Stupor Bowl
Are you ready for some duuuhhhhh?
by Paul Jones

Football is the dumbest sport in America—probably the world. But it’s a perfect microcosm of modern American life and, therefore, the new national pastime. It’s the ideal vicarious pursuit for Americans, whose colossal asses are the stuff of envious legend in other cultures. This is a sport whose season is heralded by the keeling over like downer cows of its overfed linemen during practice camp. No other game has been so bold and so persuasive in perpetuating the myth that guzzling beer in a semi-coma is akin to athletic glory. Even Jerome Bettis, for many years one of the league’s elite running backs and the leader of the Super Bowl contender Pittsburgh Steelers, seemingly defies physics. It’s easy to understand, watching Bettis propel his sloppy 255-pound frame downfield, how every American Jabba might manage this sort of delusional transference.

Listen to any NFL broadcast and you’ll be subjected to a fawning digression about some player’s dedication to the game. This commitment is invariably exemplified by the player’s ability to watch hours of game tape. It says something dark about our society that even our athletic idols are measured, in part, by their ability to sit in front of a movie screen.

Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ slack-jawed golden boy, is most frequently cited for the time he logs viewing old game footage. Brady, a corporate pitchman whose Cro-Magnon cadence would have shamed Ivan Drago, is even depicted in the current Nike ad sitting in front of a massive screen, analyzing video.

It wasn’t always this way. Up until about 1905, football was a great sport, played by elite universities. There was real glory to be had in victory; and a far more serious price than disgrace, or the low-grade agony of a Jim Rome rant, to pay for defeat. In the days before the forward pass, stratagems like the “flying wedge”—an offensive, running “V” formation in which players shielded the ball carrier while hurtling downfield—resulted in actual deaths: literal carnage. Broken bones, gouged eyes and battered skulls were commonplace. Games between Harvard and Yale turned into bloodbaths. Really, can you envision anything as splendid as a field riddled with maimed Ivy Leaguers? Eighteen collegiate players were killed in 1905 alone. This is perhaps the closest modern athletic competition has come to approximating the savagery of battle. It’s all but impossible to imagine scenes like those, now that nearly every great thing about our culture has been bowdlerized.

It’s hardly a coincidence that “reforms” (one of the most insidious euphemisms in language) undertaken the following year at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, marked the beginning of football’s decline as consistently compelling entertainment. Or that they led to the formation of the NCAA, one of the most corrupt cartels in history.

The NFL commissioner is just what you’d expect: a grim, sniping Croesus with a dour half-lemur, half-owl face. In a January 23 Sports Illustrated profile, Paul Tagliabue compared the league’s success following his ascendance to commissioner, replacing innovator Pete Rozelle, to Nixon initiating diplomatic relations with China: “It took a corporate lawyer to be a change agent, because I could change [things] without appearing to be soft on communism so to speak.” The comparison to Nixon should give football fans pause enough; but the idea a corporate lawyer served, in his own immodest estimation, as “a change agent” should frighten them. Has a corporate lawyer ever, in the entire history of the unholy alliance between business and law, changed anything for the better?

Tagliabue’s eeriest boast is about his time at the Pentagon, working under ghoulish Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which “he describes…as the best of his life.” “I learned how the real world works, I learned how to manipulate procedures, how to use the media.” Those skills, presumably, came in very handy when, for instance, Tagliabue quietly appeared before congress to dismiss questions about the need for steroid legislation. The commissioner made baseball chief Bud Selig look like a rank amateur (which he is).

Academics who insist football is a metaphor for war and a ritual celebration of American militarism are right, in spite of themselves. If anything, the degraded game symbolizes precisely what is parodistic about how we “conduct”—in the neutered parlance of the times—a war today. NFL games are tediously bureaucratic. The action is often dictated, through a chain of command ending with the coach, by coordinators watching from above the field of play. Meaning even quarterbacks (other than compulsive audible-callers like Peyton Manning), those vaunted “field generals,” actually take their cues from various commanders-in-chief and other functionaries. Obviously, this does not preclude feats of astounding physicality; but the hierarchy and abstraction make the “drama” much less intriguing.

The only type of safety net that enjoys widespread support among the subservient American public is subsidy for those who don’t need it. The NFL not only reflects the self-defeating ignorance of American society, it mocks it openly—and with our explicit endorsement. The league is a massive welfare state, but like everything in Bush’s America, it’s only welfare for the wealthy. As Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell said of his business associates, “We’re 32 fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist.” Well hardy har har. The NFL is an uber-exclusive club whose rigid salary rules guarantee its members huge profits. John Gallagher’s report in the Free Press quoted NFL Players’ Association executive director Gene Upshaw as saying, “The way the NFL is set up, an owner really has to work at it to lose money.”

Each of the league’s 32 teams earned $87.5 million in 2005 from shared television revenues alone. Even that’s nothing compared to the de facto pension system of retired player analysts—a form of economic coddling even Swedes would reject. There are really brilliant ex-players out there, so it’s a tragedy we’re forced to settle so dismally. Do we really need more evidence that Dan Marino couldn’t beat a Zagnut at checkers? Watching ESPN’s massive crew, along with inexplicable anchor Trey Wingo, simulate plays on their miniature studio field is the most gratuitous indulgence of white-collar fantasy since OJ Simpson hurdled his way through an airport for Hertz. But the lowliest feeders at the NFL welfare trough are sideline reporters like the mannish Suzy Kolber, whose greatest contribution to sports journalism was being groped by a drunk Joe Namath.

Sports Illustrated billed its profile of the NFL commissioner with the tagline, “Paul Tagliabue isn’t boring,” but nothing in the article indicates that. Among other things, he referred to negotiating with league owners as “herding cats” and revealed that “the secret to negotiating with some of the world’s toughest dealmakers is to listen.” Fascinating stuff. Pad that with a few other narcotic truisms, toss in an anecdote about Judith Krantz, and you’ve got a Donald Trump “get-rich-quick” potboiler.

Every diehard football fan I’ve ever met has been an anti-intellectual Calvinist with his own affected variation on social Darwinism. (Hunter Thompson might be the lone exception, but I never met him; and supposedly even he hated the poor and weak.) Paul Tagliabue, then, is their perfect proxy. He’s at his cantankerous worst defending the league’s policy of eliminating almost all guaranteed contracts. Denying guaranteed money is “a properformance [sic] stance,” he argues, simultaneously deriding the NBA as exemplar of a league whose “players [are] slacking.” That’s the sort of reactionism you can overhear for free at any sports pub, from any fool spreading his glutes over the sides of a barstool. Yet, within the enlightened confines of the NFL offices (where they admit to pretending to read The Economist), such pronouncements from “The Big Man” are proof of a brilliant mind.

Tagliabue’s wife is more measured. “He has a way of embellishing,” she said. “He can read the first chapter of a book and say he read the whole book.” That’s not embellishing; it’s posing of the most desperate, insecure sort. She also reveals that Tagliabue boasted about “studying Spanish for a year,” after taking a single lesson. You get the sense, reading his wife’s comments, that she’d be dosing her husband’s eggs with thallium if he weren’t worth $8 million a year.

Nevertheless, Mark Whicker points out that Tagliabue’s criticism doesn’t consider the NFL’s short, spaced season versus the NBA’s 82-game hustle (which usually means 3 games a week). Whicker, in a wonderfully incisive column at, argues the league’s intransigence on contracts “help[s] breed a poisonous individualism that is not tolerated in baseball [or even] basketball.” He suggests this is why “It’s impossible for an NFL player to cross a goal line without a self-affirming performance. Not even first downs are handled professionally anymore.” That might actually be understating it. I can’t count the number of times this season I witnessed defensive ends celebrating stoppages after short gains on first and second downs. The struggle to extract every last dollar must explain how Warren Sapp, a marvelous athlete and fairly shrewd self-promoter, can compare his great fortune to slavery—and find sympathy from his fellow alumnus, Michael Irvin; revealing to the world the paucity of a U. of Miami education.

It’s interesting to note, too, the man who decries baseball as “about as exciting as standing in line at the supermarket,” barely ever watches an entire NFL contest. He, in fact, “rarely stays much past halftime.” But he always watches the Super Bowl—and again that makes perfect sense. This joyless, corporate bean counter watches every minute of the world’s most grotesque and over-hyped spectacle—when the football itself is almost always disappointing. But then, Tagliabue is probably like a majority of people filling the stands and parking lots throughout the season, for whom the actual sport is subordinate. According to Whicker, “Ninety percent of NFL ticketholders cannot name you 50 percent of the players on their own team.”

It still bothers Tagliabue that Janet Jackson exposed her ridiculous teat during the Super Bowl halftime show two years ago. “I thought the whole show was misogynistic crap,” he railed in SI. He’s half right. His is an odd complaint, though, considering more men beat their wives on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other night of the year. Perhaps if Justin Timberlake had just cold-cocked Janet onstage, it would have made a more fitting tribute. Or maybe Tagliabue would’ve been happier if Jackson dressed up like one of the freakish makeup cakes gyrating pointlessly on the sidelines. That, apparently, doesn’t constitute “misogynistic crap.”

The two-week buildup to the Super Bowl is possibly the only thing less edifying than a special report about Tom Cruise’s genital warts. Does it ennoble any of us to learn what David Greene, the Seahawks backup quarterback, thinks about Brokeback Mountain?

Football isn’t an inherently bad game. But its grand tradition has been twisted to serve an ignoble raison d’etre. The NBA’s Andrei Kirilenko said it best, in that same issue of Sports Illustrated. Asked what he’d be doing if he weren’t the NBA’s second-leading shot-blocker, he replied: “[I’d] definitely be an athlete, probably football. Not American football, real football. Played with foot.”


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Stupor Bowl
Are you ready for some duuuhhh?
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Last Issue: #91

The BEAST 50 Most Loathsome People in America, 2005
Our disturbingly popular annual list of the foulest among us, for a particularly objectionable year.
The Year in Ephemera
Our 2005 Timeline.
Andrew Gullerstein Predicts!
Iron-clad predictions for the new year.
What's Going On
You just don't know, do you?
by A. Monkey
Buh-buh-buh-bye, Sharon-a
What you won't be hearing this week about Ariel Sharon
by Paul Jones
Mine Shaft
Undermining mine safety
by Kit Smith

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