It’s difficult to explain the appeal of the NFL. Football is a sluggish sport where players spend more time planning than playing, constantly interrupted by commercial breaks and yellow flags. Rugby fans jeer that it’s plagiarism with pads; basketball lovers deplore its glacial pace. Football is too both too dangerous and too tame, too rough and too boring; combining, as George Will put it, “the two worst elements of American life: violence and committee meetings.”
The best I can muster in defense is this: football isn’t meant to be watched like hockey, which captivates fans with near-nonstop action, but as a greater social experience. Interrupting the immersion is the entire point. The NFL cries out to be enjoyed at a bar or in a living room surrounded by friends, its pauses between plays perfect for dissecting what just happened and swigging beer. Halftime is for stepping outside and enjoying the chilly air of autumn, a season impossible to imagine without the distant clamors of the gridiron. Unlike other leagues, the NFL wisely limits itself mostly to Sundays, making its games the centerpieces of relaxation on our day of rest, there when you need them from 1 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., and even earlier when there’s a London match. Its allure is that it intersperses its world with ours, providing an escapism that feels all that much more real.
Politics is not part of football’s escapist experience, though it has intruded with an unwelcome thud over the past few years. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality, since mimicked by dozens of players, has stirred controversy and infuriated fans. Having been a reality TV show host and Fox News fixture, Donald Trump decided last week to audition for “First Take” by calling players who kneel “sons of bitches” and saying they should be fired. So of course even more players kneeled on Sunday — the Pittsburgh Steelers skipped the anthem altogether — before Trump followed up on Twitter, and then off we went.
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Football by nature brings out our regional differences. If I walk into a sports bar in Washington, D.C. wearing my New England Patriots jersey, I expect some drunk to ask me where I “pahked my cah” and remind me of Tom Brady’s (nonexistent) cheating. What the NFL is not supposed to do is exacerbate our culture war divisions — yet that’s what both the players and Trump have now done. ESPN Sunday morning was focused monomaniacally on Trump’s comments; Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth brought them up incessantly that night. Collinsworth even speculated that one reason the Oakland Raiders got crushed by the Washington Redskins was that they spent too much time planning their National Anthem response and not enough time prepping for the game.
Trump’s intervention in the NFL controversy was pathetic: the most powerful man on Earth has no business reaching down and slapping sports players. Far more sympathetic are the kneelers themselves — concerned about recent acts of police violence, they insist over and over again that they love their country. The problem is that their protests haven’t worked. No one is talking about Alton Sterling’s killing by a trigger-happy cop, or Eric Garner, choke-held by a police officer for the crime of selling cigarettes at affordable prices in New York City; the focus instead is on the league’s deficit of patriotism, and understandably so. Abstaining from the National Anthem is just that, a commentary on the goodness of one’s country, regardless of whether it’s meant as such. Even in liberal Massachusetts, Patriots players who took a knee yesterday were loudly booed.
If you want to raise awareness of police brutality during the National Anthem, why not hold up a picture of Sterling or Garner and put your other hand on your heart? By choosing instead a vaguer and more incendiary gesture, players guaranteed their putative concerns would get lost in the churn of the greater, more visceral, more emotional culture war, whose greatest gladiator is Trump. Their protests backfired. Their intended demographic, the average football fan, perceives Kaepernick and his imitators as the usual liberal elites, holding different values and hectoring them about it constantly. Fans watch the NFL to get away from all that. For them, intruding on game-day social rituals with left-wing politicking is akin to dealing with that aunt who won’t stop bashing the president during Thanksgiving dinner — not appropriate and not welcome.
Yet on the politicking goes, from the players to the announcers to the commentators. The left’s mantra that the “personal is political” has won out, and we might add that the political is also pervasive. The culture war has become such a clash between good and evil that everyone with a platform — which, these days, is all of us — feels a moral obligation to speak out, and no opportunity to play the activist can be missed. “Nobody wants to appear ignorant, or superficial,” writes Lara Prendergast at The Spectator, “so we have become a nation of bores instead.” She was referring to the UK but it’s also true of a country that can’t call a truce in its culture war for one day to convene with our loved ones and watch padded giants run into each other. Yes, it’s crucial to think critically about our values and our police, but the human condition dictates it’s just as important to have some means of healthy escape.
It was an amazing weekend of football, by the way, from the Rams to the Redskins. You just had to press mute to enjoy it.