Millions of people will tune in tonight as a new NFL season kicks off, but the transgressions of the past hang over the league like the hordes of White Walkers beyond the Wall. The long list of controversies threatens to overshadow the game, whether it's domestic abuse charges leveled against players and the league's ineffectual response to them or the fallout from Deflategate. Above all, there is the question of the toll football takes on its players: how the league deals with concussions, as well as its mishandling of the legions of players suffering from CTE, the subject of the upcoming Will Smith-vehicle Concussion. Nearly every major American publication has written about the sport's future; writer Steve Almond has questioned whether football will, or should, continue to exist. In March, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, a budding star, stunned many when he announced his retirement at age 24, citing concerns over brain damage.
Years ago, author George R. R. Martin had different concerns for the sport he loved. In 1975, he published a science-fiction story titled, "The Last Super Bowl Game," chronicling the sad, unremarkable end of the NFL. He was still 20 years from finishing the first novel in his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, and another 15 years before its adaptation into the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Martin continues to blog about football from his Santa Fe home, sprinkling football references in his books—in 2011's A Dance with Dragons, he named a character after Patriots coach Bill Belichick (in the book, he gets eaten by giants, most likely a reference to Super Bowls past). GoT fans have expressed worry that the author's famed preoccupation with the NFL might impede him from actually finishing the book series.
Football fans, though, would find much to admire in "The Last Super Bowl Game." It's a prescient work of science fiction, showcasing the author's ability to construct alternative realities that are both entertaining and consequential. In the 40 years since writing it, Martin's bleak vision for football has in many ways come true—but in a surreal twist, has had the opposite impact on the game.
The story starts off in January 2016. The undefeated Green Bay Packers are heavy favorites in what will be the last Super Bowl. The Packers have a dominant defense expected to "grind [quarterbacks] into little bits and scatter [them] all over the field." Their opponents are the underdog Hoboken Jets, formerly of Jersey City, Newark, and New York. Their quarterback is Keith Lancer, the greatest to ever put on a helmet, say the 12 sportswriters who remain in business. Blessed with "great range" and "fantastic accuracy," Lancer is a brilliant field general with an infectious anger to his game—Jon Snow with a golden arm.
The Jets score first, but the Packers respond with 24 unanswered points after Lancer goes out with an injury. The Jets refuse to relent in the pounding mud and rain. In the fourth quarter, Lancer returns limping, "wobbly on his feet." The Jets rattle off 14 points and bring the score to 24-21. A massive and fortuitous swell of rain arrives just as the Jets attempt an onside kick. They recover, and Keith Lancer drives the Jets down to the three-yard line with seconds left.
Only "832 aging fans, 12 sportswriters, a Boy Scout troop, and the commissioner of the National Football League," who was also a scoutmaster, were there to witness the climax (which, lest you worry, we'll resolve later). Millions of Americans were tuning into something else—computer simulations of football, the very sport they'd abandoned.
To grasp the biting cynicism of Martin's vision of pro football in 1975, it's important to understand that the sport was in a transition period from the leather-helmet days to the modern era. "It was a lot more of a rough-and-tumble kind of a sport," said Kevin Cook, author of The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless 70s: The Era that Created Modern Sports (a book so rowdy and reckless it needed two colons ). Players weren't "getting rich. They're still working offseason jobs. Terry Bradshaw was selling cars in the offseason, and he's a number-one draft pick coming out of college."
The then-26-year-old Martin was himself working multiple jobs to pay the bills. Living in Chicago, he organized chess tournaments and did PR work while dabbling in the odd bit of journalism. Growing up in a Bayonne, New Jersey, housing project, he became a devout fan of the New York Giants and Jets. "My dream is to someday live long enough to see a subway Super Bowl," he said on his podcast back in 2006.
A few years before Martin wrote the story, the sport would be changed forever with the creation of Monday Night Football on ABC, which was an instant phenomenon. "What [Martin] must have responded to was the fact that the whole country is just glued to the television set to see this as a form of entertainment just as much as a sport. It really turned sports into TV programming," said Cook.
Cook read the story after I sent it to him. "I was really impressed. It was remarkable. He anticipates a lot of things that happened."
Interwoven in the overly detailed play-by-by account of "The Last Super Bowl Game" is the good stuff: Martin's explanation of how the end of football came to be. The demise of all sport begins with the innocent question—who is the greatest heavyweight boxing champion ever? A computer runs a simulation factoring in such variables as "glass chins," "snappy jabs," and "dazzling footwork."
These simulations spread to football, the results of which are broadcast on the radio. They're deemed a sideshow by the "lords of sport"—team owners, many of whom are functional dynasties not unlike the clans of Westeros.
Radio broadcasts gave way to movie versions of the simulations, with actors playing the athletes. But this left fans uneasy, prompting an engineer to pitch an idea to the lone TV network without a sports broadcast deal: Replace the actors with virtual recreations of the athletes.
The show is called Unplayed Football Classics, which pits the best teams in history against each other. The simulations get more advanced, as do the computers running them. The inflection point happens in the 1994 Super Bowl, in which the Denver Broncos play in both the actual Super Bowl and the UFC simulation of the Super Bowl. In the actual game, the Broncos blow out the Giants. In the simulation, they win on a Hail Mary, beating a legendary Vince Lombardi–era Packers team.
Fans ultimately prefer to watch games featuring the best teams in history, and pack stadiums to watch "holoshow" simulations, eventually controlling their own customized ones from their couches. One by one the sports leagues go under. The NFL, "the richest, and the most arrogant sport of all," is the last to go.
Sports-based science-fiction has always been a rather narrow niche. For one, sci-fi typically emphasizes the advantages of intelligence over physicality. "Most of the (science fiction) writers I know disdain sports," said Mike Resnick, a Hugo Award–winning author who published a book of sports science fiction last year called Away Games.
Esteemed literary publications like The New Yorker have mostly shied away from publishing science fiction. Stalwarts of the genre call it snobbery, or claim that literary editors had little experience with sci-fi and how to read it. "[They] would find it incomprehensible, or by definition badly written, because it wasn't using metaphors correctly in the way that they were familiar," said David G. Hartwell, a Hugo Award-winning editor at Tor Books. "If you read a line like, 'An hour later he was singing a duet with his can opener,' that has to be metaphorical in a literary story. In a science-fiction story, it can be literal."
That's where porn, as usual, stepped in to save the day. "The Last Super Bowl Game" was first published in Gallery, a "less-classy imitator of Playboy" as Hartwell put it. The editors of men's magazines were often science-fiction writers themselves, or just fans. And the massive circulations of these rags meant they could afford to pay the writers more than the leading science-fiction magazines of the time, such as Analog or Galaxy. More importantly, the pages of men's magazines fit science fiction's style.
"The men's magazines were, to put it politely, very literal," says Hartwell. "You open a men's magazine and you see a naked lady and it's literally a naked lady. The fiction was like that."
What Martin got right in the story was the role technology would ultimately play in supplanting the in-person viewing experience. While fans obviously don't pack stadiums to watch holoshow simulations, we do draft fantasy players, build our own super-teams, and enter virtual tournaments with massive amounts of prize money. We play Madden with virtual recreations of players, and watch eSports tournaments on ESPN, streamed on Twitch, or in actual stadiums like in South Korea.
"There's no reason to think that isn't going to happen here at some point," said Kevin Cook. "We might be ten years from the time when the best guy at Madden NFL is a celebrity in his own right, as big as Aaron Rodgers." As far back as a decade ago, ESPN launched Madden Nation, a reality show where the gamers were the stars, playing tournaments, and traveling across the country.
What Martin got wrong was that technology hasn't made football obsolete. Rather, it's only expanded it to new platforms and grown the brand into a multibillion-dollar juggernaut. Martin predicted that technology would make football big and fake. Instead, it became massive and real. That's the beauty of speculative fiction—you can be spot-on and still shortsighted at the same time.
Humans will still be on the field in this year's Super Bowl, the 50th in league history. As for Martin's fictional Super Bowl in January 2016, the ending was fitting. With the Packers up 24-21 and the clock running down, Jets QB Keith Lancer lunges for the goal line to win the game. Sure, the Jets could've just kicked a field goal to tie it, but that's just too logical—it's what a computer would have done. Lancer, tragic hero that he is, goes for the win but comes up short. The players walk off the field for the last time. Lancer smiles to hide the tears. The stands are empty. The game of football is over.
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