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Peyton Manning, left, Eli Manning are now the faces of ESPN's Monday Night Football programming.

John Amis/The Associated Press

On Monday night, a new type of live sports broadcast was debuted – one without much sports.

Rather than call the football game, ESPN asked Peyton and Eli Manning to talk over it. For three hours during the Ravens-Raiders game, they joshed each other like dweebs and spoke in incomprehensible presnap quarterback gibberish. The actual game was shown behind them and sometimes not at all.

Here’s one bit that ESPN was pushing hard on the internet (you’ll have to imagine Peyton in his prep-school-principal uniform, wearing a football helmet, arms outstretched, in an imaginary shotgun formation):

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Peyton: “One-mid-trips-right-flush. Eight settle. Fifty-one scat. Aitch-we-rail-why-lie. Can three-jet-church. Blue 20. Blue 20. Easy easy. Can! Can, can!”

Eli: “What does ‘can’ mean?”

Peyton: “He just canned it right there. Those are two plays … I cannot … this helmet doesn’t fit.”

Eli: “Shocking. Shocking that a helmet doesn’t fit you.”

This is not television. This is nonsense. It’s the Smothers Brothers explaining particle physics.

It shouldn’t work, but it does. Because it’s the NFL. You could have a dog pressing a button with its nose and the word “TOUCHDOWN” flashing across the screen for three hours, and it would work as an NFL broadcast. (Actually, now that I think of it, that’s mine. If you own a sports network, call me. The Last Word with Touchdown Dog could be yours.)

The praise for the Mannings’ debut Monday Night Football outing was gushing. Must-see sports TV. Smart and funny. Tune in next week when Peyton speaks in Klingon and everyone watching is too ashamed to admit they don’t know what’s going on.

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There are a lot of numbers you could point to that emphasize the NFL’s place at the top of the sports food chain, but the triumph of this slice of banality does it better. The NFL is so big that even when it goes The Producers route – putting on a show designed to fail – it succeeds. And not just a little. It’s a smash hit.

A couple of years ago, you’d have said the NFL was hobbled. Not doomed, as some had it at the time, but definitely winded.

In an era of enormous, inchoate cultural rage, the most visible entertainment business in America was too inviting a target. Everyone lined up to take a slap at the NFL.

Then the pandemic happened.

COVID was bad for sports. That’s taken for granted. COVID knocked sports back a good few steps and it will take years to sort it all out.

Except for the NFL.

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The pandemic is not now, and may never be, fully over. But it is for the NFL. Because for football, it never started.

Rather than make a great show of “putting health and safety first” – the dimmest, shiftiest catchphrase of a dim and shifty time – the NFL put football first.

While everyone else was shutting down in March, 2020, the NFL was gearing up. When it got bad in fall and everyone else was making contingencies, the NFL changed no plans. When it got really bad in December and January, you did not know that if you watched football.

This wasn’t a war against government or authority. Football doesn’t take sides. Where it ran up against policy resistance, the NFL acquiesced.

But whenever the path ahead was vacated by weaselly politicians or dithering public-health officials, the NFL rushed in to fill the space.

“Okay, sure, maybe it’s not a great idea to have fans in the stadiums circa November 2020, but is that allowed? It is? Wonderful. That’s what we’ll be doing.”

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While other leagues froze, worried what their fans/sponsors/advertisers/the neighbour’s cat would think of them, the NFL pressed on.

This bulldozing approach also applied to their own staff. Other leagues and tournaments pretzeled themselves to accommodate the vaccine agnostics in their midst, as well as the health-and-safety crowd. The NFL budged for neither.

You’re an NFL player who doesn’t want to get vaxxed? Amazing. Hooray for freedom!

But if you catch the bug or get near someone who has, you’re out. While you’re out, you don’t get paid. And while you’re not getting paid, some other guy is probably taking your job. Then you’re out of work altogether and good luck coaching high school in Idaho. I hear it’s very beautiful out there in July, and for 10 or 12 days in August.

The other day the Columbus Blue Jackets fired a newly hired assistant coach because he refused to get vaccinated. Nobody flinched. The story hardly made news. The NFL made that possible.

Was all of this reckless? Absolutely. It probably only works in football, where just about everyone on the job figures they have a 1-in-4 chance of winding down their days in a wheelchair. You apply that sort of heightened risk tolerance to an international plague and most of them will not flinch.

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But here’s betting that if the NHL, NBA, et al were given the chance to do it all over again, they’d go the NFL route. Just talk very loudly about the public needing distraction in a difficult time, push the rules to their absolute limits and ignore the internet yelling at you.

In fairness, the NFL was the only major league that already had a lot of practice at doing that. And so it was the only one that felt pretty sure this would work out in the end.

We’re at that end point now, and the numbers are clear.

Ten million Americans, on average, watched the last World Series. About the same number watched the NBA Finals. By prepandemic standards, those are shocking declines.

Twenty-five million watched last week’s opening game of the NFL season. That’s the league’s best debut in years.

Like all crises, the pandemic has been very good to a very few. The companies that boomed during this bust time lie across all sectors. But what do they have in common? Regardless of what was going on, they remained open for business.

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