By David Oshinsky
The NFL in Dangerous Times
By Mark Leibovich
Illustrated. 373 pp. Penguin Press. $28.
When the Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell retired in 1986 following eight seasons of highlight-reel collisions, defenders throughout the National Football League breathed a respectful sigh of relief. No one dished out more punishment than Campbell or did less to avoid it. “Every time you hit him,” a linebacker said, “you lower your own I.Q.” Campbell uses a metal walker today — not surprising for someone who’s had both knees replaced, endured multiple back surgeries and been treated for substance abuse. “I think if I’d gotten a real physical like they do now, CAT scans and everything,” he admits, “probably I wouldn’t have been able to play.”
That thought rankles Campbell, who views his battered frame as a proud reminder of a game unblemished by silly rules and complaints. “I can’t play because I’ve got a hangnail. … I don’t play because my head hurt,” he says, mocking the current combatants. “That wouldn’t have got the job done back in my day.”
Of course, pro football remains a dangerous game. The average career is 3.3 years and shrinking, as more players retire early because of injury or fear of lasting damage. Still, Campbell’s words reflect a growing sense of unease about the league. Too violent, too soft, too nationalistic, too unpatriotic — is pro football in trouble?
There was a day, writes The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, Mark Leibovich, in “Big Game,” a gossipy, insightful and wickedly entertaining journey through the N.F.L. sausage factory, when the league could make sticky problems disappear. Not anymore. Since 2014, when his story begins, pro football has been shredded by scandal, from the video gone viral of the running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée senseless to the murder conviction and suicide of the tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose multiple concussions produced “the most severe case” of chronic traumatic encephalopathy that medical experts had ever seen in someone so young. Meantime, the N.F.L.’s marquee player was suspended for (allegedly) deflating footballs, while a second-string quarterback ignited a firestorm by kneeling in protest during the national anthem.
Who’s minding this mess? Leibovich starts at the top. An effective N.F.L. commissioner must be adept at two things, he contends. First, manage the needs of the billionaire team owners, which the current commissioner, Roger Goodell, does quite nicely. Second, protect the league from serious scandals and lesser embarrassments, which he seems unable to master. The gaffe-prone Goodell calls to mind the words supposedly uttered by Winston Churchill about Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: “A bull who carries his china shop along with him.” Two years ago, with the concussion issue now a national story, Goodell, the father of twin girls, was asked whether he would allow a son to play football. Yes, he replied, “because of the values” one gets from the game. A fine answer, until he added: “There is risk in life. There is risk in sitting on the couch.”
These words don’t quite rise to the musings of the Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones, who compared the concussion flap to “a pimple on a baby’s ass,” but they did arouse considerable suspicion about the league’s intentions. Moreover, Leibovich says, they speak to a problem that continues to dog the unscripted Goodell, as when he credited the players for getting arrested less frequently in 2015 than in previous years. Who would even think to touch the subject, much less praise those lucky enough to avoid jail?
Blunders aside, Goodell has been good for the owners, who pay him about $40 million a year. He’s won them multibillion-dollar television contracts while cheerleading their coldhearted “relocation” of teams — the Rams, Raiders and Chargers, most recently — to larger-market cities. But Goodell’s greatest gift has been to turn a seasonal game into a year-round bonanza. Fans now spend months anticipating the once mundane N.F.L. draft. If a Sunday triple-header, a Monday night game and an occasional Saturday contest don’t suffice, one can turn on “Thursday Night Football.” Still not enough? Join a fantasy league on NFL.com. There are no days off anymore.
The owners, for the most part, are Republican, conservative and warily pro-Trump. Only a few are women — usually the wife or daughter of a deceased male owner. Neither age nor infirmity is a disqualifier to these popes of football, whose tenure generally ends at death. Among Leibovich’s favorites is the New York Jets owner, Woody Johnson, heir to the J & J fortune and a Trump megadonor currently serving as our ambassador to Britain. A mere pup at 71, the Woodman strikes Leibovich, if not long-suffering Jets fans, as the cheerfully inept custodian of treasures he didn’t quite earn — “like an overgrown third grader who collects toy trains and rotten quarterbacks.” Another is Johnson’s polar opposite, Jerry Jones, 75, a self-made oilman with a cartoon-size ego. Jones is a journalist’s dream. He has no filter, he’ll talk to anybody, and he favors down-home “Jerryisms” too crude to be quoted here.
In one revealing sequence, Leibovich asks Jones and the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, 77, if they’d rather win another Super Bowl or be enshrined in the N.F.L. Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Kraft, who sports five Super Bowl rings but is not a Hall of Famer, gives the diplomatic answer: another Super Bowl. Jones, a three-time Super Bowl winner who is a Hall of Famer, responds like the honest megalomaniac he is: Hall of Fame.
It’s worth noting that Jones was interviewed on the Cowboys’ regal team bus while drinking Johnnie Walker Blue from a 24-ounce plastic cup “filled — and refilled — to the top.” Leibovich tried but failed to keep pace. His last memory is of Jones heading to a bar for some beers and cigars. “This man’s liver belongs in Canton,” he marvels.
Though a lifelong Patriots fan (like me), Leibovich hasn’t much good to say about Kraft or Coach Bill Belichick — partly, one suspects, because their fawning embrace of Donald Trump makes him queasy. (The more discreet Tom Brady scores some points for having once ignored Trump’s creepy public invitation to pursue his daughter Ivanka.) Fort Belichick is “a paranoid and joyless place,” we are told, run by “a mumbling control freak” and an increasingly distracted owner. Kraft, a widower, is now a regular on the Manhattan/Hamptons social scene. “Boston is a village compared to New York,” he confides to Leibovich — words he’ll probably come to regret. The team trademark — “We Are All Patriots” — is a running joke among the players. “Oh yeah, we’re all Patriots,” one former player remarks, “until Belichick finds someone cheaper.”
Brady, meanwhile, has hired a controversial trainer-turned-guru as a gesture of independence. His family, fearing for his safety, is urging him to retire. At 41, Brady is noncommittal. He has no real hobbies; he exists to play football. “If you want to compete with me,” he tells Leibovich, “you have to give up your life.” Which Brady has done. “It will end badly,” his father, Tom Sr., predicts. “It’s a cold business.”
The 2018 N.F.L. season is shaping up poorly. TV ratings have declined 17 percent in the past few years, the most alarming drop registered among hard-core fans — white, male, 50-ish — dismayed by the protests of black players over police brutality and other race-charged issues. To compound matters, the man stirring the pot most vigorously has been trying for decades to become a team owner, without success. He also happens to be the president of the United States. As payback, perhaps, he’s been among the loudest critics of the new rules to protect players from concussions, complaining that they’ve sissified the game. Now he’s pressuring the league to suspend any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the national anthem, adding, as if the protesters were illegal immigrants, that “maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.” The owners, clearly flummoxed, have been unable to find common ground or to pacify their fellow billionaire tormentor, who recently bragged to Jones that the dispute is a “very winning” issue for him. Opinion polls show he may be right.
Reading “Big Game” — a sparkling narrative — one gets the sense that, “dangerous times” aside, the N.F.L. will survive on the magnetism of the sport it so clumsily represents. Forget the greedy owners, the controversies, the Trumpian eruptions. Think instead of the last two Super Bowls — the historic Patriots comeback followed by the upset of mighty New England by the storybook Philadelphia Eagles, a perennial doormat. Pro football, minus the baggage, can be electrifying and redemptive. It’s September, time for kickoff.
Read original article at nytimes.com