Just a couple of days into the relentless slog that is the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Cam Newton was already losing it.
Five years after he was drafted, the Carolina Panthers quarterback has finally become the face of the league. Few have ever seemed so fitted to the role. The men he takes over from – Tom Brady and Peyton Manning – come off in public as dour functionaries. Everything they say sounds as though it was being read aloud from a lawyer's statement.
Newton comes off as cuddly and spontaneous. He has the gift of seeming to enjoy himself even when he's doing things that bore him. That quality lasted just a few hours into his first Super Bowl experience.
Upon being asked for the 10,000th time a question that amounts to "How awesome is it to be you?" Newton smiled ruefully. "You know what's confusing? How can I reword questions I've been asked so many times? Nothing has changed since I saw you guys 24 hours ago."
It is hard to properly convey the pointless drudgery that is the NFL's pre-Super Bowl media routine. For an entire week, you ask the same questions of the same people so that they can give you the same answers. All that changes is the venue.
The stars get pushed up onto a podium. Theirs is the lesser pain. The B-list guys are planted alone at tables, where they will sit for an hour or two being completely ignored. Generally speaking, the result of this interaction is journalism so banal and flavourless, it ought not to exist.
Nevertheless, it does. Though nothing more can possibly be known about Cam Newton and his choice of pants, more is told.
This is because the NFL – alone among all the sports leagues in the world – has no appetite for reflection. With good reason, no league is as frightened of its own past. And so it must create itself anew every single day, even when it is using the same dreck from the day before.
This week, the New York Times ran a story about the North Carolina man who owns the only recording of Super Bowl I, played in 1967. It was taped by his father on a precursor to the household VCR.
For years, the man, Troy Haupt, has been trying to sell the video to the NFL. That seems like a straightforward transaction, but the league isn't interested.
Haupt made a deal to broadcast a portion of the recording in a CBS news piece leading into Sunday's game. He was to be paid $25,000 (U.S.). The deal fell apart because, Haupt claims, the NFL intervened.
The league's lawyers have warned him that, while he may own the recording, he does not hold the copyright to its contents. Any infringement on that copyright will result in Haupt facing "injunctive relief and special damages." Haupt has asked the league if they can sell the tape jointly, and split some of the money with charity. No dice.
Essentially, the NFL is censoring its own creation myth.
Because the NFL does not look backward. It's dark back there and nobody likes it.
Though they work a good line about family and belonging (including our semi-annual reminder that the Green Bay Packers are "community owned"), the NFL is the most shamelessly rapacious sports league in creation. No other is run so much like a widget factory – making players and fans the interchangeable widgets.
The 2015-16 season has been a long reminder of this fact.
The league is just emerging from the abating storm over brain injuries, having done nothing substantive to fix the problem (because the problem is that getting hit in the head is bad for you. It is also the whole point of football).
The league knows the truth that dare not be spoken – that people enjoy watching other people risk (and occasionally suffer) catastrophic injury. It's exciting. It feels real. Most of those who complain the loudest are also avid consumers of the product – which must be an especially electric emotional frisson.
All we ask is that they die off-screen, which they're kind enough to do.
We can collectively rend our garments over the unfairness of all this, but it's not changing. As long as there are young men willing to trade their health for a few years of celebrity and decent money, there will be millions people aching to watch them do it. TV ratings do not lie.
The league doesn't like to talk about this because, from a marketing standpoint, mental collapses and humiliating deaths are not winning topics. Any discussion of the past now inevitably winds around to the plight of all those deceased former players. Two weeks ago, it was a little-known New York Giants backup, Tyler Sash, only 27. This week, we heard that one of the league's iconic early personalities, Kenny Stabler, had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Every time the NFL takes a stroll down memory lane, it ends up in a graveyard. So they don't do that.
The other theme to the year was forced renewal.
Twenty years ago, when the Rams left Los Angeles for Missouri, they blamed a bad stadium deal and a shrinking fan base. Now current team owner Stan Kroenke has used the same rationale to move the club out of St. Louis and back to L.A.
The Oakland Raiders, who've also left L.A. once, would like to share Kroenke's new arena, or maybe one in Las Vegas. So would the San Diego Chargers. They've named Kroenke's new pleasure palace City of Champions Stadium. It's in Inglewood, where the Lakers used to play. Until they left.
Teams move in other leagues, but they tend to do so under real financial duress.
No league bounces teams around like the NFL, despite the fact that none of them is hurting financially. The Rams are among the league's least valuable franchises, and they're still worth $1.5-billion (U.S.). Kroenke paid half that for the club only six years ago. In order to move the club, he must pay other owners a $550-million relocation fee. Though he's free to supply it in yearly instalments over a decade, Kroenke plans to write a cheque for the full amount.
The Rams left L.A. for St. Louis because the city wouldn't pay for a new building and then just give it to them. Then they left St. Louis for L.A. for the same reason. It's a pretty nifty con.
A few years from now, they'll do it again. Green Bay aside, no group of teams is less rooted in the communities they entertain. NFL clubs are mercenary outfits, floating from port to port looking to pillage the tax base for as long as they're tolerated. Then they move on.
This happens because the NFL is not a local concern. Its audience will consume any sort of football, played by any team from anywhere. People will watch the St. Louis Rams or the L.A. Rams or the Mexico City Rams. The only trick is keeping the uniform colours consistent.
Even the locale of the Super Bowl – played in a neutral site – reinforces that separation between people and the teams they support. If you want to watch your team play for a championship, you go to them. They don't come to you.
And so the league can't spend a bunch of time moonily looking back at great teams of the past. Too often, they were yanked out from under their own fans.
If you can't talk about former players and former teams, it's awfully hard to talk about anything that happened in the past. And so, why bother?
That forces the NFL to become exclusively forward looking, often insufferably so. This is the "Let's discuss the match-ups" league. These people go deep, but in the shallowest possible way. No team sport is more strategic and none is poorer at explaining it to you. After suffering through a full afternoon of Phil Simms's jabbering incoherently about play selection, everyone has the same thought: "How did this guy find his way out of the parking lot, never mind how did he play quarterback?" He's just one offender among hundreds, including every current player and coach. The entire enterprise is floated on constant, mindless chatter. The NFL is that person who will not let you out of a conversation, for fear you'll wander off and talk to someone else. So it just keeps speaking without saying a thing.
You only start to really notice during this run-up week. The sad thing? It works.
It works because the Super Bowl is the last remaining date on the sports calendar that feels like a genuine event. The NFL lucked into a commodity no other league has the advantage of – scarcity. By the time the baseball, hockey and basketball seasons reach their crescendo, you've watched a lot of baseball, hockey and basketball. If you're not deeply invested in the competitors, you've probably watched too much.
This will only be the 19th game the Panthers and Broncos play this year. You needn't feel supportive about either team. The vast majority of Super Bowl viewers are neutrals. You suspect many of them don't care all that much about football. They just want to be part of a shared societal moment. In 2016, in the midst of our fractured cultural landscape, not caring about the Super Bowl feels a little too much like not caring about anything.
That instinct has its own inertia. It keeps drawing you back, year after year. It requires minimal effort on the league's behalf. All it needs do is count on the human desire to be one of the gang.
It also requires no reflection or real connection to what's happening or who's doing it. On Sunday, you may want to see Peyton Manning win one more or see Newton win his first. Next year, it'll be different characters and you'll have your reasons to root for or against them. The cast is constantly renewable and easily forgettable.
Once football has ground them up, they either retire to a broadcaster's booth or disappear altogether. One way or the other, none of them, not even the greatest, are necessary. The NFL doesn't have Joe DiMaggios or Gordie Howes or Michael Jordans. Instead, it has the shield, which is immutable, existing outside of eras and history.
That corporate culture of forgetting is the league's great strength, and the source of its ruthless expansionism. They've recognized that football isn't a heritage. It's an unbreakable habit.