The Shield is bigger than anyone

The Steelers’ hide-and-seek touchdown celebration was my favorite in a season of outstanding touchdown celebrations. The celebration had story; it had feeling. The acting is really, really good. Le’Veon Bell totally sells the pee-your-pants anxiety of a kid trying to find a hiding spot in time. JuJu Smith-Schuster plays his role as seeker with all due seriousness. And when Smith-Schuster finds Bell, you can hear them giggling in your head. It’s all so great.

The NFL’s decision to loosen the rules on on-field celebrations is one of the best things it has done in a while. The rules were strict because the NFL cares deeply about “the integrity of the game,” and presumably a player might do something after a touchdown that might show the league in a bad light. (What, exactly, I don’t know. The only things that have made anyone switch off NFL games en masse, it seems, is taking a stand against racial injustice, and having to watch Brock Osweiler). So far we have seen nothing untoward — mostly just some dudes being goofs.

Players also protested during the national anthem this year. They took a knee when the “Star Spangled Banner” was played, and caused an uproar. Many people interpreted it as a protest against the anthem itself — and thus the country, which to many is foremost represented by the military for some reason, and not by a number of other things that could stand in for America.

This is the year when football felt most like a product of the players themselves.

There’s no use couching the point: You’re either on board with those players or you’re not. How you feel depends on whether you think context matters. Players knelt to make a point, but they also knelt while being cursed by the most powerful person in the world. Thirty-two NFL owners — who, save for Shahid Khan, are exclusively white — gave millions to Donald Trump’s campaign, a man who in turn got elected and used those players as political props. NFL players, perhaps the most disposable athletes in professional American sports, had everything to lose.

That’s why this season has been fascinating to me. The season stands out on its own merits, of course. Teams we never expected to be any good this late in the season — like the Jaguars, Rams, Titans, and Saints — are well on pace for the playoffs. Breakout stars abound, and there are many more who stand out simply because they had to in place of so many reliably great players who got hurt.

But more than that, this is the year when football felt most like a product of the players themselves. They injected fun into a sport that too often seems like it would rather be a poster for staid concepts like Honor and Accountability and Leadership. Then they bravely defied their employer and the president of the United States in one fell motion.

That bravery seems to go unacknowledged in a lot of the hubbub about player protests. Give it some thought, and you have to admire the sheer gall of what NFL players have done this year. They say no one is bigger than the shield. At the face of things, no honest person can say that’s true anymore.

Deshaun Watson and the Texans encompass this season better than anyone. Watson was the undeniable breakout star, throwing for 16 touchdowns in his last four games before injury. He almost certainly would have won Rookie of the Year after being drafted behind two other quarterbacks.

In Week 8, the Texans and Seahawks played what will probably come to be regarded as the best game of the season. Russell Wilson and Watson combined for 854 yards passing. Watson became the first player to ever pass for at least 400 yards, four touchdowns, and rush for 50 yards, and his team lost, 41-38, after Wilson drove the Seahawks 80 yards in three plays to score a go-ahead touchdown with 21 seconds remaining.

Every trend of 2017 was right there — the embrace of college offensive ideals, the ways every team in the league seems broken, the BAD offensive line play, and the rise of watchable underdogs. I don’t want to say the quality of games has been good this year, but at least they’ve been interesting. A real NFL vanguard has been here from the get-go, beginning when Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt ran for 148 yards against Tom Brady’s Patriots in the season opener.

The game is being rejuvenated by young blood at the same time its management is being threatened by old blood. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened a lawsuit to halt Roger Goodell’s contract extension negotiations because he was ostensibly upset about declining ratings for a second straight year and the commissioner’s response to the anthem protests.

Mostly, Jones was mad that Goodell enforced the league’s domestic violence policy against Jones’ star player, but the root of the discord is academic. The point is that a bloc of owners — which never once wavered in its commitment to Goodell through Bountygate, Deflategate, and the Ray Rice scandal — may no longer be a bloc. Jones reportedly had support to oust Goodell among four or five other owners. There were reportedly six more who were on the fence. Several billionaires fought with a mega-millionaire, becoming off-field distractions themselves.

On the field, meanwhile, NFL athletes were joy manifested. The Lions’ ping-pong touchdown celebration was my second favorite of this season. The choreographed portion doesn’t stand out within the Lions’ fine body of work this season. It’s the unchoreographed part that makes it shine.

Poor Graham Glasgow puts his hand out for Marvin Jones Jr. Nobody pays attention to Poor Graham Glasgow. Poor Graham Glasgow taps Jones’ helmet then walks away while presumably swallowing his feelings like a wad of gum. Poor Graham Glasgow can only now forever be Poor Graham Glasgow.

It was a real human moment — simple and natural like good things ought to be.

Football has a high capacity for these moments, but that’s partly because the game is so dehumanizing. Players look more like action figures than men underneath their helmets and pads, and in few other sports are players’ roles so discrete, specific, and in service of a system. Then when they do act like 20-somethings it feels even more delightful than it is on the surface.

That’s why the protests have been so jarring to so many people, I think. In football, it’s helpful to think of players as having well-defined lanes within a team. Individual, independent action breaks that idea.

But acting out of conviction looks pretty simple: You believe something, so you do something about it. There was nothing complicated about the actions of the players who kneeled, even though the nation is still discussing what they meant. Players were loud and clear that they feel America has a problem with racial injustice, and that, no, they don’t hate the troops.

Again, contrasts emphasize the point. In trying to address the national uproar about the protests, the NFL writhed and contorted itself into shapes it hoped made it seem like it was taking things very seriously whenever somebody looked at it. The league could never nail down exactly who it was trying to appease, however, because it doesn’t actually believe in anything. At owners’ meetings, when asked about what the NFL will do if an owner punishes a player for kneeling or sitting during the national anthem, Goodell gave a brazenly contradictory answer:

We just had two days of conversations with our owners, of which this was a fair amount of the conversation. And I think our clubs all see this the same way, that we want our players to stand, we're going to continue to encourage them to stand, and we're going to continue to work on these issues in the community. I can't deal with hypotheticals right now. We'll deal with those issues if they come up. But for us, right now, that's our focus.

Goodell’s logic eats itself: How can you say you don’t “deal with hypotheticals,” yet assure us that you discussed the question for two days? How can you be focused on an issue that you will only deal with when it comes up? His words actually squirm, like he’s trying to apologize to two people at the same time.

That’s what happens when you’ve only ever succeeded by getting by. In Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin once cut a ping-pong ball into two halves and placed them over his eyes to look like he was paying attention in class. Like Calvin, the league’s solution was a convoluted and overcompensating facade when the easier thing would have been to care.

That outstanding Texans-Seahawks game also featured one of the biggest displays of player solidarity we’ve ever seen. Most of the Texans sideline knelt during the national anthem after owner Bob McNair likened players to prison inmates earlier in the week, positioning himself as the warden. Finally, after so many mealy-mouthed statements, an NFL owner let slip his conviction that players should be under his unilateral control.

That’s not a sentiment exclusive to McNair; it’s what the phrase, “Nobody is bigger than the Shield” has always meant. Football is stacked against players — their careers are brutally short, and they’re in constant danger of losing their jobs to injuries or competition. Historically, they’ve had no choice but to stay in their place. This year was different. Their convictions were too strong not to act, and they discovered that an antiquated apparatus didn’t know how to handle them. To stretch McNair’s metaphor, they were prisoners of a system and they broke free.

Those players reminded us, over and over, that they play football primarily for themselves and their teammates. And that makes sense, even though it feels like it has gone unacknowledged for a long time. Players depend on an owner for paychecks and coaches to put them on the field, but to grind every day and put oneself through all forms of pain and criticism, there have to be reasons that aren’t in service of the Shield. This year, it has felt safe to admit — more loudly and openly than at any time that I can recall — that there’s some element of football that’s fun.

It’s still Shield-approved fun — the leash is longer, but still attached — but at least it’s not Shield-dictated. No one in the front office wants to be the one to put the kibosh on Duck, Duck, Grey Duck. Players may not be free of the apparatus, but they are using the apparatus in unintended ways. Players are defining the season much more than 32 owners likely expected, and they’re doing so on diametric ends — they’ve highlighted sports’ potential as a vehicle for progress, AND as an escape from the things that make progress necessary.

This year, it has felt safe to admit — more loudly and openly than at any time that I can recall — that there’s some element of football that’s fun.

In the process, they have also highlighted how awkward the NFL is when it tries to operate at the those ends. The league has always been most comfortable in neutral, where it doesn’t have to try all that hard to sell a game that is already compelling and entrenched. But this year, the center wouldn’t hold.

How long that lasts, I don’t know. Football is still a brutish sport, and enthusiasm for movements peter out sometimes. The Shield isn’t necessarily smaller — NFL players still don’t have the same strong union that players in other American sports leagues enjoy — but for one year, at least, the Shield seemed to become obsolete. This year proved that players hold power in their numbers and their spirit, enough that it’s possible to imagine them one day dictating what the league looks like.

And good riddance to the Shield should that day come to pass. Where NFL owners offered only vague values like Unity to important questions, players gave straight answers. And while the NFL tore itself apart over shares of influence, players embodied the things we like best about sports. The league will never be perfect, but its future is in much better hands with players, not outmoded owners. The 2017 NFL season has been fun and challenging and wonderful in an organic way that I pray you haven’t missed. It was all right there, just beneath the face of things.

My god just look at it.

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