And so it begins.
Thursday night marks the official kickoff (heh heh, he said “kickoff”) of the NFL season. The defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos will meet the Carolina Panthers in Major Company-Sponsored Stadium at 8:30 p.m. ET, with the actual game scheduled to start sometime after several hours of hype and beer commercials.
I couldn’t care less.
I feel, well, a little strange about that.
I don’t care much about college football, either, besides hoping that unheralded underdogs beat up on the AP Top 25 every week. (Just once I’d like to see the top 10 filled with the likes of Appalachian State, Rice and Miami of Ohio instead of the usual litany of SEC teams. Let me tell you, when you live in the South but have no attachment to Georgia, Florida, Alabama et al., their constant dominance becomes wearying. Besides, given the budgets of those teams, they really should be playing in the NFL.)
But college football — and yes, I’m aware of the absurdity of the following statement — somehow feels more pure and loose than the NFL. At least college football games have a sort of carnival feel about them, with stadiums full of students who haven’t sacrificed their dorm fees to pay for tickets. I spent an academic year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and my trip to the Big House was fun, even though the home team got walloped by Wisconsin.
I’ve spent more than 25 years in Atlanta, and my rare trips to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium or the Georgia Dome for pro football were not fun. Of course, it was for the Falcons, but still …
The thing is, for me, that tedium of live attendance now extends to the NFL on television. It’s both loud and regimented; it’s fitfully exciting with long stretches of dullness; it’s pumped up and yet, given the league’s tight grip on its show — and it is a show, of course — sort of toned down.
I do admire the athleticism of the players — few things can compare with the sweet satisfaction of a perfectly executed long pass play — but sometimes I feel like I’m watching rocks smash against each other. The Fordham teams of the ’30s featured the “Seven Blocks of Granite,” which included a young Vince Lombardi, but in these days of 320-pound linemen, the old metaphor has become literal.
I can remember when Dave Butz seemed like the only 300-pounder in the NFL. Now he would be positively scrawny compared to some of his successors.
But I think what really puts me off is that classic feeling that I should be enjoying it, that watching the NFL on Sunday afternoons is required, and you vill participate, jah? For this, I blame the No Fun League itself. In his weekly newsletter, which you should subscribe to, Will Leitch put it well (and better than I have):
On one hand, it remains impossible to argue – not that the NFL does not try – that the game is not extremely dangerous to those who play in a way that is incongruous to the way our society is currently constructed. It is an activity that we would never start now; it’s grandfathered in, with a minimally acceptable number of causalities built into its very existence. The whole enterprise is rotten at its core, soiling everyone who comes into contact with it. It’s sort of amazing that it is the most popular collective spectator experience we have in this country, a fact that says more about us as a culture that we’d like to admit.
In a New York magazine column this week, Leitch adds that the NFL has won. It ignores the criticism and it’s more popular than ever. Malcolm Gladwell doubts that the game will be around in a generation, or at least it will go the way of boxing, but there are few signs that’s going to happen.
Leitch admits he’s conflicted. His livelihood is partly derived from the NFL (as a baseball fan, I once asked a sportswriter friend why there wasn’t more baseball coverage on her site, and she noted that other sports may matter, but “the NFL pays the freight” — it dominates coverage because it delivers the audience), and he enjoys the athleticism as well.
For me, the reason not to watch is all of the above: the injuries, the violence, the posturing and the sense that it’s just all too inflated now. It’s a game that feels like a war. I have no desire to watch.
Best to leave it with George Carlin.