’t warm. In fact, it’s barely friendly. It’s either a competition or a formality. And it’s colossally old fashioned compared to fist bumps or giving dap, which are more casual and require more cooperation. Ta-Nehisi Coates opined on the sanctity of the dap for The Atlantic back in 2008, and his observation still holds up 11 years later. For the African-American community, dapping someone up is a potent sign of respect and admiration. Dap isn’t given out lightly or begrudgingly, the way a handshake might be. It’s not easily tossed off, because it can be complex in its execution to those uninitiated in its ritual. But when done correctly? Well, let’s just say NBA commissioner Adam Silver became the most beloved sports executive in America by knowing how to give dap appropriately while being an old white man.
So maybe Haslam didn’t like Bridgewater’s handshake because he doesn’t give the kind of aggressive, posturing handshake favored by the One-Percenters who tend to own sports teams. That’s too bad. Because Haslam, a man who made his fortune as the CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop chain, could have benefitted from trying to learn how to dap — or at least showing some interest in a different way of approaching the standard greeting — and to find a more accurate means of evaluating a man’s character.
Then again, this is the sport that refuses to join hands with Colin Kaepernick.