How Sports Bring Us Together, And How They Don't: David Roth's Weak In Review
The NFL has a lot invested in Roger Goodell's insistence that football "brings the country together." There's some truth to it, but it's a smaller and tougher truth.
Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
There's no reason to take Roger Goodell at his word, really, but it's much easier to do when he is saying something grandiose. When the NFL commissioner is talking about how seriously he takes player safety, or the quality of the football that the NFL is selling, or crafting a coherent/non-disgraceful policy on domestic violence, he is mostly blowing bubbles; issuing those perfectly circular, perfectly artless leadership platitudes is his job, more than anything else.
You may look at Goodell and see someone with all the gravitas and candlepower of a checked-out soap opera actor playing the President in one of those sad CGI-sodden Megatarantula Vs. Thunderwolf movies that run overnight on the SyFy Channel, and you would not really be wrong. But you should also know that this is precisely what the owners like about him. That is their type of leader, and the average entry in the Megatarantula Vs. Thunderwolf family of films approaches its core conflict with more moral and ethical depth than the NFL owners bring to their stewardship of this great and brutal game.
But when Roger Goodell is talking about the NFL as if it were a religion, or a political candidate, or a nation-state—then he really means what he says. The time to take Roger Goodell at his word is when he says, as he did to two Sports Illustrated reporters, "Football unites people. It brings the country together." The quote is some primo Roger Goodell shit—grand and fluffy and dim, a big ol' drowsy Bernese Mountain Dog of a sentiment—but it is not just that.
That it's nonsense is both obvious and immaterial. What matters more is that it's nonsense in which Goodell and his bosses have a great deal invested. The NFL is not alone in attempting to retroactively apply a visionary and humane sheen to their pursuit of profit; the idea that there is something not just courageous and great-hearted but humanistic about the products we're sold is the singular affectation of the version of capitalism under which we currently live. This is soaringly cynical and pretty much always wrong, but it fits that the NFL's variation on this theme would be the most dumb.
It is not enough for the NFL to sell an entertainment product at a tidy profit, given that product's broader costs. To see the NFL as it is— which is another corporation out to minimize liability and inconvenient human-related overhead costs while maximizing profit and flexibility—is to see something that is awfully hard to justify, considering the carnage that pursuit makes. If the NFL didn't have so much to justify, Goodell wouldn't have to justify so hard; it's easy to get a sense of shape and scale of the crime being concealed by how overheated and rococo that denial is. The right thing to do with a statement like this is to laugh at it, and I doubt you need me to tell you that.
Anyway, even beyond the specific and overdetermined wrongness of it, Bringing Us Together also seems like a wrong and unfair thing to ask of our sports, at this atomized and anomic and angry moment or really any other. It's a lullaby for the people who need it, the people trying so hard not to price the NFL's collateral grief into the cost of their good time, and the richer people trying even harder not to know how their money is made; the splitting volume and weird discordance of it is a good hint at how badly they do not want their sleep disturbed. But this sort of thing is also a category error.
Our games don't need to have some grand overarching purpose to have real meaning, in our lives and also as themselves. No game, not the fumbly new drowsiness the NFL shovels at us on a Thursday night or any other, is big enough to unite a fractious and fuming and frightened country. It's enough that they show us enough that's beautiful and human to remind us of some important and easily forgotten things. The games that come closest to bringing the country together—think of last month's historic and history-steepened World Series, for instance—mostly boil down to much of the nation watching the same things on TV at the same time. It may be that doing that is about as close to being together as the country can really manage at the moment. But what's unifying about the games, which is what's meaningful about them, is harder to measure and easier to miss.
It makes sense that Roger and them would miss this. The bigness of those Big Unifying Sports Moments would naturally appeal to the cynical cadre of delusional reactionaries that head up the NFL, because those people see themselves as being in the Bigness Business. But that misjudgment overlooks the smaller subsidiary things that make games great, and that make us watch. In rare instances, what's compelling about watching a game is the thrill of being a part of a bigger moment. That is not something that happens every week, though, which is why the NFL's attempt to pump up every game to monumental status—and police it into submission, and brand it into oblivion, and all the familiar rest—winds up looking so goofy so much of the time. That pursuit of bigness, and the attempt to manufacture momentousness multiple times per week, every week, is doomed not just because it's hard, but because it's doomed. It's not just that it can't be done. It's that it's not what fans want.
At this moment, it's also not what anyone needs. We are surrounded by garish branded edifices and towering artifice; we are lied to every day, from every angle, in ways that are often insulting but mostly exhausting. The simple act of editing the world as we move through it is tiring work, but necessary; we learn to tune things out as needed but there is also the work we have to do, the peeling of bejeweled layers of lies, one after another, in pursuit of the simple truth that's been swaddled and suffocated underneath. This reconciling takes everything, every day, and it is why the truth and work of the games we watch matters as much as it does.
There is something factual about sports, something undeniable and human, that more and more feels like the most valuable thing about them. We can see, in Russell Westbrook's self-consuming desire or a shooter's metronomic calm or the way in which great labors make superhumans and normal humans weak, something that we cannot deny, that we understand as true in the same innate way that we understand so much else in the world as fundamentally false. We can see this all the time, basically every night, even in games that don't matter to anyone but the people playing in them. Their caring is the truth of it, and the best and bottom reason to watch. It is trustworthy in a way that a league or a commissioner is not. It makes sense that those living in the lie would want to sell us one big moment after another, and sell each one of them as the newest and biggest and most momentous moment that has ever been. They don't understand that the best reason to watch is not a big moment, but being a part of the smaller ones—the ones that can't be sold, the last ones that are free.
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