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opinion

As the NFL rumbles to life and prepares to rob all North Americans of their will to do anything on Sundays but lie poleaxed on the couch, Antonio Brown makes a nice, illustrative metaphor for where the league is.

Brown is a wide receiver. He is among the best in the world at his job. Like many geniuses, he does not seem like a lot of fun to live with.

He complained his way out of Pittsburgh at the end of last season and ended up in hell (i.e. Oakland).

Once in Oakland – a hopeless, rootless team led by a bunch of nitwits – Brown recommenced his complaining, only more annoyingly.

He has apparently been wearing the same sort of helmet since grade school. A few improvements have been made to helmets since and, as you may have heard, preventing their players’ heads from being cracked open like eggs is a hot topic in football these days. Brown’s pet helmet no longer met NFL standards. He was prohibited from using it.

Rather than change helmets, Brown decided to threaten retirement if he was not allowed to wear what is functionally a fedora with a really thick brim. When it was made clear to him that no amount of sulking would work, he set off on a long odyssey to find a new version of his old helmet. This was a little like the Iliad, only longer and more boring.

Having settled on a new helmet, Brown next decided to go to war with the Oakland Raiders’ general manager. And when I say war, I’m speaking literally.

The pair got into what sports people call a “heated exchange,” which might mean swinging flaming logs at each other for all we know, over one of Brown’s Instagram posts. He’d been complaining about all the fines he’d received for various minor team infractions, a football favourite.

Open this photo in gallery:

Oakland Raiders wide receiver Antonio Brown warms up for a preseason game earlier this month.Rick Scuteri/The Associated Press

The Oakland GM, Mike Mayock – a man who is definitely not a genius, but sounds like a bit of a pill anyway – took offence. Now the Raiders are going to suspend Brown and may go as far as voiding his contract. Since Brown is by far Oakland’s best player, this sounds dumb. But also entertaining in a rubbernecking way. As long as you’re not from Oakland.

Do you hear that?

Exactly. Nothing. That’s what you’re hearing.

Nobody’s talking about anthems, or kneeling during them, or catastrophic head injuries, or football as a way of expressing all that is wrong with America at the moment. They’re talking about one guy’s helmet. Which is proof the NFL is back.

Not back in the “let’s get the season rolling” sense (though that, too), but back as an opiate of the masses.

It’s been a bad time for the NFL. The concussion discussion didn’t help. The anthem protests didn’t help. And firing Colin Kaepernick for not realizing that backup quarterbacks aren’t allowed to have opinions definitely did not help.

Football stopped being the story being told by the NFL. Instead, the league, and the plutocrats who control it, became the story.

That chapter may have finally reached its conclusion last month when Jay-Z became the latest performer in the play. Mr. Beyoncé is now on board with the NFL as a business partner. Kaepernick and his proxies came at him hard for a week or so, accusing the hip-hop mogul of selling out the cause.

But something weird happened. No one cared. Moreover, people grew tired of pretending to care. The story whimpered and died.

For several years now, people have wanted their NFL football and to eat it, too. A lot of right-thinking fans achieved a state of cognitive dissonance in which they could both hate the league for its barbarism, but also watch it religiously and talk about it all the time.

Let’s try that another way. Do you like the idea of people hitting each other in the head with hammers? I’m going to assume you do not.

If CBS was broadcasting a show wherein contestants took turns hitting each other in the head with hammers, would you watch it? Okay, maybe once, just to see what the fuss is about. But no more than that. You’re not a monster. Which is the only reason CBS doesn’t broadcast such things.

But CBS does broadcast the NFL, because people enjoy watching contestants hit each other in the head with their own heads. It’s more civilized than hammers.

People enjoy watching football players knock heads so much that they don’t really care who’s doing it or in what uniform.

They’ll lay down at noon on Sunday and not rise again until it’s time to get up and lie down in bed. When fully in its groove, the NFL is above the concerns of other leagues – that big-market teams dominate or that their best players become mainstream celebrities. The NFL doesn’t care who wins or who’s popular. It’s the NFL. People will watch regardless. It’s a sports iteration of The Young and the Restless. You can stop watching for years and tune back in randomly and nothing’s changed. Victor’s marrying Nikki again or something.

So who’s good this year? Tom Brady – who is now 42 and may be an ageless vampire – is good. Everyone else is trying to be Tom Brady. That’s what the NFL is in 2019 – a lot of pleasant head cracking inevitably leading to the New England Patriots winning the Super Bowl again.

The Los Angeles Rams are good, and so is Kansas City and the New Orleans Saints. The Buffalo Bills are terrible. Plus ça change, and all that.

Aside from quarterbacks, the players are all interchangeable widgets slated to be pulled from the factory line once they break. There’s always a younger, better replacement available. Don’t get too attached to any one.

What are the storylines going into the season? Aside from who’ll win and who won’t, none stand out. Which is proof the NFL has weathered the storm, for now at least.

What the league needs more Antonio Browns. Not as players, but as distractions.

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