America at Large: Gridiron truly America's national sport
American Football seems impervious to the type of blows that seriously damage rivals
Tom Brady, quarterback for the New England Patriots of the National Football League exits federal court in New York. Brady had his four-match for allgedly deflating balls to gain a competitive advantage overturned. Photograph: Bloomberg
In the antiseptic hush of a Long Island neo-natal intensive care unit one October morning, two nurses were treating a premature baby. One was threading an IV into the boy’s pencil thin arm, the other reattaching probes to his chest.
While expertly carrying out these intricate procedures, they were also vigorously debating the merits of Jon Kitna, the then Dallas Cowboys’ back-up quarterback. With Tony Romo, the team’s first-choice, just declared out for the season, the women were speculating in informed detail about whether the Cowboys could really persevere with the ageing Kitna at the helm.
This is the way of it with the NFL. Baseball may style itself America’s pastime and assert an enduring link to its pastoral soul, and every NBA court seems necklaced with gaudy celebrities desperate to appear hip by association. But, having weaved its way into the fabric of 21st century society, gridiron alone can lay claim to being the national sport.
At a time when the country is so often bitterly divided along racial, political and geographic lines, here is an obsession that genuinely binds together people from every state, red or blue.
An alternative religion? Well, there are several faiths which probably wish they inspired this much sincere passion and blind devotion. In a survey of Wisconsin residents a couple of years back, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rogers outpolled George Washington, Martin Luther King Jnr and Mother Theresa. Hardly surprising. None of that exalted trio ever led their team to a Vince Lombardi trophy.
Reigning championsFrom the moment the reigning champion New England Patriots kick off the new season against the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight until Super Bowl Sunday in February, there will be football and, then, lagging some distance behind, there will be everything else.
The national television news shows last weekend offered a flavour of what is to come. Tom Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, giving his first press conference since a four-game suspension was overturned in court, was the third item on the main bulletins.
After the latest slapstick from the tragicomic presidential campaigns, and a fresh update on the horrors of Europe’s refugee crisis, there came Brady uttering inanities at his locker about being happy to be reinstated and anxious to play. Only somebody who didn’t understand the market would have quibbled with the judgment of the news editors. NFL plus controversy equals box office. Always.
When the Steelers opened the preseason against the Minnesota Vikings last month, it drew a bigger national television audience than a lot of ice hockey, NBA and baseball play-off games. A startling achievement for a meaningless friendly, especially since both teams rested most of their established stars for the majority of the match and everybody tuning in knew this was going to be the case.
Why would so many watch an ersatz contest featuring mostly wannabes and never will-bes? Because, after so many months cold turkey, the addicts were desperate to mainline any kind of hit, something just to take the edge off until the purer stuff hits the streets tonight. The all-consuming nature of this fandom may explain why the popularity of the NFL remains scarcely affected by scandals.
Over the past 18 months, one high-profile running back was caught beating his fiancée in an elevator; another was indicted for whipping his kids with the branch of a tree. Having been exposed for failing to inform players about the impact concussions were having on long-term health, and for not taking domestic violence seriously enough, the league then accused its most iconic quarterback, Brady, of deflating balls to gain a competitive advantage.
Ham-fisted dictatorPresided over by a commissioner in Roger Goodell who operates like a particularly ham-fisted dictator, this stream of negative headlines has had no discernible impact on the sport’s preeminence. The NFL seems impervious to the type of blows that seriously damage some of its rivals.
Baseball’s credibility took a heavy and justified hit after the world discovered steroid use had been rampant in locker-rooms for decades. Just about everybody who watches or is involved with gridiron admits the NFL has a huge performance-enhancing drug problem too. Yet nobody cares. Those who get caught sit down for four games at a time and then return, no questions are asked, no stigma lingers. Americans appear to have too much invested, emotionally in their favourite teams and, financially in the myriad fantasy leagues, to unduly concern themselves with the culture of cheating.
The fans accept, and in many cases, applaud, the players are doing everything they can, legal and otherwise, to win games. The same way the players accept many are shearing years off the back end of their lives every time they take the field. If the dubious morality of these unspoken pacts are part of what makes this sport unique, there is something else too.
In an era when too many professional athletes end up taking easy money long after they’ve stopped contributing to teams, a lot of footballers are just one bad day away from being released. With no guaranteed contracts, a botched kick, a missed tackle or a dropped pass can cost them their livelihood. This also works the other way. Only in the NFL can somebody be stacking supermarket shelves one Sunday, try out for a team on a Monday, and start a match next weekend
A most American arrangement befitting the most American sport.