getting used to it

words: david roth

Every sport has an ideal vision of itself that exists on a plane parallel to but usually quite distant from the one on which we care and complain about that sport. Some version of this original ideal is diluted until it can be used to sell sneakers or sports drinks or official insurance providers; we get some third-generation dub of it in the half-conversations that bellow and signify and bicker and belch around the games we watch. It’s generally pretty dumb, but it also gives us a sense of what the league thinks it’s selling us, and what we are choosing to buy.

 

Sometimes this is clarifying. That is not the case where the NFL is concerned. Football, as a game and form of an entertainment, has jarringly little to do with what the NFL is selling, first to itself and then to everyone else. For all the things that are incoherent or incomprehensible or otherwise batty about the NFL at this moment in time, this is perhaps the weirdest. As another long season begins, the NFL just doesn’t really seem to care very much about football. It’s busy engaging in a wild spiral of self-thwarting denial and general pissy weirdness. If that reminds you of anything about contemporary American life in a way that bums you out, you are, uh, very welcome.

 

There is a game at the center of all this, and the game is honestly pretty good. NFL football is sludgy in its pace and grunty in its execution and only intermittently fun by nature, and increasingly stilted by over-coaching and prone to drowsy pauses. But when it’s good it is very good. The people playing football right now are better at playing football than anyone that has ever come before, great enough to deliver some shocking moments of transcendence. The league’s slog-to-transcendence ratio is unbalanced, but a lot of that is inherent in the game itself; there is only so much that the league could do about that even if it cared to do something about it. The surprising thing is how little the NFL seems to care about any of that.

 

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There’s something shocking about the extent to which the NFL has de-emphasized and neglected the F that makes NFL more than a bare tautology. There’s a sort of perverse swagger to this, but it’s the perversity that stands out; the NFL is so secure in its dominance that it has stopped caring about what it actually is, the teams and the games they play and the players that are both the league’s labor and product. Every league has bad teams, but the NFL stands out for the striking number that seem content to ineffectually hump away at mediocrity. The Jacksonville Jaguars understand that Blake Bortles is not going to help them win many games, and have all but admitted as much; while they have built a roster that might otherwise contend for a playoff spot, they are doing nothing to reconcile or remedy the problem, unless you count front office people proffering anonymous quotes about how unprepared college quarterbacks are for the pro game and how difficult it is to develop players nowadays.

 

They are not remotely alone in this. Something like a third of the league’s teams are starting quarterbacks that they know aren’t much good; that they are doing this while blackballing a superior talent out of politicized spite is a nice little grace note, but the overt malaise is the thing. Some of these teams are tanking with an eye on building for the future, but a larger number of them aren’t really trying to do much of anything. The NFL has, in recent years, had several seasons open in actual disgrace, but it’s hard to remember one that began with such a pervasive sense of resignation.

 

Some of that owes to the dark things we know about what this game does to the people that play it and what the people in charge do and don’t value. But the NFL’s most basic problem, moment by moment, is that it just sucks, and that is very obviously the fault of the league’s most powerful parties. The NFL’s salary cap guarantees that the balance of power stays firmly on the management side of things, and ensures lusty profits for team owners. And yet a stunning number of teams are plainly unable to function even within a system custom-built to make things as easy as possible for them. There is, in the NFL’s combination of inequality and pissy inertia, another whopping bummer of a metaphor, and you can take it if you’re so inclined.

 

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And yet the NFL is increasingly dysfunctional and confused and misprioritized, it is inarguably selling something, even if it seems not to have much to do with football. Whatever romantic or idealized vision the NFL’s power elite once had or have of football has pretty thoroughly been supplanted by the romantic and idealized vision they have of themselves and the league that they’ve made is an expression of that. The discourse booms and huffs all year long, and there is a great deal of theatrical disciplining of players, numerous circular controversies and strongly worded executive statements responding to them, and great gusts of grandiose puffery about football as a vehicle of Value and Integrity. Instead of football, with its charismatic players or defiantly a-charismatic coaches, there is mostly a lot of executive posturing and statement-making and administration—the sort of thing that NFL owners care about more than football. Because of who and how NFL owners are—rich men who care very much about being seen to be the boss, mostly—and because of the curdled monomania of this cultural moment, the shape this all takes is naturally and thoroughly insane.

 

The average NFL broadcast is a typhoon of signifiers, all extremely assertive and extremely hard to parse when taken together. A certain ambient, willful maleness runs through it all, but it’s hard to say that any of it feels  authentically connected. An American flag the size of the entire central time zone unfurls, and then seventeen thousand pickup trucks just fucking drive right through it while Denis Leary harangues you with some highly specific information about those trucks and invokes J.D. Power and Associates a lot.

 

Military aircraft fly overhead, not so much doing ceremonial flyovers as blithely strafing the proceedings. When we pause, as we will, to honor those who have served to sustain and perpetuate all this, it is done with a seething sideways glance to see who isn’t sufficiently into it. The beer commercials seem like campaign ads, with brands with various oaty seltzers emphasizing how meticulous they are about how they age their corn or interrogate their hops. The fast food is all very horny, somehow.

 

Put all of these together and you have some sense not just of what the NFL’s most powerful people value, but of who they believe is buying into those values. The image that emerges is almost unbelievably insulting: a man who is desperately trying to signify that he is Normal And Regular, but can only do so by buying and displaying things that demonstrate what he does not care about, or care for.

 

There’s no real promise of fun or awe in the NFL’s pitch, because the league’s most important people so obviously have little interest in those things. Because they cannot imagine anything more interesting or important than what they see in a mirror or their bank accounts, the NFL’s most powerful men have given us a league that looks and feels and acts like these are the all that matters. We of course already live in the world that men like this have made, and it makes a sad sort of sense that even their league’s escapism is shot through with these values. They do not or cannot care for anyone’s present or future beyond their own; they have no use for beauty or regard for other people. And so the NFL they’ve made is the NFL they would make.

 

There’s a lot worth saving in football, but the people in charge of the NFL are not the people who will save it. It works for them, at least for now and increasingly only for them. For them, that’s enough. For the rest of us, it’s not.