Football captures the imagination of Americans more than almost anything else. We may love Hollywood and obsess over pop stars, but walk into any bar in Austin – on Sixth Street, Red River, in the Warehouse District – and you will have an easier time striking up a conversation with a random stranger about Jason Garrett and Tony Romo than you will about Transformers: Dark Of The Moon — and that movie grossed a third of a billion dollars.
Hipsters and bros, Tea Party types and artsy intellectuals, society-minded rich kids and people whose favorite Mexican restaurant is Taco Cabana — representatives from all of those groups and more can come together and agree that they can’t wait to see Vince Young’s career get a rebirth in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Andy Reid. Even in Texas, they’ll say that. They may agree about nothing else, but this they have in common: We are Americans, and we give a shit about football.
Not all of us, of course — there are people who are uninterested in the game, who get a little itchy when they hear even the most obvious football metaphor, who fake a big smile and hope they guess the right sport when someone expects them to know who Matt Schaub and Mario Williams are. But a love of football spans all demographics, all social groups, all other cultural identifiers. There will be any number of impeccably-dressed young men at Kiss & Fly on any given Saturday night this fall who can’t wait to wake up the next morning and watch their teams take the field. This is Texas.
Oh, okay, another football column on the internet
There are a lot of places, online and in print, to read post-game analysis, training camp reports, locker room gossip, and free agency hype. But football is bigger than just those things. The game is part of the same culture as Presidential campaigns, political activism, underground hip-hop, dog-whistle sexism, Thursday night NBC comedies, East Austin hipsterism, Oscar bait film season, etc, etc. All of these things are on the forefront of the culture, and they’re all interconnected. It’s like The Wire.
This is the first edition of Down and Distance, a new weekly column on CultureMap. It’s a place to consider each week of football in a context larger than the locker room. We’re going to talk about the social, political, and pop-cultural implications of the game, because any activity that holds a nation’s attention like NFL football does have those implications. This is sports talk with a broad context...
Get to it, then
We’re 39 days out from the start of the NFL season, when the Saints will travel to Wisconsin to face the Packers in the first of the week’s games. Normally, this isn’t much of a time to speak of – the anticipation has been ebbing and flowing for months, usually, and four weeks of pre-season games hold our attention less than off-season highlights like free agency, training camps, and the draft.
But this is hardly a normal year, so what the hell? Let’s start talking football in August, since there wasn’t anything to say from March until the end of July, when the labor drama and lockout ended. At the time, everyone was infuriated at the notion that a group of billionaires were fighting about money with a group of people whose annual salaries start in the mid-six figures – but look where we are now.
It’s said that Americans have short attention spans, and that’s never proven more true than the past week. Who even remembers the months of labor strife and the gnawing uncertainty over whether there would even be an NFL season in 2011, now that we’ve had nearly a week of free agency, training camp, trades, roster cuts, and undrafted rookie signings, all at the exact same time. In the end, the lockout was just a weird time where we all relaxed, discovered new interests, hung out with our families, played a little more Words With Friends, complained about the heat, and even got really into women’s soccer for a couple of weeks. We’d never have found time to give a shit about women’s soccer if we’d been consumed with a normal NFL off-season. But we all know Hope Solo’s name now, and we are better people for it.
Hope Solo for Senate Majority Leader!
Mostly, though, the NFL labor situation threw into sharp relief something that isn’t particularly NFl-related, which is: Gosh, American politics suck, don’t they? Six months ago, the notion that DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell, both of whom appeared to be utterly incompetent, might actually be better at their jobs than the President of the United States and the Speaker of the House seemed downright silly. Regardless of what you thought about Barack Obama or John Boehner, it would have been awfully hard to argue that these tone-deaf, useless executives, who seemed utterly unable of bringing the millionaires and billionaires they represented to any sort of consensus, were competent leaders. But look at it now: 32 NFL teams have reported to training camp and the only casualty was one lone irrelevant pre-season game, with a fair deal and ten years of labor peace on the horizon. Meanwhile, the country has pushed impossibly close to defaulting on its debt, and while it appears a last-minute deal on the debt ceiling has been reached, the end result there appears dire. Social services long thought to be vital to the functioning of American society, under this deal, will be slashed. There's still a strong chance that the full faith and credit of the United States government will be reduced to a concept about as reliable as Brett Favre in a retirement press conference, even if we don't default as a nation, since both the long- and short-term economic benefits of the deal are specious, at best.
If you extend the NFL labor negotiations comparison, it's roughly the same deal the players would have received if they'd gotten the 50% of total league revenues that they wanted, but only if they'd allowed the owners to yank the broadcast rights from their ten-figure packages on the networks and instead sell 'em off to some German-language channel only available in Fredericksburg, Texas, for a fraction of the price. Nobody wins, everybody's unhappy, and people who just want to be able to get through their Sundays are completely screwed.
Now, I’m not exactly arguing that we’d be better off if DeMaurice Smith and Roger Goodell sat in for Barack Obama and John Boehner at the negotiation table, but if someone else made that argument, it’d be a lot harder to cast that person as an idiot today than it would have been six months ago. And that is a damn shame for America.
It’s good for the NFL, though, and that’s important. When things are as bleak in the real world as they appear to be heading, we need our bread and circuses more than ever.