Wednesday, September 22, 2010

NFL Week One Thoughts: The Tardy, Musical and Doomed

(Continued from last week's delayed Super Bowl retrospective and Drew Brees loathing.)

Of course, the 2010 NFL season would have to open with Drew Brees facing off against Brett Favre, which offered viewers a coinflip of morally repellent shitbags. Rooting for Brees over Favre felt like choosing polio to defeat pellagra.

Just five years ago, I wouldn't have breathed a negative word about Favre as a person — as a quarterback, plenty, namely "GUNSLINGS" — but four years of demanding that teams openly woo him away from retirement, reneging on his own promises and throwing fans in multiple cities under a bus, and I can't think of anything nice to say about him.

I understand that all sports fans to a certain extent are only rooting for laundry, but Favre's decade and a half in Green Bay, plus the citizens' ownership of the team and thus greater example of the democratizing of fandom, felt like there was a legitimate relationship there. Seeing him discard all that adulation and patience without anything but the most cursory of Thank Yous and with open enthusiasm for playing for a direct rival eroded all sympathy for him. He's an incredible narcissist whose only excuse might be that he never developed beyond the emotional maturity of a child. As one friend described him, "Ladies and Gentlemen, the anthropomorphized penis, Brett Favre."

In the middle of a game, I might shout that I want someone hurt badly, but I can think of very few people I sincerely wanted to see injured. During last year's NFC Championship game, I hoped that Favre would get knocked out of the game in some special way that would leave him orthopedically unharmed for the rest of his life, a way that would prompt a team doctor (or James Andrews) to say, "Brett Favre has to retire. He has a career-ending injury. Interestingly, that hit that would never cause an injury like this to a quarterback five years younger."

This explains why, despite everything I wrote last week, I wound up rooting for Drew Brees and the Saints. I still think Brees is a cretin for implicitly whitewashing the horrors of Guantanamo Bay and taking a government-sponsored tour and information session at face value, but I can still understand where that came from.

Pro athletes are overwhelmingly conservative. In 2004, during the run up to the presidential election, Red Sox players were asked their political affiliation. Despite playing in liberal Boston and, in many cases, coming from impoverished Latin American countries where mainstream politics are far to the left of American liberalism, all but maybe two or three players were Republicans.

It makes sense. If you'd labored hard to become a one-in-tens-of-thousands talent and reap huge rewards, you'd probably buy into an ethos that celebrates the self-made man and letting him keep his money. If, like many pro athletes, you were pretty incurious and marginally educated, you'd probably never think to ask where all the rich non-athletes get their money, whether other people ever worked as hard as you, whether those who didn't make it were victims of luck or circumstance and what happens to all the people not in your enviable position. Even Oakland A's GM Billy Beane, the poster child for thinking outside the box, considers Atlas Shrugged his favorite book.

Given the above, and the fact that Brees is pretty seriously Christian, his stance on Guantanamo makes a lamentable but traceable sense. His economic and religious beliefs, as well as his vision of himself and the arc of his life, probably all gibe neatly with Republican conservatism. So when a reviled conservative-policy playpen is calmly explained to him as perfectly reasonable by the same sorts of people who he's likely felt have been attacked by a liberal press for ideas he shares, he's going to believe it. He's still a dickhead for doing it, but unlike Favre, there's a comprehensible process at work besides, "I am a whiny, stupid dickhead."

Every year, the kickoff to the season becomes more elaborate and, like Super Bowl pre-game coverage, more bewilderingly pointless. This year's started an hour early, featured bad audio mixing, missed cues and, as its core, Sanctimonious Sports Midget Bob Costas telling us all about how important football is, as if the surrounding pageantry was somehow elusive.

Half an hour of the pre-game involved live performances from Taylor Swift and Dave Matthews Band. I suppose the reasoning behind their inclusion had something to do with Taylor Swift being cute and country, and Dave Matthews being the default soundtrack to kegstands nationwide. Both were demographic grabs. Taylor looks sexy and plays music that people in trucks probably have a tender lovemaking session to, then buy miniature Starter Caps for whatever person they conceived in flagrante. And Dave might as well be Coleridge for business majors, the sorts of people who clumsily apply microeconomic theory to scalping tickets and eventually buy season tickets when they work for Bank of America as career brokers with no future.

Neither actually rock, though, which goes against what football should sound like. I understand that directors for the various CBS, ESPN and NBC broadcasts like to get cute when providing bumper music for broadcasts — picking Boston or Dropkick Murphys for games played in New England, for instance. But the actual music intended to amp you up for the game should be the sort of thing that, if heard behind the wheel, stands at least a token chance of making you start driving over the speed limit.

Taylor Swift ain't gonna do that, and neither is Faith Hill, who sings the drowsily awkward and unpleasant "NFL on NBC" theme beginning each Sunday Night Football broadcast. The only things either of those artists' NFL-show songs make you think are:
Dave Matthews makes you think things, too, but they're less socially acceptable to mention. Like, "Look: another mediocre white person surrounded by more talented black people whose names nobody will bother to promote half as much and who will make less than he does."

I like classic rock, but not too much. Most of the classic rock I like is less "fuck yeeeeaaaaahhh" and more wonky, but I think it's probably safe to say that the music for football should be stuff like Foghat. It's okay, familiar, never going to be put into a capsule to preserve the history of western civilization, but at least it makes you want to shotgun a beer and run at someone and fling them to the ground.

Whenever program directors try to include new music, it's always such a crapshoot, potentially wonderful or shockingly wrong wrong wrong. For every clever inclusion of Franz Ferdinand's "Take Me Out" a few years ago, you were liable to hear some ponderous ball-less rock from Muse, with the lead singer going, "ooooooooo," followed by his I-just-surfaced-from-minutes-underwater "EEHUHHHH" drawing in of breath. The best example of misplaced-Muse tracks was the interminable "Knights of Cydonia," which sounds like what people who do math in their spare time would mistake ZZ Top for, while composing an anthem for their next scooter-borne road trip. Then, inexplicably, it tries to sound like Queen. Okay.

Nobody who watches football will be peeved by restricting opening and bumper music to anything with a guitar (or a good rap hook) that's aged five years at minimum. In that span of time, you figure out if something is a stupid fad or if people will be able to keep digging it. When in doubt, just play something off a classic rock list from a ClearChannel station with a name like "99.5: THE BONE, featuring the Monday Morning Dog Pound." Just play me some fucking Foreigner. I don't even really LIKE Foreigner, but it'll work. Just as long as it's not, "I Wanna Know What Love Is."

The pre-game killed my being pumped for the game. It dragged out for an hour, doing nothing well, and the game itself offered a "finally!" reaction, rather than a thrill. Aside from nasty thoughts about Drew Brees, I don't really remember much of it.

I remember wondering if Sean Payton pumped the noise of someone being waterboarded into the Saints' practices to get Brees used to crowd noise, but I dismissed that as impossible, because Guantanamo detainees have it pretty great. Then I wondered what it would be like to picture every receiver catching a Brees toss instead being a Muslim man having a menstrually soiled tampon shoved in his face to humiliate him after being forced to stand in a stress position for 10 hours. But that, too, was entirely fanciful, since it has never happened.

My being at a loss continued on Sunday, with the only standout coming from my pleasure at seeing the Cowboys lose on Sunday night. (Fuck the Cowboys.) I bought the NFL Red Zone channel again this year, and I think it's killed my ability to say much about football. I see every score, turnover and big play, but in taking out everything else, it's defused my opinions on a lot of the game. Aside from bad officiating, there's nothing one can really say about football but that it's football. Most fans don't watch zealously enough to observe the actions of a single lineman or safety — I don't — so the idea of commenting on blown coverages or zone blocking is something of a joke. There are definitely those people out there, but I'm not one of them.

I like watching where the ball goes, whether it winds up past the first-down marker or in the end zone. I can try to predict winners, but there is no science to it. I can try to explain why a team won or lost, but my doing so will be reactive, obvious or paraphrased. What I always reacted to in football games was, in terms of the game, the attitude and the sense of the progression of drama, which are impossible to really grasp in a six-hour highlight show that jumps around. A single game could give me that, but why wed myself to a single game when there's every chance that what I chose will suck? Why not just get the fun bits of everything?

The remaining reactions I always had were to media or processing. The announcers, the promotional copy, the stressing of narratives for each player or team and, finally, the commercials. Since I don't hear or watch any of those, I have nothing to say, really, about Sunday football. Sunday and Monday Night Football is a little different, but it's interesting how even their bad bits are minimized by experiencing them as rarities.

Watching seven hours of pre-game, football and post-game on one day and only seeing two or (if you're lucky) three games tends to reinforce all the bad aspects of media and commentary. There are only so many ways to call or promote a game or its players, so the commonality of the words or salesmanship starts to rankle. Take those seven hours away, and even Jon Gruden saying, "I TELL YOU WHAT, JAWS, THIS IS A GUY WHO..." doesn't seem so bad anymore. It's stupid, but it's almost a novelty stupidity now. All that considered, not much stood out from the Monday Night Football games, apart from two things.

1. Why schedule two defensive powerhouses with shaky offenses to go head-to-head in week one? The Jets-Ravens opener seemed like a good idea only if you expected to get the two post-season teams showing up to face off. But this was week one, when everybody screws up. Old players had left, and new players had joined. Offenses and defenses hadn't jelled yet. Holdouts like Darelle Revis — who I'm convinced every commentator should call "Darill" just to piss him off — hadn't gotten in enough practice time in to be most effective.

Worse, most fans tend to like seeing scores, so two stifling defenses going up against confused and inexperienced offenses seemed like a really bad programming choice. ESPN got just those kinds of negative results. Jets QB Mark Sanchez made lots of checkdown passes and garnered a truly abysmal number of first downs. The Ravens made multiple mistakes, and QB Joe Flacco overthrew a gimme touchdown, to a man about ten feet away in the end zone, by about ten feet. By the end of the game, both Gruden and Ron Jaworski were both openly describing the Jets' performance as "terrible" and almost egging each other on to be honest about what a travesty of a game it was. Getting an NFL commentator to give a wholly negative review of a team is like getting blood from a stone, yet both men positively gushed.

2. Seeing the Chargers lose to the Chiefs was completely awesome. Seeing Philip Rivers look snotty and angry never gets tiresome, at least because his default expression is snotty and confident. I've read that he's very Christian and refuses to swear, but that doesn't seem like it can possibly be true. He taunts other players (Christian modesty) and pumps himself up (Christian modesty) and even taunts opposing fans (Christian modesty). Not to mention his constant sneering (Christian forbearance). The man exudes TOTAL DICK from every facial and body expression possible on the field. It almost seems charitable to humanity to want to see an unholy rain of shit come down on him. (The blog Kissing Suzy Kolber has a whole thread tag devoted to him, since every update about him is about how he's an asshole.) I don't know a single person who thinks Philip Rivers isn't a complete penis except for Chargers fans, many of whom are willing to admit that he's a complete penis, but at least he's their complete penis. Fair play to Chargers fans.

The best thing about the game was its noise. I'm really curious to see a structured breakdown of the costs of season tickets in the Chiefs' renovated Arrowhead Stadium versus, say, the new Cowboys Stadium or the New Meadowlands, adjusted for Dallas and New York cost of living. The sound coming from Arrowhead was thunderous, constant and amazing. It made the game better to watch and more interesting in terms of how it was played.

That's just not a level of noise you get out of the new, enormous sybaritic kinds of venues. Yankee Stadium, Cowboys Stadium — they're never going to make that noise, because the people who can afford to go to them are too privileged and unconcerned with the ballgame goings-on to give a damn. They're not tailgaters. They're not the sorts of people who will try to start a chant even if it means it might fail. Hell, to suggest that they're interested in what their fellow man has to say, even if it's repeating their own words by rote, is a tremendous stretch of the imagination.

I suspect Arrowhead's secret lies being set in less of an economic powerhouse of a region, combined with multiple poor seasons depressing the competition for season tickets. If there's a method to its success, the ownership should patent it and guard it closely. With the exception of Seattle, which might enjoy the luck of acoustics more than anything else, there probably isn't a louder stadium in the NFL. Watching Rivers get flustered and his lineman confused by the crowd proved how valuable that noise is.

If I had to guess, I'd say the NFL couldn't give a shit. Poor people make noise, not money. The NFL's ideal model is probably 32 identical Cowboys Stadiums, magnificent models of high-revenue, luxury boxes, overpriced lower reserve, class division inside the grounds and outright class warfare against its fanbase in every pricing respect. One middling ticket to a single game is as much as the NFL Red Zone channel for a season. One great ticket, a few beers and a hot dog is as much as the entire NFL Sunday Ticket package. Sell the latter two as consolation and make sure the live game is always a punitive toll.

Arrowhead Stadium on that Monday night might have been an illusion, a wished-for throwback. But I think the noise belies that idea. I think that was real, what football that the sliver of the remaining middle- and trained blue-collar class can still afford. Those fans took a good game and made it better by being a part of it in terms of what happened on-field. Also in the process, they took a good game to watch and made it electric. It was like witnessing a beautiful and doomed animal. I can't even imagine what it was like inside. But, given the economic course of the NFL and the United States, in a few years, I will probably have to — not just because I won't be able to attend, but because there won't be anything to attend.