Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times
By Mark Leibovich
Penguin Press; hardcover, $28.00; available today, Tuesday, September 4
Mark Leibovich, the chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, examines in the NFL in the age of Trump, how it has become another battleground in the culture wars in his new book, Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times.
The NFL is an an era of explosive revenue growth, as shown by all the deluxe new stadiums across the country, and has become America’s most popular sport and its secular religion, with over 20 million people tuned in every Sunday in the fall.
Leibovich is one of them, a lifelong New England Patriots fan who grew up with a steady diet of lovable loserdom, only to see the Head Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady turn the Patriots into the most ruthlessly efficient and polarizing sports dynasty of the 21st century.
As he covered that other playground for the rich and famous, American politics, Leibovich kept his football obsession relatively private. Every now and then, he would reach out to Brady to gauge his willingness to be the subject of a profile in the New York Times Magazine.
In the summer of 2014, Brady returned the call and he agreed to let Leibovich spend time with him through the coming season, which proved to be a fateful one for everyone involved. This was the season the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl, but it brought the world Deflategate, whose grip on sports media was as profound as its true significance was ridiculous.
This was the start of a four-year odyssey that has brought Leibovich deeper inside the NFL than anyone has gone before.
Big Game chronicles what may come to be seen as “peak football,” the high point of the sport’s economic success and cultural domination, but also the moment when it all started to take a turn. From the owners’ meeting to the NFL Draft to the sidelines of crucial games, Leibovich takes in the spectacle that is America’s biggest sport.
Leibovich hung out with NFL Hall of Famers at Enshrinement Weekend, visited with Brady at his homes in Boston and New York, interviewed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, got drunk and passed out on Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ bus, and attended the league’s committee meetings, parties, and tribal events. He had remarkably uncensored interviews with journeyman and superstar players, and about half of the 32 NFL team owners, known as the “Membership.”
On the scene after this past season’s Super Bowl, Liebovich writes, “February 4, 2018. It fell to the Brazilian First Lady to settle the punch-drunk scene. She scuttled in with the self-assurance of someone who knew her aura preceded her, even in defeat. ‘Great game,’ she said, not aware of the player’s name (he was out of his jersey, a lineman by the size of him.) He knew hers. Gisele Bundchen was working the big game after chaos in a back hallway of U.S. bank Stadium in Minneapolis, seeking out Philadelphia Eagles to stun with her classy attaboys. I watchem them flinch – ‘Uh, thanks, thanks very much.’ Super Bowl 52 had just ended in a hail of confetti and an unanswered Hail Mary from her husband, New England quarterback Tom Brady.
“He was already being criticized across the Hot Take Village for not sticking around the field long enough to congratulate his Philly counterpart, Nick Foles. So his supermodel wife, in Brady’s stead, was taking on his celebrity grace duties. She moved from Eagle to sweaty Eagle, representing Brady both as a sportsmanship ambassador and – in a sly way – as a killer consolation trophy to brandish over the new champs. She was the last power play in his playbook. And the Eagles had no answer for Gisele. She caught another one leaving the locker room. ‘Good game,’ she said, startling him. ‘Uh, your guy’s amazing,’ the Eagle muttered back.
“Brady himself was behind a curtain dealing with the media. ‘Losing sucks,’ he confirmed. ‘But you show up and you try to win, and sometimes you lose and that’s the way it goes.’ The game had finished only fifteen minutes earlier, he reminded everyone.
“Brady is an empire, like the league he plays in. Empires fall eventually, but one of their best moves is to sell the illusion of timelessness. Normal limits don’t apply. How many more big games did Brady have left? He kept getting asked this question, in so many words. ‘I expect to be back but we’ll see,’ he said.
“Four years earlier, in the Almighty’s den, Brady and I had discussed the ‘How much longer’ question too: issues of age, mortality, and the actuarial tables that he knew were running against him in the NFL, or ‘Not For Long’ as players call a league where the average career lasts 3.3 years. Barely anyone still plays in these big games – much less excels – past forty, Brady’s present age.
“I wondered why he kept doing this, and whether he worried about confronting a void after he finished. ‘When I don’t have the purpose of football, I know that’s going to be a really hard thing for me,’ Brady told me then. There was melancholy to him when he said this, one I’ve sensed in Brady sometimes, even in his pinnacle moments – of which this bat-shit shootout in Minnesota was not one. He headed off his temporary stage and met up with his football goddess in a hallway. They shared a group hug with the kids, Instagrammed for proof.”
Though the NFL has enjoyed explosive revenue growth, there is also a developing wave of creeping existential fear. Football was never thought to be easy on the body, but as the impact of concussions on the brain grew, ravaging many former players and their familes, it became increasingly difficult to enjoy the simple glory of football without the thought of the game’s obvious toll.
In 2016, Leibovich’s day job covering politics and then-presidential candidate Donald Trump caught up with him, and the NFL slammed headlong into America’s culture wars, with the #TakeaKnee and #BoycottNFL controversies. Trump’s campaign was based on many of the cultural, generational, and demographic tensions that football has incubated for years. It was only a matter of time before Trump called out the protesting players as red meat to his base.
President Trump’s battle with the NFL reached fever pitch in September 2017, as Leibovich writes, “Goodell was in Colorado on the Friday night in September when Trump, at a rally in Alabama, called on NFL owners to fire players who knelt during the national anthem. ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’ Trump said. Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s chief spokesman, called Goodell at 5:30 a.m. the following morning to discuss how to proceed.
“Colin Kaepernick’s initial protests in 2016 had inspired a dozen or so players to do the same or similar. But for all the media attention they received, the demonstrations had never reached a critical mass of players or prompted any significant fan resistance. Trump’s provocation in Alabama changed that. ‘The week before the president made his statement, four people kneeled,’ (Atlanta Falcons owner) Arthur Blank told me. ‘The president then said his thing, and then four hundred people kneeled.’ And even that response, Blank went on, showed signs of dying down within a few days, only to flare up again when Vice President Mike Pence waged (or staged) his own counterprotest, leaving an October 8 Indianapolis Colts game he was attending at taxpayer expense after a group of visiting 49ers knelt during the anthem.
“Trump and Pence appealed to a vocal subset of NFL fans. They booed kneeling players and called for boycotts; teams argued politics among themselves, and some former players criticized current ones. (‘It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot,’ the longtime New England lineman Matt Light said after a dozen current Patriots took a knee.) ‘No one was expecting this to happen, and it was hard to see coming,’ the Steelers’ Art Rooney told me. ‘I think there was no question it hurt the league.’
“Certainly the situation went well beyond ‘distraction,’ which itself became a term of offense among protesting players. Russell Okung, an offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers, said that the sequence of events – begun by Kaepernick, propelled by Trump – had turned the notion of ‘distraction’ into something that could become a new period of activism in sports. ‘Never has our generation been presented with these historic choices,’ Okung told me. There could be ramifications within what has been an iron-fisted hierarchy inside the NFL. That’s the nature of movements: they don’t necessarily respect boundaries.”
Leibovich has the astute observation that pro football may not be the sport America needs, but it is most definitely the sport we deserve.
Big Game is the most comprehensive account of the machinations of the NFL the last few years, with Leibovich giving behind the scenes accounts to the league’s big events like the Super Bowl and the Draft, as well as how they have dealt with their unprecedented part in the culture wars, which has no end in sight.