The curse of trivial, supposedly fun entertainments is that, inevitably, they want to be taken seriously. This is especially true of the NFL’s play for “significance,” which combines the wince-induction powers of a hundred ponytailed, freshly Corvette-d dads and a dozen chin-quivering dramatic performances by Robin Williams. No one expects them to adopt "It's Only A Game, People" as league slogan, but the NFL's aspiration to import and impose itself all over the world has a uniquely over-serious, star-spangled goofiness that only fellow bad-for-you macro-brand Budweiser would try to pull off. Here’s the thing though: If the NFL is serious about wanting you to feel some sort of patriotic heart-bloom every time Ray Lewis spears a receiver with his helmet, they should probably do something about the fact that Monday Night Football, the league's marquee broadcast, has become a leaky sack o' garbage.
To be fair to Monday Night Football, it's not always an entirely un-endearing leaky sack o' garbage. Monday's game between the Eagles and Bears, for instance, was a pretty terrific football game, and was well-produced enough that armchair grump-connoisseurs like myself couldn't spot any major fuck-ups. But it was, like most Monday Night Football broadcasts for going on a decade, best enjoyed with the mute button firmly mashed.
This state of disrepair goes back to when the game was on NBC. Once ramshackle, loopy and bourbon-soaked in the way that the entire NFL generally was during the '70s and '80s, Monday Night Football got serious about getting serious during the league's pre-renaissance lull ‘90s and early oughts. This meant pairing Al Michaels—now doing play-by-play on NBC's manifestly superior Sunday Night Football with smuggish menswear salesman/pretty-decent-color-commentator Cris Collinsworth—with a rotating crew of color-commentating doofuses whose presence was supposed to Edgify Things Up.
Because the NFL is simultaneously as conservative as Senator Orrin Hatch's haircut and more mainstream than Applebee's, the Edge Guys were a disaster. Dennis Miller, by then deep into his long, coke-cooked twilight and reduced to decade-out-of-date "this makes [thing] look like [other thing]" jokes, was a disaster—although Michaels, who manages to fit more in-broadcast bitching about income taxes into his play-by-play than would seem humanly possible, did at least manage to convert Miller into the frothing conservative that he is today. MNF moved to ESPN in 2006, and Miller was replaced by veteran sportswriter and voice-raising specialist Tony Kornheiser, who, while amusing enough, has transparently not given a shit about sports since Jimmy Carter was president and was not about to start paying attention again just because he was on TV talking about it.
Things haven't necessarily gotten worse on Monday Night Football since its move to ESPN, and the channel's recent decision to get rid of monstrous booze-sack Hank Williams Jr. and his godawful "All My Rowdy Friends" intro song was a triumph for all Americans. And ESPN's current configuration, which features amusingly exasperated play-by-play guy Mike Tirico, human sausage Ron Jaworski, and psychopathic ex-coach Jon Gruden, is at least free of Miller's pharmaceutical-grade flop sweat.
But where Michaels and Collinsworth add something to the games they call—palpable self-satisfaction, but also some context and perspective—the best that fans can hope for from today’s Monday Night Football are a few unintentional LULZ and a minimum of facepalm-y missteps like Jaworski's recent "they should just put a dress on some of them" protest against penalties for helmet-to-helmet killshots. (Tirico, embarrassingly, seems to troll for this sort of retrograde armchair-macho burlesquerie from his booth-mates) Gruden, at the very least, knows a lot about football, but he's far too enthusiastic to articulate much of it; his frantic, leering glee over every football-y occurrence recalls nothing so much as a gym teacher getting a shade too into teaching a high school human sexuality class.
Sadly, most sports commentators take more away from the experience of watching a game than they add. But if Monday Night Football is still supposed to be the high mass of the First American Church of Football, they should probably do something about the guys in the pulpit. It's one thing for the NFL to want to Be America—there's a dog-walking-on-his-hind-legs poignancy to the attempt, however creepy the wish. But Monday Night Football's ass-backwards posturing and general dim doofiness is maybe a little too much like America for comfort—it's basically the House of Representatives with better production value and more violence. That somehow, doesn't seem like what the NFL was going for.
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