The NFL no longer “celebrates” – the official nomenclature – the week leading into the Super Bowl. It tries to survive it.
Take for instance NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s state-of-the-union address. That used to be interesting in an anthropological way. There’d be a rundown of growth statistics spiced up with a couple of questions from kiddo journalists and some nitwit from Entertainment Tonight.
The effect was overwhelmingly kitsch and very specifically American. You’d look around the room and think, ‘The Secretary of the United Nations doesn’t get this kind of press.’
Even at the time, it struck me as the high-water mark of popular culture. Goodell looked good in a suit and had a way of seeming imperious without being offensive.
Union unrest soured the tone. Concussions turned it into a public deposition. Now that the NFL has allowed itself to become the Unofficial Sports League of Trumpism, Goodell’s annual address has taken on a Pravda flavour: ‘Invading Prague? I don’t know anything about that, but let me tell you about a few of the tractors we made last month.’
There is a palpable horror of saying anything definitive, even if it’s spun positive. Better to get up there and babble like a snake handler with an MBA.
This year, Goodell tried approachable (i.e. an open-collared shirt, which is the leather chaps of the Hamptons set). He even told a Fortnite joke. It didn’t work. Nor did he seem imperious. He now looks like a generalissimo announcing that the rebels have been spotted entering the capital.
Goodell got slapped around by reporters on a variety of issues, the most pressing of which was the non-call that cost the New Orleans Saints a spot in Sunday’s game. English words were said out loud in what was technically spoken language, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense strung together. There was the obligatory Colin Kaepernick question and the just-as-obligatory dodge. It was all followed by a lot of howling about his cover-ups.
A full week of Super Bowl prelims used to be a bit of fun. Now it’s exhausting. It’s a hundred hours of dreary self-analysis. And the last thing football should be thinking about too hard is what football means.
To his credit, Goodell showed better than Maroon 5. The Super Bowl halftime act took a powder on the usual pregame news conference. They knew that it was going to turn into one of those ‘struggles for the nation’s soul’ that Americans can no longer avoid once three fellow citizens get into a room together.
One sympathizes (with their predicament, not their music. There can be no excuse for that).
Were I involved in its staging, I wouldn’t want to talk about the Super Bowl either. There’s no right thing to say – you are either a revanchist obsessive, an enemy of decency or a corporate bootlicker.
The NFL was once America’s only neutral territory. People of every political stripe could come together once a week and celebrate the country’s founding principle – extreme violence.
Everybody wanted a piece of that. Being a football fan ennobled the poor, humanized the rich and bound the great mass in the middle to one another. At least, that was the idea.
I recall once being driven through Tuscaloosa, Ala., on a game day. The small, college town was wall-to-wall with people decked out in red. Just rammed. All sorts. All drunk. All deliriously happy to be sharing each other’s company.
When our cab driver, a lovely fellow named Terrence, got a load of us pressed up against the windows goggling, he said, “These people believe in football.”
That may still be true in Knoxville, South Bend and Happy Valley, but it applies less and less to the NFL’s urban metropolises.
This year, when Nike framed a big, football-based campaign around Kaepernick – the football player denied the privilege of playing football – the last bit of goodwill went out the window. The cool kids in America’s media class fully turned against the sport. NFL agnosticism became the rage.
If you still like football and would like to be thought of as a non-monster, you have to pretend to be conflicted about it. You can watch the violence, schedule your Sunday around it and hoot at it, but you can’t like it. For a certain sort of person, in order to remain a fan, one must become a hypocrite.
This week’s The Ethicist column in The New York Times addressed the very problem. Can I love football and still be a good person? The answer contained a bit about “Kantian strategy of the universalized maxim” and eventually decided that, no, you cannot.
You’d have thought it satire a decade ago. Now it’s common wisdom.
So all of a sudden there’s no more lead-in talk about how much the ads cost to produce. Nobody wants to gush about what the suckers are paying for resale tickets. No celebrity can say anything Super Bowl related without a mournful nod toward America’s social ills.
Excess is out. Sack cloth and ashes are in.
Shorn of glamour, the league has been forced to focus hard on the game. That’s not catching much traction either.
Everyone hates the New England Patriots and no one cares about the Los Angeles Rams. From a marketing perspective, it’s an eminently resistible force leaned wearily against a very movable object.
One can watch only so many Tom Brady vignettes or vapid interviews without feeling the strong urge to tear your TV off the wall. Yes, he’s the greatest. No, I don’t need to hear any more about his struggles. Even Brady is beginning to seem bored by himself.
This is being written on Friday. So, 48 miserable hours to go.
And then the game, which remains the single greatest annual sporting event in the Western Hemisphere. I haven’t been to them all, but I’ve been to a few. Nothing else comes close.
Because what we’re now watching is no longer football, as such. This isn’t a game. It’s a promotion, an event and Christmas for degenerate gamblers. It’s like the circus rolling through town. Nobody cares who’s in it. Everybody just wants to be there.
It’s a distillation of late-20th-century USA – the absolute peak of empire, after all its enemies had got tired; and none of the new ones had yet shown up. It’s fighter jets overhead and some Motown great pulled out of mothballs to throw an extra bar into God Bless America. It’s the last place patriotic kitsch can thrive in the 50 states.
The lead-in has been contaminated by this century – all the brittleness, the self-doubt, the intersecting grudges. But the game remains untouched.
The matter of winners and losers may be of interest to some people, but that’s not why the average shmoe who doesn’t watch the NFL goes to extreme lengths to watch the Super Bowl. We recognize that this is the pinnacle of Western sporting culture. This makes you part of something even if you’re not sure you want to be.
It is, for me, America. Or the America that once was.
Most of us enjoy museums. The Super Bowl has become a living one.