As most of you know, today is hugely important for America because it is the first day of the NFL Draft. Intense coverage of the draft began roughly two minutes after the Super Bowl ended and has continued nonstop on ESPN’s fleet of cable channels since that time. There have been camps, combines, workouts and any number of nattering nabobs speculating on how the draft will transpire. In a way, the NFL Draft has become a season unto itself, only slightly less important than the NFL regular season, and more important than just about everything else in sports.
In Kansas City, where I live, the draft is of particular interest because the hometown Chiefs have the first pick. Locally, there’s been endless guessing about what the Chiefs will do with their coveted selection. The consensus is they will pick a left tackle because there are no elite quarterbacks in the draft and because, well, they’re the Chiefs. There’s a reason why this boring, humdrum team hasn’t visited the Super Bowl since 1970.
All the hype about the draft, and the fact that the NFL is now a year-round story, mystifys me. Like a lot of people, I watch my share of pro football games, and I track the standings during the season. But there’s an arrogance and hyper sense of self-importance around the NFL that turns me off. Each season, I find myself watching less and less pro football, and the fact that we have a toddler running around the house is only part of the reason for that. The other part is that the games, more often than not, are boring, plodding affairs that steal too much of a Sunday afternoon. The army of television personalities charged with selling the NFL brand also leaves me cold: while the hosts play grab-ass in the studio like a bunch of aging frat boys, the announcers call and analyze the action with the breathless intensity of reporters covering a hostage crisis. Either way you slice it, it’s overdone and over-the-top.
Ben Fountain’s best-seller, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, describes in a single paragraph what the NFL has become better than anything else I have read. His book, which is about how Americans view our soldiers and the Iraq War, takes place over the course of a Dallas Cowboys football game (if that makes no sense whatsoever, click here for this fine review of the novel).
Anyway, here’s how Fountain describes the action on the field at venerable Texas Stadium:
And if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of “play,” and then there are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other.
That about covers it. There is no “play” in today’s NFL. And football is far too lucrative now to be considered a mere game. Somewhere along the line, the league engulfed autumn Sundays so completely that many churches have adjusted their service times to accommodate kick-off. It’s official: pro football is bigger than God to a lot of people in this country.