My friend tackled Shaun Alexander. Not recently, I should note. This was years ago, and years before the brief period during which Alexander was the best running back on earth. Alexander led the league in rushing in 2005 and was voted NFL MVP by the Associated Press, and then was out of the league three years later; in the years since they last crossed paths, my friend has not made even one tackle in the NFL, although he has become the father of two children and moved to Portland. The tackle in question happened when they were both in high school in Kentucky, and it was one of the few times that anyone from my friend’s high school tackled Alexander that day.
“We were at Boone County Stadium and we were getting murdered,” he told me. “I think we left the half down like four starters to injury. I remember the score was 40-0 because I remember thinking ‘how do they only have 40 points?’” My friend was playing on special teams, wearing “every possible pad I could find, including full forearm pads. I looked like those dudes they used to train police dogs.”
He ran his lane on the first kickoff of the second half, “and as I’m running toward him I realize no one is blocking me. So I dodge a late blocker and grab him by the ankle. He’s kicking his leg into my facemask but I held on until someone else got there. I was the bottom of the pile.” I have heard my friend tell this story before, and there is no version of it in which the tackle is heroic, or even dramatic, let alone remotely dignified. But it is a story worth telling, because my friend tells it well and because it has a very good punchline: “And that’s how I tackled a future MVP.”
Football is different. It fits into the culture differently, both at this particular spot on the shoulder of its fading boom and in a broader sense. The NFL speaks, in a voice louder than is generally considered polite, to a number of silly national delusions and also some actual meaningful values, a number of goofy sentimental fatuities and also a few things that really are fundamental to the way this ridiculous and unmanageable country thinks about itself. The league is smug and dumb and greedy and gleams queasily with bloat; it is more or less impossible to justify in a dozen different ways. It doesn’t work and is becoming more unworkable by the year, but also somehow it still works. It works in the sense that the money is still coming in, and every year, more or less by accident, the league caps another dreary bummer of a season with a brilliant and beautiful Super Bowl. It just happened again.
During its garish and decadent recent renaissance, the NFL got so high on its own supply that it was routinely wildly out of pocket in some very risky ways. The league has shirked every challenge and ignored every obvious warning and fishtailed wildly from one goony cock-up to another, only to awaken from each idiocy binge somehow richer than it was before last blacking out. It was a matter of time until this all stopped working, and until the league’s institutional rot started compromising everything else. That is happening now, and this most recent season was, that giddy Super Bowl aside, pretty fucking dark.
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That is not just because the league wound up crosswise with President Donald Trump, although that didn’t help. In a more urgent sense, and in ways big and small, the NFL spent the last year devouring itself. The league is grinding up its players too quickly and too brutally; it is neglecting its fundamental obligations to fans and communities and business partners and basic decency in ways that are increasingly too egregious to ignore. The league’s product has suffered mightily for that neglect and shamelessness, and too many teams and too many games have reflected that carelessness too clearly. This is all kind of a grandiose way of saying that the NFL was hell to watch for most of the last season, ugly and brutal and un-fun and dull, and that none of the people in charge seem to have any ideas about how to fix that beyond adding another 35 pages to the rulebook more or less at random. Given how seriously it takes itself, the NFL has seemed rather shockingly cavalier about its future and, to the extent that it acknowledges them at all, weirdly blasé about the changes it will need to make in order to get from here to there.
There’s no real reason to think that the NFL’s current power elite are astute or creative or flexible enough deal with whatever reckoning may be coming. There’s little reason to believe they’re even aware it’s necessary. These are, more or less without exception, deeply unexceptional men, and they know only one way to be. When that way of being stops working they will absolutely be the last ones to notice. Under the bleary stewardship of this collection of sun belt divorce aficionados and chowderheaded failsons and reptilian plutocrats, the NFL has become something surpassingly strange—a towering colossus that could be pushed over with one vigorous shove; a TV show that does not seem remotely interested in giving anyone a reason to watch; a business that is over-leveraged, literally and figuratively, to an objectively psychedelic extent. None of that is good.
None of that could exist if the thing upon which it is all leveraged—the strange and brutal game that airs between Bud Light ads, the one actual good thing in all this—wasn’t real, and didn’t have real value. It does, though, and it is what keeps this alive. Everything about the NFL is failing or failed but football, somehow, still works. It has value because the game is great and because people care about it, but also because Football Is Different, and because the way it fits into the way the nation understands and misunderstands itself is different.
It’s a national institution, in other words, and as such it is at some level everybody’s business, everybody’s problem, everybody’s property. The game is a public good, for better and for worse, which makes it that much more infuriating to see it being milked and mismanaged this way. The NFL appears to be in the early stages of collapsing under its own weight, but the question I found myself asking most often this season was not whether the league was in trouble—I knew the answer to that one, and so do you—but why I still cared.
For the generation of Kentucky kids to which my friend belonged, to tackle Shaun Alexander was to have tackled a god, even if only once and mostly by accident and with no particular grace. Alexander’s greatness was such that even this quotidian moment in an extinction-level blowout still has a sizable half-life. In a way that doesn’t quite hold for other sports, the fact of a normal teenager wrestling Shaun Alexander to the ground in a football game feels like a category error. The NFL’s attempts at self-mythology are predictably tacky and embarrassing, but there is an authentically mythic aspect to the game itself.
Football, played at its highest level, is so fundamentally different from the game played in parks or yards or on piebald high school fields that it’s effectively a different sport. By association, the people playing it seem different—not just bigger or stronger or faster or more poised, although all those apply, but so much so that they start to blur into unreality. To some extent this is easy to understand; a certain abstracted awe is honestly not an unreasonable response to watching a person the size of an industrial refrigerator chasing down a running back from behind. That sort of thing is implausible, impossible, and yet it is also something that happens in NFL games all the time. At some point you get used to it, and maybe even begin to take it for granted.
There’s another reason why abstraction and myth figure so prominently in football, and that one is harder to justify. The idea that my friend is more real than the god he somehow tackled is, at bottom, the thing that has allowed NFL fans to ignore the carnage the game makes in favor of all the other things it gives us. It’s obvious to anyone who cares to look that the people playing NFL football are stuck with the same raw deal as the rest of us—the same flawed, limited, breakable bodies, which they must pilot through the same flawed and limited and broken world. Last year, when NFL players insisted on the recognition of that fact—when they pressed the point that they were in fact still people that lived and suffered in the same world as everyone else, and demanded to be seen and heard as such—the force of the backlash was intensified by a certain ruffled shock. The NFL, like the broader culture in which it exists, is sentimental about all the wrong things and lazy in a way that approaches actual malice. The negative responses, from Trump on down, mostly resolved to huffy complaints at being rudely awakened from pleasant dreams of kind policemen. But there was, beyond the bursting of that bubble, also an authentic surprise at hearing this protest from these people. It was as if everyone had forgotten that NFL players could say anything with more substance than “Omaha, set.”
Every sports league wants absolute control over every living soul in its employ; they are businesses, and what businesses want most is not to be surprised. The NFL has made itself rich selling a very particular fantasy that has very little to do with football or the people playing it, and if the league has seemed confused about itself of late it has a lot to do with the extent to which it has gotten out of the football business. The people in charge of the league believe that they are selling Virtues and Values, fighter jet flyovers and ornate acts of official discipline, a collection of perfectly circular and calorie-free brand truths. This makes sense insofar as these are the things that they control, but they are also inarguably and inevitably the least interesting and least entertaining and least surprising things about the NFL. These particular fatuous things are made by and made explicitly to flatter the league’s most powerful and least interesting people. They are not, strictly speaking, for anyone else. They are the things that the owners care about most, and they are at the fore because the owners believe that they are the most appealing thing about the league.
They’re not, of course. All that grandiose mummery is stupendously and obviously lame, but it’s also not all there is to find in the NFL. The league’s dumb branded mythos should die, and may indeed be dying. The league’s most powerful people must change, and while they will invariably fight that future there is reason to hope that players and even fans may yet force that realization upon them. Football, just as a game, is the last thing in all of this that really works, that anyone really cares about, and that actually has any value. The NFL will fight that fact, but it can only deny it for so long.
Who knows how long that will be, but the game, the strange and ungovernable thing at the center of all this noise, still works. It is already changing and growing, not because of any new rules or because of any of those hoary old brand truths but because the brilliance and stubborn human strangeness and talent of the people playing and thinking it are forever blowing it open. It is hard to be hopeful about the people in charge of the NFL, because they are mostly vain, venal, mediocre dopes. But for everything that is terminally wrong with the NFL there is still some reason to care, and to hope, in the game itself—in how dazzling it can be when it works, in what’s mythic about it and what’s human about it, in the strange and brutal beauty that the players make, in the thing at the center of it all that can’t be managed or predicted or governed or sold. If the NFL is going to save itself, football seems like a good place to start.