Are you ready for some duuuhhhhh?
is the dumbest sport in America—probably the world. But it’s
a perfect microcosm of modern American life and,
therefore, the new national pastime. It’s the ideal vicarious pursuit
for Americans, whose colossal asses are the stuff of envious legend
in other cultures. This is a sport whose season is heralded by the
keeling over like downer cows of its overfed linemen during practice
camp. No other game has been so bold and so persuasive in perpetuating
the myth that guzzling beer in a semi-coma is akin to athletic glory.
Even Jerome Bettis, for many years one of the league’s elite running
backs and the leader of the Super Bowl contender Pittsburgh Steelers,
seemingly defies physics. It’s easy to understand, watching Bettis
propel his sloppy 255-pound frame downfield, how every American
Jabba might manage this sort of delusional transference.
to any NFL broadcast and you’ll be subjected to a fawning digression
about some player’s dedication to the game. This commitment is invariably
exemplified by the player’s ability to watch hours of game tape.
It says something dark about our society that even our athletic
idols are measured, in part, by their ability to sit in front of
a movie screen.
Brady, the New England Patriots’ slack-jawed golden boy, is most
frequently cited for the time he logs viewing old game footage.
Brady, a corporate pitchman whose Cro-Magnon cadence would have
shamed Ivan Drago, is even depicted in the current Nike ad sitting
in front of a massive screen, analyzing video.
wasn’t always this way. Up until about 1905, football was a great
sport, played by elite universities. There was real glory to be
had in victory; and a far more serious price than disgrace, or the
low-grade agony of a Jim Rome rant, to pay for defeat. In the days
before the forward pass, stratagems like the “flying wedge”—an offensive,
running “V” formation in which players shielded the ball carrier
while hurtling downfield—resulted in actual deaths: literal carnage.
Broken bones, gouged eyes and battered skulls were commonplace.
Games between Harvard and Yale turned into bloodbaths. Really, can
you envision anything as splendid as a field riddled with maimed
Ivy Leaguers? Eighteen collegiate players were killed in 1905 alone.
This is perhaps the closest modern athletic competition has come
to approximating the savagery of battle. It’s all but impossible
to imagine scenes like those, now that nearly every great thing
about our culture has been bowdlerized.
hardly a coincidence that “reforms” (one of the most insidious euphemisms
in language) undertaken the following year at the behest of President
Theodore Roosevelt, marked the beginning of football’s decline as
consistently compelling entertainment. Or that they led to the formation
of the NCAA, one of the most corrupt cartels in history.
NFL commissioner is just what you’d expect: a grim, sniping Croesus
with a dour half-lemur, half-owl face. In a January 23 Sports
Illustrated profile, Paul Tagliabue compared the league’s success
following his ascendance to commissioner, replacing innovator Pete
Rozelle, to Nixon initiating diplomatic relations with China: “It
took a corporate lawyer to be a change agent, because I could change
[things] without appearing to be soft on communism so to speak.”
The comparison to Nixon should give football fans pause enough;
but the idea a corporate lawyer served, in his own immodest estimation,
as “a change agent” should frighten them. Has a corporate lawyer
ever, in the entire history of the unholy alliance between business
and law, changed anything for the better?
eeriest boast is about his time at the Pentagon, working under ghoulish
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which “he describes…as the
best of his life.” “I learned how the real world works, I learned
how to manipulate procedures, how to use the media.” Those skills,
presumably, came in very handy when, for instance, Tagliabue quietly
appeared before congress to dismiss questions about the need for
steroid legislation. The commissioner made baseball chief Bud Selig
look like a rank amateur (which he is).
who insist football is a metaphor for war and a ritual celebration
of American militarism are right, in spite of themselves. If anything,
the degraded game symbolizes precisely what is parodistic about
how we “conduct”—in the neutered parlance of the times—a war today.
NFL games are tediously bureaucratic. The action is often dictated,
through a chain of command ending with the coach, by coordinators
watching from above the field of play. Meaning even quarterbacks
(other than compulsive audible-callers like Peyton Manning), those
vaunted “field generals,” actually take their cues from various
commanders-in-chief and other functionaries. Obviously, this does
not preclude feats of astounding physicality; but the hierarchy
and abstraction make the “drama” much less intriguing.
only type of safety net that enjoys widespread support among the
subservient American public is subsidy for those who don’t need
it. The NFL not only reflects the self-defeating ignorance of American
society, it mocks it openly—and with our explicit endorsement. The
league is a massive welfare state, but like everything in Bush’s
America, it’s only welfare for the wealthy. As Baltimore Ravens
owner Art Modell said of his business associates, “We’re 32 fat-cat
Republicans who vote socialist.” Well hardy har har. The NFL is
an uber-exclusive club whose rigid salary rules guarantee its members
huge profits. John Gallagher’s report in the Free Press quoted
NFL Players’ Association executive director Gene Upshaw as saying,
“The way the NFL is set up, an owner really has to work at it to
of the league’s 32 teams earned $87.5 million in 2005 from shared
television revenues alone. Even that’s nothing compared to the de
facto pension system of retired player analysts—a form of economic
coddling even Swedes would reject. There are really brilliant ex-players
out there, so it’s a tragedy we’re forced to settle so dismally.
Do we really need more evidence that Dan Marino couldn’t beat a
Zagnut at checkers? Watching ESPN’s massive crew, along with inexplicable
anchor Trey Wingo, simulate plays on their miniature studio field
is the most gratuitous indulgence of white-collar fantasy since
OJ Simpson hurdled his way through an airport for Hertz. But the
lowliest feeders at the NFL welfare trough are sideline reporters
like the mannish Suzy Kolber, whose greatest contribution to sports
journalism was being groped by a drunk Joe Namath.
Illustrated billed its profile of the NFL commissioner with
the tagline, “Paul Tagliabue isn’t boring,” but nothing in the article
indicates that. Among other things, he referred to negotiating with
league owners as “herding cats” and revealed that “the secret to
negotiating with some of the world’s toughest dealmakers is to listen.”
Fascinating stuff. Pad that with a few other narcotic truisms, toss
in an anecdote about Judith Krantz, and you’ve got a Donald Trump
diehard football fan I’ve ever met has been an anti-intellectual
Calvinist with his own affected variation on social Darwinism. (Hunter
Thompson might be the lone exception, but I never met him; and supposedly
even he hated the poor and weak.) Paul Tagliabue, then, is their
perfect proxy. He’s at his cantankerous worst defending the league’s
policy of eliminating almost all guaranteed contracts. Denying guaranteed
money is “a properformance [sic] stance,” he argues, simultaneously
deriding the NBA as exemplar of a league whose “players [are] slacking.”
That’s the sort of reactionism you can overhear for free at any
sports pub, from any fool spreading his glutes over the sides of
a barstool. Yet, within the enlightened confines of the NFL offices
(where they admit to pretending to read The Economist), such
pronouncements from “The Big Man” are proof of a brilliant mind.
wife is more measured. “He has a way of embellishing,” she said.
“He can read the first chapter of a book and say he read the whole
book.” That’s not embellishing; it’s posing of the most desperate,
insecure sort. She also reveals that Tagliabue boasted about “studying
Spanish for a year,” after taking a single lesson. You get the sense,
reading his wife’s comments, that she’d be dosing her husband’s
eggs with thallium if he weren’t worth $8 million a year.
Mark Whicker points out that Tagliabue’s criticism doesn’t consider
the NFL’s short, spaced season versus the NBA’s 82-game hustle (which
usually means 3 games a week). Whicker, in a wonderfully incisive
column at ocregister.com, argues the league’s intransigence on contracts
“help[s] breed a poisonous individualism that is not tolerated in
baseball [or even] basketball.” He suggests this is why “It’s impossible
for an NFL player to cross a goal line without a self-affirming
performance. Not even first downs are handled professionally anymore.”
That might actually be understating it. I can’t count the number
of times this season I witnessed defensive ends celebrating stoppages
after short gains on first and second downs. The struggle
to extract every last dollar must explain how Warren Sapp, a marvelous
athlete and fairly shrewd self-promoter, can compare his great fortune
to slavery—and find sympathy from his fellow alumnus, Michael Irvin;
revealing to the world the paucity of a U. of Miami education.
interesting to note, too, the man who decries baseball as “about
as exciting as standing in line at the supermarket,” barely ever
watches an entire NFL contest. He, in fact, “rarely stays much past
halftime.” But he always watches the Super Bowl—and again that makes
perfect sense. This joyless, corporate bean counter watches every
minute of the world’s most grotesque and over-hyped spectacle—when
the football itself is almost always disappointing. But then, Tagliabue
is probably like a majority of people filling the stands and parking
lots throughout the season, for whom the actual sport is subordinate.
According to Whicker, “Ninety percent of NFL ticketholders cannot
name you 50 percent of the players on their own team.”
still bothers Tagliabue that Janet Jackson exposed her ridiculous
teat during the Super Bowl halftime show two years ago. “I thought
the whole show was misogynistic crap,” he railed in SI. He’s
half right. His is an odd complaint, though, considering more men
beat their wives on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other night of
the year. Perhaps if Justin Timberlake had just cold-cocked Janet
onstage, it would have made a more fitting tribute. Or maybe Tagliabue
would’ve been happier if Jackson dressed up like one of the freakish
makeup cakes gyrating pointlessly on the sidelines. That, apparently,
doesn’t constitute “misogynistic crap.”
two-week buildup to the Super Bowl is possibly the only thing less
edifying than a special report about Tom Cruise’s genital warts.
Does it ennoble any of us to learn what David Greene, the Seahawks
backup quarterback, thinks about Brokeback Mountain?
isn’t an inherently bad game. But its grand tradition has been twisted
to serve an ignoble raison d’etre. The NBA’s Andrei Kirilenko said
it best, in that same issue of Sports Illustrated. Asked
what he’d be doing if he weren’t the NBA’s second-leading shot-blocker,
he replied: “[I’d] definitely be an athlete, probably football.
Not American football, real football. Played with foot.”