Skip to main content

There is a way in which the traditional news conference held by the Super Bowl halftime act is supposed to go. That way is "no actual questions."

This year, Justin Timberlake is pulling lip-synch duty. You'll recall that the last time he had this gig, it didn't go so well.

In order to ensure that actual questions, which might elicit interesting answers, are avoided, the only media allowed near a microphone are the Entertainment Tonight types.

They typically start off with something along the lines of, "Heeeeey Justin, thank you sooooo much for being here …" while the sports hacks in the room roooooll their eyes.

This system works well for both parties – the TV flatterers get to feel beautiful and important; and everyone else gets to feel slovenly and smug.

On Thursday, someone tossed up one of the usual softballs – would Timberlake's toddler son "like to run some routes and get in the NFL?"

"Uh, he will never play football," Timberlake blurted out, and the room got quiet.

Realizing immediately what he'd done, Timberlake began fidgeting and babbling some nonsense about raising a "great person" and teaching him "what not to do."

It was excruciating.

This was, of course, rank hypocrisy – "I am happy to be here hosting the public hanging, but I want folks at home to know I don't support the death penalty."

But what was most notable about it was not that Justin Timberlake – a Tennessee-bred bowl of vanilla ice cream in human form – came to the Super Bowl and rubbished football. It was that he came to the Super Bowl, rubbished football and then did not feel he had to walk it back.

That's where the NFL is right now – it's lost the mainstream. It is no longer a question of whether football could become a niche interest for people who also enjoy bear baiting and gander pulling, but how soon.

That argument is usually supported by a continuing decline in TV ratings. The NFL experienced a nearly 10-per-cent across-the-board dip this season, after an 8-per-cent drop the year before. It is still far and away the most watched brand on U.S. television, however.

The league and its proxies counter that these setbacks are down to cord-cutting and that people continue to find football on other formats. (No one NFL-adjacent ever bothers to get into how any of this jibes with a marked increase in the NBA's television audience this season.)

Recent polling suggests the sky-is-falling crowd has it right – the problem is not people refusing to buy the NFL's all-access package, but people in general. They don't care as much any more.

According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC survey released on Friday, Americans across all demographics are losing interest – men and women, Republicans and Democrats, coastal elites and the heartlanders who hate them. No one group is fading faster than men aged 18-49, however.

Four years ago, 75 per cent of that cohort said they followed the NFL closely. The number is now at 51 per cent.

"They are the very core of the football-viewing audience," one of the pollsters said. "If they're retreating, then who's left?"

At a guess? Eventually, very few people.

This won't happen because the product is bad, or dangerous, or because people have lost interest in bloodsport. It will happen because football no longer makes its customers feel the same way. If entertainments are opiates of the masses, the NFL is losing its patriotic kick.

This is rooted in the United States' own transformation. One nation indivisible – which was essentially the NFL's marketing strategy – has become two tribes split right in half.

For a while, the NFL found a comfortable spot in the midst of that tension. It was a cultural DMZ – an apolitical safe space everyone agreed to share.

As with U.S. unity, that unravelled pretty quickly. Now the NFL has enemies at both ends of the political spectrum.

Progressives don't like concussions, or the owners or the way football culture feels time-warped-in from the 1950s.

Conservatives don't like anthem protests, lippy players or the way football is turning into a testing ground for identity politics.

Watching them bicker is clearly annoying the moderates in the middle who just want to talk about pass interference. As in, what is it and how does it work because no one knows any more?

Concussions set this boulder rolling downhill. NFL executives could have got out in front of it earlier, or told fewer lies or at least covered them up more effectively.

By trying to wait out the problem, they became a thing no American can tolerate – heartless rich guys.

They'd always been that way, but, before concussions it was easier to sell them as ruthless winners in a sexy meritocracy (something most Americans do like). Concussions flipped the script.

Anthem protests amplified the problem. Regardless of how you feel about them, odds are you feel it strongly. That means you can find a villain somewhere in the piece – kneelers, non-kneelers, the kneeling police, something something Gestapo, Donald Trump.

No one really supports anyone in this fight. Rather, they are against the other guys. If you had to boil all current U.S. discourse down to one statement, it is, "I believe very strongly in the idea that everything you believe is wrong."

Americans can shout at each other all day about the right to protest, and did, and it was bad for business. Everyone in the NFL – all of whom are, at their core, businessmen – lost sight of that.

In much the same way the league's leadership saw fit to shrug off the concussion issue, they thought the game was so monolithic that it could remain widely popular while antagonizing its customers.

That works for Facebook because there is no other Facebook.

It will not work for the NFL because there is every other sport in the world.

With that in mind, Sunday's Super Bowl has a very 'make hay while the sun shines' feel. If not the end of anything in particular, it is the beginning of the end of a lot of things, including the NFL's primacy on the U.S. sports landscape.

This is a big one. The New England Patriots will play the, um … (flips through some papers) … Philadelphia Eagles.

This is a matchup for the ages, featuring the greatest quarterback ever, the greatest coach ever and the greatest football dynasty ever locked in battle with some other people you probably don't know.

Who exactly?

Right. Give me a minute … it's, ah, Nick Foles and I think there's a guy named … no, I lost it.

Tom Brady is playing. That's all you need to know.

Brady is no longer the best player in the NFL. At 40, he is the NFL.

His stardom so overwhelms that of his peers that it might now fairly be said that Brady's most recognizable antagonist is his own coach.

He and Bill Belichick are the last NFL personalities who transcend the game, in part because they were built for the current era.

Belichick is a bellicose, proven cheater nursing a series of Nixonian grudges. He treats everyone the same (i.e. despises them all). Also, he has a thing for wearing sleeveless shirts, which is a serious problem that does not get enough attention.

Brady is a kinda-sorta Trump supporter married to an immigrant and keeps a menorah in his house despite the fact that he is Catholic because "we're into everything."

When Brady isn't sure what to say, he doesn't say anything. Often at great length. He's the last famous person in the United States who hasn't offended anyone with his opinions because he does not have any.

This week, Brady did get upset with a Boston radio host who referred to his 5-year-old daughter as "an annoying little pissant."

(Several hyped-up reporters got online to blare the news that some monster had called a kid a "piss ant." Put education reform on the list after civility in public discourse.)

You know what Brady did? He forgave the guy!

With hours remaining until the game is played, that is the big story of the Super Bowl – Tom Brady was kind to a mean stranger.

Nobody outside New England and Philadelphia seems to care much about the game. All those young-to-middle-aged guys who lost interest over the past little while will probably watch anyway, because the Super Bowl's a habit and Brady's in it.

Once Brady is gone, what happens to the habit?

Eventually, the Super Bowl will become the U.S. version of the Grey Cup.

It will be the game people who no longer watch football still tune in to because it gives them a warm hit of jingoism – jets following the anthem, an inoffensive pop star at the break, one nation under God and all that.

It'll remind them of a time when things were different and people still cared about football, and pretended to do so about each other.

Once the Super Bowl's over, they'll drift back to a sport that doesn't insist on reminding them how things have changed.

Cheering Toronto Argonauts fans celebrated the Grey Cup champions Tuesday at a rally outside city hall. Veteran quarterback Ricky Ray smiled at chants of 'one more year' and asked, 'why not two?'

The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe