Forgive me for deviating from the usual here.
But like so many of the car nuts I’ve known for decades, I’ve also been a football fan most of my life. On that note, I see the NFL started play this week. I’ve read a game was played on Thursday and many more are planned for today. I also was appalled to read that Thursday’s game was attended by thousands of fans – pandemic deniers, I assume — who booed when the players joined arms in solidarity. Really? That sound you heard was the proverbial camel’s back breaking. This year I am completely giving up on the NFL. Here’s why.
When I was a kid in the 1970s, Monday Night Football was an event; it was destination viewing. Even if the games were terrible – and many were – the show itself was an engaging mix of personalities, showmanship, old-boy back-slapping, bad jokes, knee-slappers and, yes, tabloid-like journalism (where have you gone, Howard Cosell?).
Then in the 1980s, Bill Walsh brought the West Coast Offence to San Francisco, and the ‘49ers electrified the gridiron. Walsh turned football tradition on its head: the passing game set up the running game. The ‘49ers won their first Super Bowl with Bill Ring at halfback. Bill Ring? Remember him?
Even otherwise boring football teams like the Cincinnati Bengals, where mediocrity represented a triumph, embraced this new game. Coached by ‘49ers alumnus Sam Wyche, who sadly left us earlier this year, the Bengals displayed a creative brand of Xs and Os that brought them within 34 seconds of winning the 1988 Super Bowl. Alas, Joe Montana and the ‘Niners doused the magic. Montana hit John Taylor with the winning touchdown after driving the entire length of the field at game’s end. Magic.
In the ‘90s, well, the universally despised (outside of Dallas, of course) Cowboys under the hyperactive Jimmy Johnson, were as balanced a football team as we’ve ever seen. Troy Aikman hurled the ball, Michael Irvin snagged it, Emmitt Smith ran it, Daryl Johnson delivered bulldozer blocks. Leon Lett and Charles Haley rushed liked demons. Dallas won three Super Bowls in the ‘90s, the ‘Niners two. Denver, quarterbacked by the charismatic, end-of-career John Elway – mobile and with a cannon for an arm –closed out the decade with consecutive Super Bowl wins.
And that was it. The NFL peaked with Y2K and has been on a downward slide ever since. You wouldn’t know it by the numbers, though. A staggering swath of society became absolutely obsessed with the NFL, largely because Monday Night Football lit a firestorm of football entertainment that transcended the mere game on the field. An NFL game became an event centered as much on running, blocking, passing, catching and tackling as the off-field and in-stand antics of luminous personalities, sexualized cheerleaders and large men dressed in Halloween costumes. Pyrotechnics, flag-waving, loud music, all of it.
As for the game itself, well, then came Bill Belichick. Ugh.
Belichick has won more Super Bowls with the New England Patriots than any coach in history. We can’t take that away from him. And Tom Brady is if not the greatest quarterback in history, then in the top three. (My personal choice is Joe Montana, but it’s a sentimental one and he only won three Super Bowls.)
But Belichick and the Pats have been caught in a number of cheating scandals, the brand of football he coaches is relentlessly consistent and stultifying, and the team’s owner, Robert Craft, is most famous for being caught in a massage parlor scandal, along with making over-priced razor blades. Belichick himself presents as miserable a public persona as we’ve ever seen in sports. He’s rude to reporters, unrepentant even when proven wrong and unsentimental about his players. His teams are personality-free machines that, to give credit where it’s due, win even when they shouldn’t. There is no joy in what they do, however.
While the Patriots have been dominating football for the past two decades, the league has been gleefully milking advertisers and the public. Ticket prices are exorbitant, and televised games are stuffed with so many commercial breaks and in-game product promotions, they’ve become an advertising stream only briefly interrupted by a bit of on-the-field action. Kickoff. Then commercial. Three-plays-and-punt, then commercial. Timeout. Commercial. Timeout again, then commercial. End of quarter. Commercial. Halftime. Commercial. And on and on and on. The only way to tolerate an NFL game these days is to record it, then start watching an hour and a half after game time. If you’re lucky, you can fast-forward thought all the breaks and delays and ads and come to the end of a live game just about the time you reach the end of the recording.
But for the last few years, I’ve rarely bothered. The NFL today has morphed into a tedious promotional exercise run by greedy ownership that still treats players like indentured servants. NFL players, despite being in a game that brutalizes their bodies and brains, do not have guaranteed contracts. The average life expectancy of an NFL player is 55, and 52 for linemen. Seventy per cent of NFL players are African American, but only a handful of African Americans are head coaches, general managers and senior team executives. And hypocritical? The NFL treated Colin Kaepernick like a pariah right up until public opinion forced the league to embrace him and the cause for which he took a knee.
I was a long-time NFL devotee, but no more. The games have become bloated commercial platforms, the play on the field is tedious and the league as a whole, while not detestable, has certainly become unsavory – celebrating the successes of noteworthy cheaters like Belichick and selling a brand of faux patriotism that borders on nauseating. Sunday football, which deliciously expanded to Monday Night Football in the ‘70s, has now become Sunday-Monday-Thursday-Saturday-and-any-other-possible-day-football. It’s all too much.
We get only a short time in this life. I’m not giving the NFL any more of mine. I’m going driving instead.