In 2010, the NFL is bigger than ever. You could have written that sentence in 2009, too. Or 2008, 2007, 2006, etc. For a solid decade, football has been sinking its teeth deeper and deeper into the foundation of American life.
Thinking about football reminds me of Chuck Klosterman's essay about basketball in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. This was his thesis:
"Everyone who loves pro basketball assumes it's a little fixed. We all think the annual draft lottery is probably rigged, we all accept that the league aggressively wants big market teams to advance deep into the playoffs, and we all concede that certain marquee players are going to get preferential treatment for no valid reason. The outcomes of games aren't predeteremined or scripted but there are definitely dark forces who play with our reality. There are faceless puppet masters who pull strings and manipulate the purity of justice. It's not necessarily a full-on conspiracy, but it's certainly not fair. And that's why the NBA remains the only game that matters: Pro basketball is exactly like life."
But that's basketball. By contrast, the NFL is a sport that makes us feel guilty in one beat and feeds our gluttony in the next. We fret over concussions; even head coaches go crazy over big hits. We worry about the NFL's proposed 18-game schedule; but if preseason ratings are any indication, we'll watch whatever they broadcast. We complain the NFL's neverending cycle of parity; we wax poetic about all the fairytales like the Saints. We condemn someone like Ben Roethlisberger over the summer; Chris Collinsworth marvels at his toughness six months later.
We want more laws; we hate when the NFL's stupid laws change what we love. We want heroes; we hate when Brett Favre acts like he's our hero or something.
If 2010 has taught us anything, it's not just that the NFL is the "new" American pastime—we knew that already—but that the NFL has sort of become a metaphor for America itself, where our apprehension constantly conflicts with our appetites, pundits govern the discourse around puppets like Favre, all while the beast gets bigger, richer, and more inescapable.
All of which should make for a fascinating subtext to next year's biggest story, the seemingly-inevitable 2011 NFL lockout. What will America look like without its doppleganger, the NFL? How will fans read the labor dispute? Who will be our villains and heroes in that fight? It promises to provide every bit as much theater as anything the NFL has given us this year, and that's saying something.
For a primer on the biggest stories on that front, check out National Football Post, where there's a good overview being provided by Andrew Brandt. To wit:
- Part One: How Did We Get Here?
- Part Two: Retired Players and Player Safety
- Part Three: Bonus Recovery and Drug Testing
- Part Four: An 18-Game Schedule
There will be more on the way, I'm sure, but in any case, the articles above provided a compelling window into the tenor of the negotiations—neither side will be quick to budge, the issues in play don't have any easy answers, and it's all clouded by the millions (and billions) of dollars that hang in the balance. Ever wondered what would happen to America if we could renegotiate the Constitution every ten years? Well, the NFL's collective bargaining agreement expires March 3rd. Prepare for anarchy.
But that's next year. This year, as part of SB Nation's Best Stories of 2010 series, I've been asked to pick the five biggest stories of 2010. As a pre-cursor, this list is mildly subjective—I'm choosing, not you—but it's meant to reflect the year in an objective way. In other words, I never cared about Brett Favre, but a lot of people did, so he makes the list. If I could make the list it would like this:
- Donovan McNabb is who we thought he was—overrated and whiny.
- Ben Roethlisberger is also who we thought he was—a scumbag, pretty much.
- The Saints beat Peyton Manning. They also won the Super Bowl and gave a struggling city something to cheer for. And they beat Peyton Manning. Pretty awesome all-around.
- Concussions are scary as sh*t.
- Michael Vick's redemption. Deal with it, dog.
But that's me. As for the biggest stories, in general...
5. The Most Entertaining Team In The League: The NSFW New York Jets.
"Last year, hey we were under the radar, that's a good place to be. F**K THAT." - Rex Ryan
This dates back to last January's improbable run through the playoffs, this summer's appearance on Hard Knocks, the Darrelle Revis holdout, the insanity that echoed through the media after the Ines Sainz scandal, Braylon Edwards' DUI, the transcendent Rex caricatures from Drew Magary, the 9-2 start to the regular season, their recent slump, and of course, FOOT FETISHES. You couldn't pick a better team to play in front of New York City's media, and all things considered, there's no competition as far as entertainment value's concerned. I'm not rooting for the Jets this postseason because I like them, but because if they do win somehow, it'd make for the most ridiculous sports movie of all time.
4. Michael Vick's Redemption And The Accompanying Referendum On Morality
After one of the more traumatic falls from grace in recent memory, Vick used 2010 to win back America's heart. Just this week, President Obama called to congratulate the Eagles on giving him a second chance. So the guy that came to personify everything that's wrong with athletes and even society, in general, has come to represent something more hopeful. Today, the name "Vick" epitomizes not just our imperfections, but also the capacity to learn from our mistakes, evolve, and redeem ourselves.
Either that, or he's just a freak athlete that's been given a second chance he never deserved, because some things are unspeakable. His redemption's not emblematic of any grand ideal of evolution, but of society's unfortunate tendency toward moral relativism, and our slow and continual regression to the lowest common denominator, where decency gets disregarded.
In any case, it's a debate that's raged all season, and in a lot of ways, Vick's story asks the toughest questions that surround football and sports, in general.
3. The NFL's Concussion Crisis
We tackled concussions and the questions surrounding them earlier this year, and concluded with this: The answers aren't clear, but these questions aren't going away. The scale will only grow. The money will only get harder to resist. For players afraid of losing their jobs, for owners seeking an extra two games, for networks reluctant to focus to much energy dwelling on the ugliness of the most popular sport in American History.*
All the while, the game gets bigger. But so does the text accompanying that asterisk.
*Pro football may cause serious, life-changing head injuries. We don't know what the effects are, and we don't know how to solve the problem.
2. Favre's Favre-y-ness Hits An All-Time High
1. The New Orleans Saints Remind Everyone That Sports Are Awesome Sometimes
There's nothing better than an underdog that wins. Except when that underdog hails from a city that's still recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in American history and is itself, an underdog. The Saints were the perfect team for New Orleans. A hodgepodge cast of underdog characters that'd been overlooked and written off by the rest of league (plus Reggie Bush) combined to form the league's most intoxicating team. So fun, we couldn't help but overlook all their flaws.
...At least until they got to the playoffs, when we figured it would all catch up with them.
Except... It never did. The Saints survived the Vikings and then beat the Colts in convincing, captivating fashion. And just like that, everyone's favorite novelty act—from a city we all visited but only a select few really loved—won the whole goddamn thing.
The NFL has been bigger than ever in 2010, and as the league's grown in size, there are certain stories that feel life-changing now, but will look archaic ten years from now. Somewhere down the line, this article will be like a time capsule. Back when Michael Vick's redemption still felt novel and we all became entranced by the spectacle of the New York Jets, and when we were too disgusted to even discuss Brett Favre anymore. With any luck, it'll be a look back to when the NFL still hadn't figured out how to limit concussions.
But ten years from now, the story of the 2010 Saints Super Bowl will still be amazing. If anything, perspective will only enhance the myth of it all. Because as awesome as sports are, generally, sometimes, sports are much cooler than even the biggest fans can realize at the time. And the Saints winning the Super Bowl in 2010? That was the kind of awesome that'll get better with age, and even years later, reminds us why we watch in the first place.