As the existential probing of the NFL continues

Despite its continued ratings dominance and the public’s obsession over nearly every facet of its operations — refereeing crisis, finally ended! — the National Football League continues to get some serious questioning about the very core of its being.

As the furor over Golden Tate’s ill-gotten touchdown ramped up, I came across several magazine pieces that continued to explore the soul of pro football.

Examinations like this are as old as the game itself, going back more than a century and rooted in football’s inherent violence.

Before this season started, sportswriter Patrick Hruby declared he wasn’t going to watch football — at any level — because of concern over concussions and the suicides of famous players.

The culture of bounty-hunting exposed on the New Orleans Saints sent shock waves through the public, fomented by a national sports media that shouldn’t have been surprised, and caused a significant public relations problem for the NFL as it seeks to sell more consumer products to female fans and broaden its already-strong mainstream appeal.

Lauded magazine writer Rich Cohen took to the pages of The New Republic — normally not a place to read about sports — to explain what he discovered on a driving trip from New York to Pennsylvania and on to the Midwest, speaking to players from a throwback era, and trying to understand our current, open discomfort with the game:

“Football is violent by design. It became a sensation because of television, yes, but also because it expressed certain truths about American life: the dangers of the mines and mills, dirt, struggle, blood, grime, the division of labor, the all-importance of the clock. But we’ve changed, which is why white middle- and upper-middle-class fans recoil at the cascade of injuries that can make ESPN resemble the surgery channel: not because football is different, nor because the injuries have gotten so much worse, but because we’ve become increasingly careful as our society has become increasingly safe; we’ve lost our tolerance for risk. Football is the perfect game for the country America used to be.”

It’s too bad Cohen didn’t extend his trip into the Deep South, where there isn’t quite the overt expression of conflicted feelings about football violence. Indeed, the college game’s insane, almost unblinkered popularity here, and in other pockets in the country, gets virtually no attention from Cohen and other East Coast-based writers who see the sport entirely through the prism of the NFL.

The recent death of NFL Films president Steve Sabol prompted a long, superbly-written inquiry by film journalist S.T. VanAirsdale on The Awl, which has a bit of a sports presence. In celebrating the life, art and master storytelling of Sabol, VanAirsdale also thinks Sabol and his venture unwittingly created an NFL entertainment ethos that seemingly knows no bounds:

“There is also a case to be made against the abject theatricality that Films helped make safe for the likes of Hank Williams Jr., whose tuneless intro to ABC’s ‘Monday Night Football’ squeal-queried for years, ‘Are you ready for some football?’ before giving way to Faith Hill’s even baser ‘I’ve been waitin’ all day for Sunday night!’ lead-in for ‘Sunday Night Football.’ If the goal in 1962 was to minimize the amount of shit that football fans had to eat en route to seeing and tasting what was at the heart of this vastly commercialized and commodified game, then the unabated, bustling CGI steampunk robot tailgate hoo-ha that pervades today’s network telecasts only seems to obstruct that pursuit. Instead of ingesting and luxuriating in Sabol’s artfulness, we reel glassy-eyed within the heightened technobombast of Planet NFL, a hermetically sealed, self-contained television world with all the elegance and class of the Death Star.”

This piece from the Philadelphia Daily News, written shortly after Sabol’s diagnosis with inoperable brain cancer last year, illustrates how disillusioned some NFL Films employees had become with the direction of the foundering NFL Network. If you wonder why you don’t see the old-school films on the new-fangled network, here’s why.

On The Classical last week, Pete Beatty, a Cleveland Browns follower, makes a similar kind of media-rooted existential case:

“If football is a portable emotional currency, the NFL in 2012 is a deranged financial instrument, a shitty stock sold back to clients too dumb to know it. The NFL still works as a medium of exchange, but just barely. We huddle around the shared irritation of the replacement refs, try to scrub our souls clean of the filmy residue of Coors Light commercials, share holistic remedies for the incessant, mechanized corporate branding that pounds away at our sense organs for about 12 hours a week. The three-plus hours that a standard game lasts is 50 percent advertising, 25 percent weirdly protracted replay reviews, 20 percent Phil Simms ritually murdering the idea of communication, and 5 percent football.”

And yet:

“I settle for the NFL’s bullshit because they get me high enough not to mind. But during the ample non-football interludes caused by players getting carted off the field, TV timeouts, Chris Berman, replay delays, and other incessant reminders of shittiness, I think more and more about how I spend one of the two days I get off work every week, for a third of the calendar, watching something shitty, just because it reminds me of football.”

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