Friday, September 9, 2011

Beautiful Returns: NFL Kickoff, 2011

Whenever the first NFL game of the year comes on TV, I completely slacken in my chair, let my mouth fall open and emit a narcotized "aaaahhhhhhh" noise. Mostly I do this to bug The Wife, whose loathing of football I've never managed to lessen with cajoling, barbecue, beer or desperate garment-ripping (mine, not hers) pleas. I like to play to every addiction stereotype she already believes football induces.

If I'm honest with myself, I admit that this play-acting isn't entirely insincere; I really am incredibly happy to see football back on TV. Perhaps not slumped irremediably on a sofa and drooling with a soporific smile on my face, but I get excited about the start of the game and notice myself relaxing, happy, when it starts. Make of that what you will, traders in "bread and circus" metaphors. The producers of the NFL on NBC certainly mined the event for all they could.

If they were cowed by the negative response to last year's show, opening with Taylor Swift and Dave Matthews Band, they certainly didn't show it, going this year with Maroon 5 and Kid Rock. The first one seemed an obvious choice; I'm actually surprised that NBC didn't run a crawl during the Maroon 5 performance with, "Catch lead singer Adam Levine on the next season of The Voice, only on NBC!" Then again, doing this might remind viewers that Cee Lo Green is also on that show and make them wonder why no black musicians were available (again) for this event. Maroon 5 edged dangerously close to provoking this realization with the presence of a black guy playing keyboards and uncomfortably representing the antithesis of Maroon 5's kind of music.

Kid Rock, on the other hand, I can't even begin to explain that. It's not like this is new music. The Daily Show featured his performance of his song "I Was Born Free in a Laundromat on the Bayou in a Crossfire Hurricane in the USA" during their effete "The Truth Is in the Middle!" gathering in Washington, DC, last summer. Then TBS used the song as its bumper music — often — during every game it broadcast of the 2010 Major League Baseball postseason. I wrote this at the time:
Can someone explain to me what the fuck Kid Rock's "I WAS BAWRN FREE? I WAS BAWRN FREE? I WAS BAWRN FREE?" has to do with baseball? Seriously, just read this shit. If the rest of the album is anything like this, I'm pretty sure this is the first time someone ever cut an LP with the aim of selling Chevy trucks on TV for half a decade and spending the rest of his life having his face airbrushed on American flag tank tops.
I guess Kid Rock's career has transitioned into a Mellencamp delivery device for people who grew up on rap-rock and want to still think they're edgy. At least I missed Lady Antebellum entirely.

We also got the requisite thoughtful, probing three-minute interview with each quarterback: long enough to get past asking them how they're going to do in the game, not long enough for anybody to win a game of Cliché Bingo and force their friends to drink. Still, it's worthwhile to note that Drew Brees indicated that he was humbled — humbled — to have his relationship with Sean Payton compared to that of Joe Montana and Bill Walsh. So, just for the record, he recoils from the presumption of likening himself to a guy who threw the football for a living, but when it comes to gainsaying Amnesty International, the Red Cross, human rights jurists, former members of the Bush Administration and pretty much the whole of Europe's military and human rights policy community, he has no problem saying that we need to indefinitely detain people, that it's necessary to our national interests and that this "torture" stuff is bullshit. Whatever.

Brees wasn't the most egregious interview in the whole pregame, with master of sanctimonies Bob Costas facing off with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. For someone who I suspect has a giant wooden bed shaped like a horse, so he can climb high atop it and sleep the sleep of the just, dreaming of beautiful worlds where everyone understands things as meaningfully as he does, Costas certainly seems to quail in the moment. He let Goodell essentially filibuster each question for as long as he liked, citing untrue statistics about fan polling data and fan desires that so wholly inverted reality to his needs that he might as well have interrupted Bob and said, "White is Purple. By the way, I sell Purple and Purple accessories." Despite his insistence to feel morally important things at you during every broadcast, Costas abdicated most almost every opportunity to ask morally challenging questions.

This would have been a great platform for challenging Goodell, but the chance passed, in part because I think that Costas is ultimately a company man, and this is time for the company to celebrate football uncritically. Also, his ability to know better than others expands in relation to the diminished size of the target. He rarely seems to lecture his betters, instead looming over those with lower Q ratings and speaking truth to the disempowered. This doesn't mean to trade in size metaphors or references to Little Man Syndrome. Rather, it's hard to shake the memory of that incendiary, iconic Bissinger-Leitch confrontation on Costas Now, where Costas again shrank in the moment and let a Pulitzer Prize winner ludicrously berate — via apples-and-oranges comparison — a lowly blogger. That the conversation was ostensibly about journalistic civility was the only thing that made it funny.

Even the staging of the Goodell interview fed power and size interpretations, with Goodell's beefy WASP body leaning in a matter that looked like it could instantly explode into a surly tackle if displeased by the buzzing sound coming from in front of him. I had a lot of fun tweeting about it:
Watching Roger Goodell next to Bob Costas is the closest we'll come to watching Roger Goodell's favorite hobby: sucking blood out of a child.

"Jesus, how did somebody figure out how to inject fat in a lamprey and put it in a blonde wig?"
"That's Roger Goodell."
"Answer my question."
Goodell's tenure as Commissioner has been all A-Is-A assertion, contempt and denial. When every West Coast team objected to flying east to play 1pm games, because all of them wound up having depressed and logy performances, he signaled that he heard and did not obey. Meanwhile, he keeps going forward with the NFL in London project, a dictatorial damn-the-facts commitment that ignores the total indifference of everyone involved, including Londoners, except where it provokes objection and disdain, which also includes Londoners as well as every team that has to go play there. I know Englishmen who are serious NFL fans, and I don't mean to minimize them, but filling one stadium, on one day, in a nation of 50+ million people in a land mass smaller than Florida isn't fucking difficult.

Costas deserves credit, though, for pressing Goodell on the 18-game season proposal, wondering why lowering preseason ticket prices isn't a better way of coping with season ticketholder dissatisfaction. What he didn't press home is that this solution is less lucrative for owners, much less so than a regular-season expansion — surely the source of Goodell's antipathy — and that Goodell's 18-game scheme runs counter to his own supposed mission to make football safer for players. Instead, Goodell peddled his truisms with the passionate la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la plugged-ear glossolalia of Objectivists, citing internal polling. He might as well have said anything.

The nice thing about people who trade in counterfactuals is that one need only have spent time in reality to have a good notion of what's wrong with their argument. They only gain traction when interviewers touch the knuckle to the forehead and say thank you, sir. If we want to elevate this exchange to the kind of high moral plane from which Costas enjoys orating, then letting absurd blackwhite nonsense like Goodell's pass without instant critique isn't much better than snuffling around his balls like you're looking for truffles. People like Goodell should be ashamed to say the things he says on recorded national broadcast television, and clearly he isn't. Of course, I'm not sure what I expected. At halftime, Costas delivered an approximately two-minute oral essay on Peyton Manning that, after some dramatic language and hand-wringing, said, "The Colts season will probably not go well without him, leaving Colts fans wondering if their expectation of multiple championships with Manning will never occur. He is getting old, and that window of opportunity might soon shut."

As for the game itself, it was wonderful, but if you watched, you already knew that. Aaron Rodgers came out and immediately drove the Packers to a touchdown, looking as if he and Jordy Nelson would pick up right where they left off, in the Super Bowl. The Packers' defense forced a fumble and made the game-winning stop. Both defenses looked like a lack of off-season drills hadn't done many favors for their tackling, missing easy stops and giving up a combined 76 points. On the other hand, both Ds faced two quarterbacks who are only a handful more years of similar play from being easy Hall of Fame candidates, so perhaps the performance reflects more on what great offenses can do than on defenses playing far below their ability.

I loved seeing Randall "Lone Kick Returner of the Apocalypse" Cobb give the lie to the idea that kickoffs won't be fun anymore, and I enjoyed seeing Darren Sproles try his damnedest to equalize. And while Al Michaels seemed strangely over-enthusiastic at times and even more strangely underwhelmed at others, it was fun to hear Cris Collinsworth mostly dishing out approbation and happiness to be breaking down film again, before the tedious season storylines set it, making him curmudgeonly and contrarian. Even Brees, who has his off-field faults, was magnificent, never letting the game out of reach, passing for over 400 yards and driving in the final seconds for a goal-line attempt that, with a 2-point conversion, could have tied the game.

The only event that provoked seemingly universal frustration was the Saints attempt to go for it on 4th and 1, from the Green Bay 7 yard line. The Saints had gained 13 yards from the pass and 14 from the run, before being stopped for no gain. Letting Brees pass wasn't especially crazy, and trying for the first down or the score is the sort of play that everyone uncritically adores when it works. Failure's always an orphan, especially when people can whine about money. The most outraged voices came from gamblers, which is simultaneously something to be sympathetic with and laugh at. I don't make big bets on sports; I make bad emotional choices when I gamble on teams, have a worse time watching the game and tend to react terribly when real money's involved. Throwing away anything more than a few bucks on something as hopelessly random and capricious as the NFL always makes me do mental conversions of all the beers I won't have or books I won't buy.

Also, I don't know whether to blame the massive popularity of poker in the last decade, but the number of people willing to shriek and damn the heavens over sports bets seems to increase geometrically every year. Again, I sympathize. It sucks to lose money on a nearly sure thing, on the fate of a bad bounce from an oblate spheroid or Asante Samuel blowing a gimme interception and some third-stringer helmet-catching a ball after refs didn't blow a play dead. On the other hand, who cares? Everybody has a "bad beat" story, and 99% of them are like 99% of "bad breakup" stories: nobody but the person telling the story actually cares or thinks it's especially novel, and everyone else thinks they have a story that's worse. (It isn't).

Sure, the pregame ceremonies and obeisance to the High Church of Football were noxious and dumb, but that's the pregame. We all accept that it sucks; in fact, it sometimes seems more fun when it sucks. People love busting on shit with their buddies, even if they're Twitter or message board buddies. But unless you're a Saints fan, you can take out the gambling hassles and be left with something pretty great — a phenomenal opening game for a season we all feared we might never see.