The one that surprised me most was Comic Sans Guy, both in the moment and the morning after. The comments that were scrolling alongside the bootleg stream of Thursday night's season-opening game between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos were mostly as disastrous as any other scrolling real-time comments anywhere else on the internet. But as the game wore on and one Denver Broncos defender after another propelled their helmets into the head and neck of Cam Newton, a strange new tune started to emerge from what was otherwise the usual skronking dueling-trombone battle of partisan armpit-fart noises and avant-garde misspellings.
It is probably a stretch to call this tune plaintive, because this is still a real-time comment section full of NFL fans and as such plaintive is definitively not on the menu. But Comic Sans Guy was not alone, by the fourth quarter, in wondering how this was all still going on—how the Broncos were being allowed to keep drilling these headshots into Newton without any penalty, how Newton was allowed to remain in the game without any apparent interference from either his coaches or the independent athletic trainers and neurologists that the NFL requires be stationed on the sidelines at every game.
And yet it happened and kept happening, without a whistle from the refs—the one whistle that was blown for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Newton was offset by a Carolina penalty—or much in the way of comment from NBC's broadcasters until Cris Collinsworth wondered, late in the game, about whether all those helmet-to-helmet hits might have diminished Newton's capacity to lead a potential game-winning drive. If there was to be a voice of reason here, that voice would have to speak its truth in large, teal, erratically capitalized letters. And so Comic Sans Guy said what we were all thinking, a few sics notwithstanding: "Its not legal to lead with the of the helmet, i thought."
Comic Sans Guy is right, but it's probably more significant that Comic Sans Guy is concerned. Anyone who cares to educate themselves surely knows at this point about the compromises and craven shortcuts and blank inhumanities that define the business of football, from Pop Warner to the familiar shamefulnesses of this particular Thursday night. Lord knows I have done my part, to the point where I can trace my "Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit" columns back through these past few years in rings of heated adjectives that have since cooled, marking epochs of umbrage gone by and placing us in the late NFL Has A Personality Disorder Age.
To care about and write about the NFL is both my job and my masochistic affliction as a fan of the sport. When someone who comments on janky livestreams of NFL games in loopy aquamarine letters is taken aback by the carelessness with which the league manages its inherent violence, we may have crossed a bright line. In terms of ratings and revenue, the NFL has shown that it can survive the concentric crises of confidence that have defined the last few years of Roger Goodell's thumb-headed administration. Since the NFL team owners who employ and empower Goodell in his butterfingered aspirations of corporate authoritarianism only care about ratings and revenue, it is tempting to just leave things there. But the NFL cannot survive without Comic Sans Guy. And, more to the point, the only thing that will make Comic Sans Guy stop watching football is the NFL.
Football and the NFL are not the same thing, although the latter tries to convince us otherwise. Think of football as more like a natural resource that team owners have exclusive franchise rights to mine, and you're closer to the truth. They have been squatting on the game for so long, and the business they have built up around it is so lucrative and so large, that they now mistake football's appeal for their own. The NFL has constructed a fantasy of itself as a patriotic nation state governed by warrior virtue, entrepreneurial courage, and the crisp, cold-filtered taste of Coors Light, when the reality is much more hollow.
The result is a collection of glaring, garish contradictions: a fetish for discipline paired with distaste for accountability, a wild sentimentality with a howling cynical nullity underneath, a veneration of sacrifice and a governing ethos of grasping greed. Split the pretense from the actual virtues and you have the difference between football and the NFL, the sport and the business. The only part of the NFL that is redeeming or redeemable is the game, really: the aweing collective effort and the equally awesome individual virtuosity, the intricacy and also the violence. Everything else just looks so howlingly false in comparison. It looks that way because it is that way.
You see the challenge here: it is eminently possible to love football and disdain the NFL, but you have to go through one to get to the other. But there's a bigger problem here than the sticky greenmarket narcissisms having to do with how ethically to consume something being sold by such unethical people. Every headshot Newton absorbed on Thursday bore that problem out into the light.
The problem is that the NFL has not shown that it can be trusted with football, not by a long shot. It will make rules and impanel committees, it will create protocols and spend a great deal of money making sure you know that they have done all these things, but it cannot—or, anyway, it will not—do anything to inconvenience itself in applying those rules. It will put Cam Newton at terrible risk and subject him to terrible violence because of a congeries of cynical calculations suggest it would be bad for business to do otherwise. People in positions of power will complain that the league is getting worse because of the economics that the owners forced upon it, as various coaches and executives have done in bemoaning the league's trend toward younger players, but it will do nothing to alter those economics or challenge the ideas that created them.
It is striking how much the NFL's economic structure looks like America's right now, with a plump class of billionaire lords overseeing a self-regarding tier of well-compensated managers and administrators whose primary role has been defined as extracting maximum productivity at minimum cost from an increasingly fungible fleet of labor-units-on-the-hoof. That doesn't feel quite sustainable, either, honestly, but in both cases that unease has not yet quite darkened the doors of the people governing from on high.
Given how much money the league makes, and how much power the league's most powerful people have, it makes sense that they would consider the status quo to be just fine, give or take pitching a righteous bitch here and there about the insouciant, unreliable help out there on the fields. But there is, in the NFL's ungenerousness and pomposity, a failure of imagination that could undo it. The various cracks in the league's edifice are what they are, and I won't pretend to know more about the decline in youth football participation than you do, because I don't. I won't say that I know how empires collapse, either, at least beyond the fact that I think it starts with people asking questions—reasonable ones, ones that address the disjunction between what we are told and what we see, ones that have difficult answers.
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