The high point of any monster movie, whether you’re talking “King Kong” or “Jurassic Park,” comes at the moment when you finally get a full view of the giant beast. You’ve caught a glimpse or two, heard a roar in the distance, but when you finally see the monster’s full immensity, it’s a sight to behold … and you wonder how in the hell your little heroes are going to survive its fury.
“Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” an exceptional new behind-the-scenes book by Mark Leibovich, is a monster movie disguised as investigative journalism. Running from 2014 right on up to this year, Leibovich’s narrative presents the NFL’s owners and commissioner in all their bumbling, well-meaning, self-serving, self-satisfied glory … and shows in high definition how unprepared they were for the monster that stomped in to demolish everything they hold dear.
NFL owners: A squabbling, selfish crew
For his day job, Leibovich covers Washington politics for the New York Times Magazine, so he’s well-accustomed to moving around – and writing about – people with far more money and power than the human spirit was designed to accommodate. He’s also a lifelong, diehard New England Patriots fan – yes, he knows exactly how annoying he and the rest of his compatriots are – and that’s where the seeds of this book began.
Leibovich tried for months to snare an interview with Tom Brady, a near-impossible task, until one day he received an email with the subject line “Tom Brady here.” And, amazingly enough, it was indeed Brady. Over the next few years, Leibovich sat down with Brady on multiple occasions, trying – but, he concedes, never really succeeding – in piercing the veil of icy perfection that surrounds Brady.
From there, though, Leibovich cast an increasingly wider net across the NFL, and started latching onto the NFL’s leadership and ownership – “the Membership,” as they call themselves, the 32 billionaires and near-billionaires that make up the NFL’s ruling elite. (The Packers are owned by a fan consortium; the Giants are co-owned by the Tisch and Mara families.)
And, with all due respect to Brady’s focus-group-tested and deliberately inoffensive perspective, here’s where the book gets interesting. The NFL perpetuates this ideal of beneficent billionaires, of owners who grace us with their teams out of the purest motives, and in return, all we need to do is be grateful – and call them all “Mr.,” of course. That’s absurd – no billionaire amassed ten figures of wealth by just going along and getting along – and Leibovich spares no lacerating adjective in describing the NFL’s elite, including the following:
• Goodell, who’s obsessed not just with working out, but telling you how much he works out; his primary role appears to be the shield for the shield. “A lot of the reason Roger is paid a lot of money is that Roger takes a lot of [freaking] arrows for a lot of owners,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank says in the book;
• Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner who comes in for frequent skewering because of his need to be loved, his nasally Boston accent, and his height, which makes him look during games “like a king on a highchair”;
• Jerry Jones, the cagey, crafty Johnny Walker Blue-soaked mad genius with a liver of pure granite, who drinks the author literally into unconsciousness in one memorable scene aboard the Cowboys’ cruiser;
• Dan Snyder, the Washington Redskins owner whom “there are venereal diseases easier to get rid of,” portrayed as a willing toady to larger powers;
• Blank, who comes off here as serious and business-minded but whose “heavy-hooded eyes, thin mustache, and bespoke suits end him the sinister air of a comic book villain or undertaker or art thief”;
• Mark Davis, the Raiders owner described here as the “runt of the litter”: “His fellow owners find him amiable, though they treat him like their pet rock.”
The point here isn’t just to get off some cheap (and funny) shots at men who’ve reigned from above the clouds. The idea is to show these icons as all too human, and to give some perspective on how some of the NFL’s most infuriating and head-shaking moments of the last half-dozen years – the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal, the Aaron Hernandez murder trials, the Laremy Tunsil gas-mask bong draft-day fiasco, deflate-gate, declining ratings – could have even happened in the first place.
And then the monster shows up.
Donald Trump’s vengeance on the NFL
You catch glimpses of Donald Trump throughout the book’s early pages – his friendships with Kraft and Brady, the collapse of the USFL, the contempt in which the NFL’s owners hold him. (“Trump did not come close to passing muster with the Membership,” Leibovich writes of Trump’s attempts to purchase the Buffalo Bills. “He was, for starters, not considered sufficiently solvent or transparent to proffer a serious bid. Football owners, as it turns out, get a much closer look at a candidate’s finances than electorates do.”)
But it’s not until page 225 – Chapter 18, “American Carnage” – that the monster surfaces. Trump, as you know by now, saw Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem as a winning issue for him, and so he brought the full force of the White House to bear against the NFL in an assault that was as devastating as anything the league has ever endured. (Note to Trump supporters: “Monster” is used here as a metaphor for Trump’s vast, indisputably destructive power over the league. Any other associations you wish to make are on you.)
What’s remarkable about Trump’s attacks isn’t their force or ferocity – weaponized patriotism is a powerful force indeed – but how quickly so many of the NFL’s elite quavered under Trump’s attacks. (“We’re getting hit with a tsunami,” Bills owner Terry Pegula said, and others echoed his fears.) The NFL, in Leibovich’s eyes, didn’t quite seem to grasp that it’s got a pretty good hold on the American psyche itself.
This is where the monster-movie metaphor halts, because Leibovich’s book doesn’t show the ending – it can’t, because we’re still in the middle of the story. But whatever happens from here forward – the attacks Trump is almost certain to continue, the NFL’s clumsy-or-adept response – you can see where it all began right here (and, potentially, how it all ends when the paperback edition comes out).
So why even watch football?
Aside from a tick-tock of the Patriots’ infamous Super Bowl comeback from 28-3 – which really is an absolute delight for Falcons fans to relive again – there’s virtually no game action in the entire book. Stars like Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Todd Gurley and J.J. Watt barely warrant mentions, if they’re named at all. But they’re not the point here – the game behind the game is, and on that score, “Big Game” is a three-score victory.
So why bother? Why spend so much time and energy, physical and mental, on a game whose flaws run right to the bone? Leibovich gets at that in a scene just prior to the 2016 Carolina-Arizona NFC championship. He’s standing in a tunnel just off the field at Charlotte’s Bank of America stadium, and on a television above, the last moments of the AFC championship are playing out. Down 20-12 to the Broncos, Brady throws a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski and then lines up for the two-point conversion. And the scene that unfolds gets to the heart of why, after all this, we still watch.
“Everyone in the tunnel was now fixated on the TV – random hangers-on, passing concessionaires, and even a few of the Cardinals players waiting to take the field,” Leibovich writes. “No one was thinking about concussions right then, or courtroom appeals, billionaires bickering, or a stone-cold commissioner. There is something about this sport that brings the story back to its most fascinating self … The best thing football has going for itself is football.”
You’ve got a week until kickoff. “Big Game,” out next Tuesday, would be a fine way to pass the time till then.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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