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The Mercy Rule

Every Day Is 9/11 in the NFL

It's generally a good idea not to pay too much attention to things that pro sports commissioners say for the same reason you shouldn't listen to whatever on-message platitudes come out of politicians' mouths on the state-fair circuit.
September 7, 2011, 12:00am

It's generally a good idea not to pay too much attention to things that pro sports commissioners say for the same reason you shouldn’t listen to whatever on-message platitudes come out of politicians’ mouths on the state-fair circuit. You get the sense that these guys (except for maybe David Stern) speak in bland press-release duckspeak even when ordering lunch, or talking about the weather, or explaining that suspicious rash to their doctors. So zoning out is the appropriate response to the recent comments from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to the effect that the tributes planned for the NFL's opening Sunday games on September 11 will help “unite” a country beset by a decade of creepy kitsch, bad feelings, awful history, worse decisions, and acres of the rankest of dry-aged bullshit.

Even if Goodell hadn’t said anything, it was obvious that the NFL would do something to commemorate 9/11. They do so every year, and it is easy to imagine them doing it decades hence, when Brett Favre has assumed Terry Bradshaw's seat as Fox Sports' resident guffawing Faulknerian Manchild. The sort of people who are offended by this sort of thing have already expressed their offended-ness—The Nation's Dave Zirin managed to do so while also invoking the grim memory of a past 9/11 Fox NFL pregame show staged from Iraq's Bagram Air Force Base, which featured a fatigue-clad Howie Long. But if you are honestly offended by the idea of healing the nation through Blue Angels flyovers, field-size American flags, Joe Buck's puns, and pop-country renditions of the National Anthem that go on for ten minutes, chances are good that you don’t like the NFL in the first place

And that's because a large part of the NFL's appeal—what makes it the biggest and most lucrative and reputationally bulletproof sport in the US and a baffling sideshow to most foreigners—is how well it reflects the frantic, frightened, double-loud dumbness of post 9/11 America. The grandiose sentimentality and self-importance in Goodell's wish to heal very real national wounds through synchronized macro-memorializing makes sense, in this way, because it is very much in keeping with the NFL's overwhelming, overarching dedication to idiot bigness. It is indeed dumb to imagine a scenario in which a chortling Shannon Sharpe or a Jay Cutler interception helps someone get over the pain and loss of September 11, or all the painful losses into which the nation has wandered since. But that sort of dumbness is the NFL all over, and a large part of what has made it so big.

What sets the NFL apart from other leagues is how watching an NFL game miniaturizes and re-packages the nauseous anxiety of American life over the last decade. The giddy kick of the games themselves—the long periods of grunty stop-start inaction, the sudden bursts of almost cartoonish violence, the opaque, acronym-heavy strategery in the pursuit of trivial achievements that are treated like world-shaking events—is basically just the news, but even dumber. The threatened lockout and the knowledge that these guys are doing actually pretty severe damage to their brains is swept away once the spectacle starts. Ditto for the intermittent and queasy reminders of the combatants' human fragility—the hushed announcers make respectful comments when a player is down on the turf (“You hate to see that”) but we return from the commercial break with the field cleaned up and everyone once again ready to go.

Football is just a sport, and the NFL is just a tacky corporation—it's not going to heal anything, let alone all the wounds the country has absorbed over the last decade. But credit where it's due: It has found a way to take the feelings of a godawful decade and turn it into a fun, dumb, irresponsible, and hugely popular entertainment. You won't hear Goodell bragging on that, but it's an impressive feat.

Previously - There's No Lockout in Streetball