Our Game, Ourselves

  • A 2007 photo of the NFL logo at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Richard Sheinwald.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

If it is true that baseball is what we were and football is what we have become, an observation attributed to longtime Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory, then this evening’s contest between the Patriots and the Eagles couldn’t be more fitting.

Both teams represent areas foundational to American history: The Patriots hail from New England, birthplace of the Revolution, and the Eagles from Philadelphia, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And both teams have strong bases of loyal fans — long-suffering in the case of the Eagles and profoundly blessed for the Patriots.

But it’s not just these two teams. The game itself — and the way the National Football League has developed it — has come to reflect America and its values today.

Being a fan means being part of a tribe, and in America, football fans are perhaps the most tribal of all. There are the matching caps and jerseys, of course, but there’s also the comical silver-and-black steampunk horror show put on by the Oakland Raiders faithful and the offensive cultural appropriation of full-on warpaint and feathered headdresses of fans in Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.

Such tribalism has its drawbacks in civil society, and we see it every day in our coarsened discourse, our deeply polarized politics and the inability — or refusal — of our political leaders to work toward the center, where actual governing takes place.

Football is warlike (nodding here to the late, great George Carlin): The quarterback is a field general with a cannon for an arm who lines up in the shotgun formation, avoids the blitz, and throws a bomb or a bullet (or, since this is the 21st century, a laser), balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack. And America, like it or not, is a warlike country. We spend more on defense — in excess of $600 billion every year, half our discretionary spending — than the next seven largest militaries combined. We have active-duty military personnel in 150 countries. Our war in Afghanistan is in its 17th year.

Many Americans like to think of themselves as patriotic, and football is bathed in patriotism: The NFL sponsors a “Salute to Veterans” month, military aircraft often perform flyovers just before kickoff, and the huge American flag that will be unfurled on the field tonight is probably larger than the original settlement on Jamestown Island in Virginia, where the English first gained a permanent foothold in the Americas.

But the unifying power of patriotism is often perverted for political ends. We see it every time a scoundrel wraps himself in the flag, and we saw it when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick’s bid to jolt the country into confronting seriously the issues of social injustice and police brutality — symbolized by his “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem — was twisted by cynical political opportunists into something it wasn’t.

And then there’s the sexism. While American society reels with each new disclosure of sexual misconduct by powerful men — some of whom received multimillion-dollar golden parachutes after their behavior was disclosed — scantily clad cheerleaders still decorate the sidelines at most NFL games and scantily clad models hawk beer and soda and cars and fast food and websites and more beer in the relentless commercial onslaught that, during this evening’s contest, will reportedly cost $5 million for each 30-second spot. Meanwhile, the league’s bumbling responses to off-the-field violence perpetrated by players against women are a continuing embarrassment, for which Commissioner Roger Goodell was punished with a five-year contract extension worth $200 million.

The NFL remains dominant. Regular-season games accounted for three-quarters of the top-rated television shows in 2017. But its ratings are down — about 10 percent this year and 8 percent last year, according to Nielsen data — a decline President Donald Trump attributes to his social-media attacks on the league following the anthem controversy. America, too, remains dominant. But our standing in the world is down as we insult allies, denigrate struggling countries, withdraw from positions of global leadership and slam our door in the faces of those seeking a better life — a decline many attribute to the president.

It seems Mary McGrory was right. We are football and football is us. It’s sometimes hard to look past all that and simply enjoy the game. But we’ll try. Go Pats.