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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady watches his team warm up before a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Kathy Willens/AP)
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady watches his team warm up before a preseason NFL football game against the New York Giants on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Kelly: Kickoff to a new football season gives Americans a reason to live again Add to ...

On Sunday, the New England Patriots will begin their NFL campaign without quarterback Tom Brady, who will miss the first month of the season through suspension.

Normal, well-adjusted people do not a) care or b) understand why Brady has been disciplined. But they are worried about him.

Per the terms of his censure, America’s most accomplished hair-teeth combo is barred from all football-related activities. Presumably, he’ll spend several weeks lying in a root cellar, staring at a bare light bulb and feeling the pain of existence. Because without football, what is there?

“It’s like one of your buddies going to jail,” Patriots receiver Julian Edelman – a man who has never watched Oz – said of Brady’s gilded banishment.

Brady spent the weekend before his suspension took effect with his teammates on Cape Cod, perhaps sitting on the wraparound porch and weeping softly while swaddled in a pashmina shawl.

ESPN has a countdown clock ticking over until his return. The Patriots put his number up on the lighthouse over Gillette Stadium.

Air Force One could go down in the Pacific, and I’ll guarantee you no one is putting the President’s name on any lighthouses.

You’d like to say this sort of treatment is reserved only for missing astronauts and cult leaders in exile, but this is America. It’s reserved only for football players.

If you’ve ever driven through the open spaces of Texas, Florida or Pennsylvania – routinely passing high school football stadiums the size of pro arenas – you’ll know what I mean.

What Brady’s (very, very limited) misfortune proves is that football has returned to the centre of American cultural life. Or, rather, that it never really left.

It’s been a few years since we learned that football kills you. A great rush of handwringers began bottle-necking at the intersection of Outrage and Hypocrisy, promising each other they would never watch the sport again. For a while there in 2014-15, no one could say anything thoughtful about football without a preamble noting its essential barbarism. In certain circles, hating football became a civility test.

In the interim, TV ratings went up. Not a little. A lot.

How stupid has it become? Sunday Night Football is far and away the most popular network show on U.S. television. Its two lead-in panel segments ranked fifth and eighth last year. Evidently, the only thing as popular as watching football in America is watching people talk about football.

ESPN pioneered a lucrative and hysterical sub-genre of people yelling at other people about football. Their preferred topic: ‘What’s Wrong With Football?’ This rabbit hole goes all the way to China.

What’s been notable about the lead-in to the 2016-17 season – aside from a mild protest by a backup player reformatting America’s conversation about racial politics – is that no one talks ill of football any more. Its critics, so thick on the ground just a few months ago, have given up. One strongly suspects many of them didn’t care in the first place. They just wanted to stick ??? their boots during a giddy group kicking.

The people who enjoy football also enjoy the idea that it may kill its participants. The key idea here is may. No one wants to see an execution, but a small chance of something that will happen off-camera years from now? That sounds about the right sort of gamble in return for millions of dollars and a rock-star existence.

The NFL has cleverly reassured its fan base by doing nothing. You can see its progression on this theme in its response to Colin Kaepernick’s anthem dissent – vaguely bring up the First Amendment while simultaneously turning toward the flag, followed by a silence other people will rush to fill with a discussion about the Broncos’ quarterback situation. Being either angry at or supportive of Kaepernick’s stand only feeds the talking-about-football industry, which in turn gooses game viewership.

Though it’s never put exactly this way, the league’s response to the issue of terminal head trauma boils down to ‘Life is risky. If that bothers you, quit.’ It has the cynical double-effect of insulating them from public opinion while also reinforcing the sport’s manly-man appeal. Only the strongest survive and so forth.

Staring down the possibility of being crippled in middle age, a few players have pre-emptively retired. I defy you to recall one of their names. All of them have been lionized for a day and then completely forgotten. That’s all the warning their peers require.

Perversely, the storyline that might have led to the NFL’s decline has instead persuaded its most ardent supporters (i.e. most Americans) into rushing in to grip it even tighter. From Pop Warner to high school to the NCAA on up to the NFL, football is the tie that binds thousands of American communities.

It is the most visceral expression of their frontier values – a brutal brand of individualism and self-sacrifice masquerading as togetherness. You’re part of the American experiment until you become incapable. Then you get shot onto the refuse pile. In football, as in life, everyone understands the bargain. They only begin complaining when it’s gone sideways.

George V. Higgins has a line that gets at the core philosophy: “America is not a country. It’s a business.”

Despite all the portents of doom, no business is booming quite like the NFL.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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