You may not have heard about it because the National Football League has fought heroically to keep this information out of the public, but this season the NFL celebrates its 100th year of whatever it is that they do. Toward that end, commissioner and dictator-for-life Jerry Jones was invited to the New York Stock Exchange to curse the peasantry.
Now 100 is a nice round number and all, and the NFL ought to play it up for all the value it can squeeze from it, but 100 also feels, well, old and musty and tired—like Grandad asleep in his own attic. After all, it is telling that most creatures that live to three digits are sea-dwellers, and nobody imagines that the Miami Dolphins are alive in any but the most technical sense.
While a lot of folks could get behind the idea of shoving some franchises into the sea, let’s leave that just out of respect for the parts of the ocean that haven’t yet been colonized by our plastic bottles. The real feeling you get is that the NFL is old, and for old people. Every time you hear someone without a compelling financial reason who is audibly celebrating the beginning of a new season and blurting idiocies like “It’s like the real Christmas!” you know that the only correct response is to pay your tab, leave with a cheery goodbye to the bartender and start drinking somewhere else.
When Antonio Brown complains about a letter he got from the Oakland Raiders listing his fines from his tedious non-training camp, you realize once again that it’s just an old magician doing old tricks with an old assistant. After the team spent the spring and summer looking the other way during his aggressively-non-training-camp, it’s pretty likely he won’t have to pay any fines. As former Raiders executive Amy Trask pointed out on Twitter, such letters are mostly pro forma and sent merely for the team to assert its rights. [Update: The Raiders are indeed enforcing the fines.] Plus, who gives a damn about Antonio Brown grievances any more?
And speaking of the Raiders, the allegedly perfect team for Hard Knocks mostly showed how old Hard Knocks has gotten. The Raiders were supposed to make the show come alive, and instead beat it flat with restricted access and massive over-Grudening. And is there a more old-school operator than Jon Gruden himself? Other than his Petermanic fixation which looks less and less believable as time goes on, he fixed perceived problems with veterans rather than take chances on youth, as though his draft history in Tampa still haunts him. We are willing to consider that he has more problems than picks, but this is not sustainable as a strategy, as his bete noire Al Davis proved repeatedly in his latter stages in charge.
When the league ballyhoos Packers-Bears, Thursday’s lidlifter, as the longest and most-honored rivalry in the game, it cheerfully omits the fact that the Packers aren’t as old as the Chicago-St. Louis-Phoenix-Arizona Cardinals, and also the fact that the Bears and Packers have both had winning records in only four seasons since Vince Lombardi stopped coaching, and played each other in the postseason only once since Pearl Harbor. Now this may not matter a lot to you, but from the safety of the new bar we’re drinking at, it reeks of celebrating age rather than shared history.
And isn’t Jay-Z a little passé for Super Bowl halftime show producer? Well, no, because the league’s view of modern culture is always 15 years late except when it books Beyoncé just for the throw-weight of her name. It’s like Maroon 5 broke the will of the league’s entertainment division and left it fetally crumpled in the office supplies room.
The league has changed a lot, not all for the worse, so it’s not like it isn’t trying to change at the edges to keep up. Like gambling, which it decried as Satan’s toolbelt based on Paul Hornung and Alex Karras betting games in 1963 but now is trying to get in on the thing that actually built the game, but only after soccer, basketball, and hockey already dove in.
If this seems more like cherry-picking than proof that the NFL is in the throes of cultural arteriosclerosis, it might be. When Jerry’s is the face you see when you want news on Ezekiel Elliott for your fantasy draft, it’s an image that burns. But while we’re at it, when gambling and fantasy sports are the real drivers of the sport’s popularity, aren’t we saying that we don’t like the football we’re being given so we’re going to make up the football we want? Why don’t the standings read...
W L T PCT PF PA ATS O/U
...just to all-in that Vegas feel? I mean, the networks already have because they’re out of fresh ideas, too, and think that professional gamblers have been salivating in anticipation for the knowledge of inflatable amateurs. You can’t swing a salami without hitting some television gambling expert who long ago abandoned the courage of his or her convictions for the lucrative ease of bloviation.
Or maybe this is all just a natural aversion to that army of yobs who want the calendar to be redefined based on the start of a new season. Twitter is great for people typing, “Only XX days until football/baseball/basketball/et. al.” as if anyone else asked—which, for the record, they never have. Maybe we hate ourselves the louder we get about what we think is culturally relevant.
Nahhh. Can’t be. We don’t age. (Okay, I don’t age. I am the immortal jellyfish you tell your kids about when you want to scare them into better behavior.) It’s the NFL that’s old, and it’s going to parade old to us all year—all the while calling two-year-old game replays “classics” on NFL Network and avoiding black-and-white games from the era they pretend to celebrate as though they were documentaries interviewing the three remaining World War II veterans. True, we don’t generally do history well, and in fact flee from the room when it rears its decaying head, but if there is an audience out there for this stuff, the NFL is going to mine it until there is no ore left.
So the league is 100 years old, with all that implies. If you’re really looking forward to tonight with more than just “Oh, look what’s on” curiosity, you’d better be betting on it, or be a child ruined too early by your parents to believe in entertainment options. But be prepared to age this year at a faster rate than normal, because that’s what the NFL wants you to feel. It ate your past and owns your future. Deal with it.
Ray Ratto is already legally dead in 17 states.