'Big Game' offers a provocative, warts-and-all portrait of the NFL

Much like its players, everything in pro football feels larger than life these days – especially controversies, which this book examines in abundance.

Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times By Mark Leibovich Penguin Press 400 pp.

This month, the National Football League kicks off its 99th season and, as usual, there is ample evidence to show the league never truly goes into hibernation, even if the Super Bowl in February is supposed to signal a retreat until team training camps resume in July. The NFL became the nation’s most popular sport in 1972, according to Gallup surveys, and hasn’t relinquished the title since.

But its ubiquity truly ramped up during the past two decades. Consider: The league’s 24-hour cable network launched in 2003. A year later, for the first time, the player combine, comprised of college prospects running around cones, lifting weights and showing off their vertical leaps, among other tasks, debuted with a couple of hours of “highlights” shown on the NFL’s channel. By 2018, combine coverage (hey, somebody break down that bench press in slo-mo) encompassed a whopping 52 hours.

Much like its players, everything in pro football feels larger than life these days. Especially controversies, which are abundant and will be addressed here in due time.

The average value of an NFL team reached $2.5 billion last year, according to Forbes. Despite greatly increased awareness and reporting about the ravages of the game – current and former players endure concussions, brain damage, depression, crippling joint pain and so on – the spectacle of pro football captivates American sports fans like nothing else.

Last spring, three networks (three!) televised the NFL Draft, a mind-numbing three-day mini-series that largely revolves around the highly unpopular commissioner hugging college football players as they brandish their new employers’ jerseys and caps (and those are the most exciting moments – the rest is conjecture among talking heads grappling with mighty issues such as a potential dearth of left tackles). The Super Bowl long ago became the most-watched program of any kind on television and NFL games routinely account for more than half of the most popular TV shows each year. Sure, regular season ratings uncharacteristically declined each of the past two seasons, but nowhere near enough to threaten the league’s TV hegemony. Want proof? In January, Fox committed to a 50% higher broadcast fee for Thursday night NFL games, committing more than $3 billion over the next five years.

And so on. The NFL, more and more, also resides at the nexus of our culture wars. You may have heard a little something about the current occupant of the White House raining insults on the NFL early and often in his nascent political career, a spat centered on the mostly African American players (accounting for 70% of league rosters) attempting to raise awareness of racial injustice by kneeling or raising a fist during the playing of the national anthem on-field before games.

President Donald Trump seized on the protests, inflaming the debate, and leaving the mostly Republican owners to attempt to placate their highly visible employees without further offending Trump and NFL fans, who are 83% white and 20% likelier to be Republicans than the general population. Trump has also questioned whether the game itself has gotten soft by implementing rules meant to reduce the physical carnage.

All of which brings us to Big Game by Mark Leibovich, a man who heretofore devoted much of his time to deflating the egos and images of Washington power brokers and their numerous, well-paid lobbyists, spin doctors, and assorted other enablers. Leibovich, a man used to sifting through polling data, included in his book the NFL fan profile statistics mentioned in the preceding paragraph.

As recently as 2014, Trump beseeched the commissioner, Roger Goodell, and others in the 32-owner pro football kingdom, to approve his bid for the Buffalo Bills. They declined, leery of Trump’s previous bankruptcies and mixed reputation as a CEO.

Or, as Leibovich describes the snub, “Football owners, as it turns out, vet a candidate’s finances more closely than electorates do.”

In other words, Leibovich, chief national correspondent at The New York Times Magazine, has the perfect mindset to tackle the NFL, a bloated bureaucracy with a penchant for, shall we say, misdirection plays.

Again and again, Leibovich gently and not-so-gently mocks Goodell and the billionaire owners in charge as the NFL stumbles through public relations disasters, shameful and deceptive manipulation of scientific findings regarding player safety, and the usual Molotov cocktails involving taxpayer stadium subsidies and, conversely, allowing franchises to abandon any city daring enough to defy demands for said subsidies.

And, for some unknown reason, the NFL pooh-bahs keep granting the author interviews, revealing their vanities and cluelessness in the process. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, over the span of months and years, keeps telling Leibovich the same anecdotes, striving for sincerity while fretting over his lack of recognition for a dynasty most credit to coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, with the owner mostly an afterthought.

Leibovich takes note of the hypocrisy and entitlement rippling through a league that generated $14 billion in combined revenue last season, roughly double its take a decade earlier.

Owners refer to themselves as The Membership and they nurse rivalries and grudges galore. “NFL owners are stuck in a vicious marriage, but no one wants a divorce and why would they?” Leibovich asks.

As for actual divorces, and business scandals, those can be found throughout the Membership. The author delicately frames this aspect of NFL life by noting, “Trails of ex-wives, litigants, estranged children, and fired coaches populate their histories.”

The author’s interactions are, at once, revealing, funny, and cringe-worthy. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for example, quaffs copious quantities of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch Whisky during a characteristically unrepentant interview. Leibovich, woozy from the whisky, wakes up hours later on a couch in Jones’s private bus, feeling blind-sided in all respects.

On another occasion, at a league-sponsored cocktail party, Leibovich spots former New York Jets team doctor Elliot Pellman. And he then points out it was Pellman “who went on to become the league’s go-to concussion denier,” part of a Big Tobacco-style campaign dismissing head trauma as a concern in the NFL even as all evidence contradicted Pellman and the league.

Yes, really; the NFL didn’t acknowledge the irrefutable links between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy until 2016. Known as CTE, evidence of the brain disease – discovered in deceased Hall of Famers Junior Seau and Ken Stabler – was found in 95% of close to 100 former players posthumously examined, according to a Boston University study in 2015.

Perhaps the best summary in “Big Game” of what pro football entails is this one: “… [T]he Membership gets to keep most of the NFL money and none of the brain damage.”

So, America, are you ready for some football?

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