|Tackling the Competition
From The New Yorker
August 18, 1997
Three years ago, Paul Tagliabue, the commissioner
of the National Football League, decided that the league needed
to become more "proactive" about marketing the sport of football,
or "the product," as the newer owners call the game. The N.F.L.
had severed its long relationship with CBS after the 1993 season,
signing on with Fox, and Tagliabue wanted to take a forward-looking
approach to marketing which would be more compatible with "the approach
to sports television that ESPN and Fox brought to the table, that
everyone else is emulating now." As he explained it to me, "It's
really an attitude more than something you can quantify. It's more
youthful. More iconoclastic." In recent years, the sports landscape
in which the N.F.L. competes has been profoundly altered by other
forms of media and entertainment. Video games provide some kids
with the same sense of action, speed, and power that pro football
used to supply; Nintendo, for example, is a major competitor of
football that did not exist twenty years ago. On the modern media
gridiron, it isn't Johnny Unitas vs. Bart Starr anymore; it's Brett
Favre vs. Batman.
Although previous presidents of N.F.L. Properties, the licensing, sponsorship, and marketing arm of the league, had all come from within the league office, Tagliabue thought that the right person to lead a new marketing campaign, like the one the National Basketball Association has employed so successfully in recent years, might be found outside the N.F.L. He needed someone who could make football attractive to a new generation without disgusting the middle-aged bratwurst-and-beer types who enjoy going to games with their faces painted in the colors of their teams. The situation of the N.F.L. was a little like that of the high-school football star who has always had the girls flock to him and suddenly needs to go looking for a date for the first time: it would require the right touch. How do you preserve the unglamorous essence of football, which consists of men colliding with each other, while competing with all the cool new noncontact sports, from snowboarding to street luge?
Neither Tagliabue nor Neil Austrian, an investment banker and former advertising executive whom Tagliabue hired as president of the N.F.L. in 1991, was interested in "becoming a CBS"--that is, allowing the forces of change that had humbled its former network to erode the N.F.L. as well. Recently, polls have shown that football is losing kids to both basketball and soccer. Basketball is now twice as popular as football among twelve-to-seventeen-year-olds, according to a 1996 ESPN Chilton Sports poll, and all around the country not as many kids are going out for football as in the past. John Cistone, who coached the varsity team at St. Vincent-St. Mary's High School, in Akron, Ohio, for thirty-nine years, told me, "In the seventies and eighties, we would have seventy-two to eighty-two players on the varsity. Last year, we had forty-four. We've won four state championships, so we have quite a football tradition. But kids don't seem to be interested. The core athletes, they still play football, but the fringe, who were playing football ten or twenty years ago--today they do other things." Terry McBroom, the coach at San Marin High School, in California, said, "Back in the seventies, football was huge. But now we've fallen off. We play in an eight-team league--there've been eight teams for as long as I can remember. But last year Redwood High School and Drake High both suspended their varsity programs. Redwood has twelve or thirteen hundred students, and they couldn't field a football team. 'Course, their soccer is huge."
Football is not "on trend," as the marketers say. Very few girls play the contact version of the game--a serious liability in an era when the growth of women's participation has become "the biggest change in sports in the last decade," according to Dr. Richard Lapchick, the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society. And soccer moms don't want their sons playing football. Even though the rate of injuries to young soccer players is actually higher than it is to young football players, football has an unhealthy image: concussions, steroids, widespread use of painkillers, and the fact that pro careers last an average of three and a half years. Not only are the pros unable to play football when they retire; they often can't run, or even walk without limping.
After a search of the top marketers in various media businesses, the Commissioner settled on Sara Levinson, the co-president of MTV, to take over the job of marketing the pro game. This was an unconventional choice. MTV is the prototypical cable channel, "niche-marketed" to a small, well-researched "demo," while the N.F.L. represents classic network TV: it delivers the only mass audience left in television. Also, MTV sells exactly what my high-school football coach tried to drill out of his players. In the mid-seventies, football was defined as everything rock and roll was not: it was discipline rather than hedonism, showing team spirit instead of doing your own thing--a jock/stoner dichotomy memorably expressed in the movie "Dazed and Confused." What has happened in the intervening decades is that rock's values have triumphed on the media gridiron and football values have withered. The hedonists have ended up kicking the jocks' butts.
The arrival of Levinson, the first woman president at any of the Big Three sports leagues, was something of a cultural shift for the men of the N.F.L. The league's headquarters, at 280 Park Avenue, is a masculine place. Men occupy the windowed offices on the perimeter; female secretaries work in the bullpens inside, their work surfaces covered with brand-reinforcing giveaway products known in the industry as "glom." Everywhere on the walls are pictures of gritty, heads-up plays by American males. Recently, when one of the executives was dating Sharon Stone, he got high fives from the guys in the windowed offices whenever he walked down the row. One N.F.L. staffer, a former high-school football player, told me, "When Sara got here, some of my buddies called me up and said, 'You're working for a fucking woman?' "
"One thing I noticed was that in meetings guys would sit there, you know, throwing a ball," Levinson told me. "I'd say to myself, 'What the hell is going on?' They would just sit there in a meeting doing this." She made a throwing motion, then went out for her own pass and caught it in an ironically jocklike way.
Levinson is forty-six, and has red hair, freckles, and a five-year-old son who is currently into basketball. (" 'Michael! Michael!'--that's all I hear," she told me.) She was not a football fan before coming to the N.F.L. Growing up in Virginia, she had three brothers, but their mother would not allow them to play football. "Jews don't play football," Levinson joked. But one of her biggest projects now is to get women to become avid football fans. According to a fan survey that she commissioned on arriving at the league, forty per cent of the N.F.L.'s TV audience is women. When I expressed skepticism about this number, and about whether women could ever be persuaded to feel passionate about such a brutal game, Levinson gave me the impression that the game I knew and loved was not exactly the game she was planning to sell. At a meeting I attended, one of the men working on the Women's Initiative informed his boss, "Our research indicates that women like the tight pants on the players. They like, um, their butts."
"Go figure," Levinson said.
Levinson is iconoclastic--a trait that went over big at MTV
but is not so big at the N.F.L. "At the N.F.L., authority and tradition
are very important," she told me. "At MTV, when we had our tenth-anniversary
specials, we would talk about whether we even wanted to call attention
to the fact that we were ten years old. Whereas at the N.F.L. we
bring out the throwback jerseys and celebrate our seventy-fifth
anniversary." Football is the ultimate team sport--it's all about
guys in huddles, accepting orders--and, as Levinson quickly learned,
the league itself is a team operation. One of the day-to-day tasks
at corporate headquarters is to persuade the thirty extremely competitive
capitalists who own the pro teams to share almost all of their television
and sponsorship revenues equally, in the interest of creating a
competitive league and what amounts to a kind of exclusive socialism
unlike any other in professional sports. In major-league baseball,
the owners enjoy much more freedom to make deals with broadcasters
and sponsors in their own markets, and there is no true salary cap
to prevent rich owners from spending whatever it takes to get star
players. (Albert Belle, the Chicago White Sox slugger, makes more
money than all the players on the Pittsburgh Pirates combined.)
Today, however, economic and social forces are eroding both the team ethic of football and the team ethic of the league. Some of the new crop of pro players, like the New York Jets receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the author of a tell-all memoir of his rookie year entitled "Just Give Me the Damn Ball!," seem to think that they're playing in the N.B.A. Even more corrosive to team spirit is free agency, under which a player can declare himself on the open market four years after being drafted by a team. Free agency is the devil's bargain that Tagliabue made with the Players Association four years ago to insure labor peace in the league, and it has had a profound effect on both the league and the game. Young players now want to distinguish themselves as individual stars early in their careers, so that they can command higher prices in the open market, and fans risk losing their favorite players to other teams if the players' asking price is too high. (Eighty-nine players have changed teams this year under free agency.) Coaches of losing teams can no longer blame the luck of the draft, or the limited talent pool, for their teams' poor performance--"You don't survive without winning" is how Tagliabue puts it--and that is one reason that there are eleven new head coaches in the league this year. Each owner, in order to be liquid enough to have a twelve-million-dollar signing bonus sitting on the table when a superstar free agent visits his office, has had to search for new sources of revenue. This drives up ticket prices, which are rising at nearly three times the rate of working people's wages, and also makes the owners crave revenue-producing stadiums. (Nine new stadiums are set to open in the next five years.) Owners whose cities won't build new stadiums have the option of moving to cities that will, as Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, did last year, whereupon the Browns became the Baltimore Ravens.
Sprint, the N.F.L.'s official telecommunications sponsor, pays twenty-four million dollars a year for the privilege, in part because the N.F.L. can guarantee Sprint exclusive rights to games in all local markets, where Sprint is trying to extend its business. Even if an owner believes that he can make more money doing his own sponsorship deal with a local carrier, the N.F.L.'s exclusive Sprint deal means his hands are tied. But this may be changing. It was a pivotal moment in the life of the league when Jerry Jones, the renegade owner of the Dallas Cowboys, walked onto the field two years ago during a Cowboys-Giants "Monday Night Football" game, accompanied by Phil Knight, the chairman of Nike, to announce a deal that included "stadium rights"--a hot new revenue source that would allow Nike to display its swoosh in the stadium.
In the meantime, football's ratings remain high. A hundred and ten million people watch the N.F.L. on TV every week; a hundred and thirty million people watch the Super Bowl. Though the networks that made football the most popular sport in America are in decline, the N.F.L. remains the single largest content provider to network television. Of the top ten most-watched shows ever to appear on television, seven have been Super Bowls, and the ratings of an above-average "Monday Night Football" game, like the Dallas-Green Bay game last year, are higher than those of any N.B.A. playoff game ever. The N.F.L. guys cite these stats for the same reason that a three-hundred-pound lineman runs into you-to knock you over. But even while football remains the most popular sport on TV, its purchase on the national Zeitgeist has slipped. Paul Gardner, in his book "Nice Guys Finish Last: Sport and American Life," applied Charles Reich's theory of the three stages of American consciousness to sports. Baseball is the sport of Consciousness I, which was nineteenth-century, small-town rural America. Football is the sport of Consciousness II, spanning early-twentieth-century industrialism up through the postwar corporate society. Gardner, who was writing in the early seventies, wondered if basketball--a sport that values skill over force and improvisation over planning, shows the human body in its natural form rather than heavily armored, and, above all, allows its players to express what Reich called "the concept of full personal responsibility"--might become the sport of Consciousness III.
Today, Gardner's analysis looks prescient. The values of brute force no longer resonate as deeply with America as they once did. We are an entertainment and information economy: creativity and entrepreneurship have more currency in our lives than physical labor, and personal initiative means more to us than following orders. The men for whom football was a ticket out of the mines and the mills are now the grandfathers of lawyers or insurance salesmen or McDonald's employees, and the green fields that formed their vistas have been replaced by urban and suburban landscapes. The playing field of the contemporary urban kid's imagination is as likely to be a basketball court or a computer screen or an iron bannister in the park which he slides down on his skateboard as it is to be a football field.
"Basketball is the MTV of sports," Sara Levinson told me
in her office one day early in July. "The way TV covers basketball,
with the quick cuts, the music overlaid-it's much more like MTV.
So the N.B.A. skews young. Going to a basketball game--it's like
being inside a video." At MTV, Levinson sold rebelliousness; indeed,
she helped make rebelliousness and anti-authoritarianism a commodity.
"Just Do It," the rallying cry of Nike, might not have been possible
without the attitude blazed by MTV. In football, the message has
long been "Just Do What the Coach Tells You to Do." Football players
are not encouraged to do much creative thinking, which may be one
reason that kids aren't so interested in playing the sport. "We
have to be careful not to be MTV, because it would turn off our
viewers at the older end of the demo," Levinson went on. Kids relate
to rebelliousness, and the N.F.L. is "not a rebellious force. We
need to get into kids' skins before the rebelliousness starts to
get really loud."
In order to insure that football remains the game that teen-agers play on the lawn at Thanksgiving, the N.F.L. is in its second year of promoting several new pickup-style football games, all of which are variants of flag football. David Newman, whom Levinson worked with at MTV, and who is in charge of special events, told me, "It's all about getting a football, this unusual-looking object, into a kid's hands as soon as you can. Six years old, if possible. You want to get a football in their hands before someone puts a basketball in their hands, or a hockey stick or a tennis racquet or a golf club." Missionaries from the N.F.L. go out to youth organizations like the Y.M.C.A. and the Police Athletic League in various cities and try to get the counsellors to teach the new games to their kids. "The football infrastructure in the urban areas has declined so badly it's almost disappeared," Scott Lancaster, the director of the N.F.L.'s youth football program, said, adding that last year's New York City champion, Kennedy High School, in the Bronx, had its playing field condemned. It literally collapsed. (The team practiced in a parking lot and played all of its games away.) Unlike traditional high-school football, however, the N.F.L.'s new games are coed, and in designing them the league has taken from soccer and basketball elements that research shows kids like, such as continuous play, lots of scoring, and chances for everyone to stay involved in the action. In N.F.L. Ultimate football you can take only two steps before you have to get rid of the ball. Flag games are five on five, and no blocking is allowed, but downfield laterals are, thus creating more opportunities for everyone to score, or at least to touch the ball.
In reaching out to kids, the N.F.L. has to contend with the fact that Nike and Reebok have changed the way that kids see sports. From a modern sports-marketing perspective, football has two basic flaws: you can't see the players' faces and you can't wear their shoes. A Reebok executive estimates that the company spends eight to ten times as much money promoting basketball players as promoting football players, because it sells many more pairs of basketball shoes than pairs of "cleated footwear." Today's sports marketing is about the face, the individual, the personality. The shape of Michael Jordan's head is a brand. When Karl Malone's lips move at the free-throw line, millions wonder what he is saying. And basketball has adapted its own marketing efforts to the techniques of the sneaker-makers. Rick Welts, the president of N.B.A. Properties, told me, "We decided in the early eighties that we were going to focus our marketing on the talent and personality of individual players, that what was different about our sport was that you saw the players so much. We would make an effort to develop them as individuals, figuring people would be drawn to their stories. That strategy wasn't designed for kids, but it turned out that kids in particular responded to the players as individuals." Football players, on the other hand--hulks behind helmets--are faceless performers for the team. Football is about character, not personality. A personality on a football field is like a target the other players aim at. As David Newman conceded, "It's a challenge. Some of our biggest stars, the fans hardly know what they look like."
What, exactly, is Levinson selling, in selling football?
People who like to watch the game--my wife, for example--tend to
enjoy the ballet part of it: the perfect passes, the circus catches,
the great breakaway runs. (She thinks that tackling should be banned
from the sport, and that the pros should play flag football.) But
my experience of playing organized football is that the essence
of the game is hitting, not ballet. Especially if, like me, you
weren't fast or agile, the way to excel at football was to hit people
as hard as you could on every play. It was fun to run a "counter"
(a misdirection play), in which I was the pulling blocker--to ram
full speed into the blind side of some dumb lineman who had bought
the fake, empty my body into his body, and knock him flat. But to
be hit, that made you wonder. Suddenly there is impact, the solid
thwunk of someone else's body smashing into yours, followed by a
silence except for your own strangled-sounding "unnngh." You are
flying through the air, not knowing yet what hit you; your head
strikes the ground first, and a weird, smoky smell comes into your
nose. You lie on the ground moving your head cautiously, because
the impact has obviously torn your brain free from the webbing that
connects it to the inside of your skull. Then you see your opponent
standing over you, laughing at you, or maybe snarling at you--it's
hard to be sure.
This is the least upbeat but perhaps most immutable aspect of football, and it's something that Levinson will have trouble selling: football is about hard work, pain, and losing. (Messages that the game is all about winning--such as "Just win, baby," which is the Raiders owner Al Davis's hipster re-statement of Vince Lombardi's famous remark "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing"-are actually less than half the story.) Football is the only common language we have in which to talk about the pitiless, hit-or-be-hit side of America. The game's origins lie in a hazing ritual that was practiced at Ivy League colleges in the eighteen-twenties, according to Benjamin G. Rader, the author of the 1983 book "American Sports." Freshmen would be summoned to a field to play a rugby-like game during which the upperclassmen would welcome them to school by beating the crap out of them. That impulse (often outlawed by school authorities) found its way into rugby football, which was popularized in the United States in the eighteen-sixties and seventies in part by the success of the novel "Tom Brown's School Days." The violence that had always been implicit in a game that involved men running into each other had never been fully expressed by the Englishmen who played it: their class and their decorousness stopped them from pushing the violence beyond a certain point. The American gentlemen who played the game were not so sporting. There was no rule that said you couldn't punch your opponents, for example, so in the American game there was punching.
The men who played this variant of rugby, which was to become football as we know it, lived in a society that was considerably meaner than ours. The array of safety nets and government programs that exists today to ameliorate, or at least disguise, the inequality of American society had not yet been designed. The poor immigrant had to contemplate in all its stark, Darwinian unfairness the wealth of railroad men like Jay Gould. It was a take-or-be-taken society, and football was a way of making a game out of that, a mean game for a mean world. The bruising union battles around the turn of the century were psychically revisited on the field-there was an undercurrent of brutality that is still very much part of the game. "Hey, baby, this movie is rated R," Bruce Smith, of the Buffalo Bills, said on the sidelines recently, his million-watt smile lighting up his handsome face. "Adult language and violence. Lots of it."
The pro game rose to supremacy among American sports in the nineteen-fifties, as the offensive machines increasingly mirrored the corporate ethic of that era: centralization, division of labor, doing what you're told. The greatest innovator in those corporate aspects of the game was Paul Brown, the coach of the Cleveland Browns: he invented the modern "pocket," which the quarterback stands in to throw; brought classroom methods to the game; put coaches in the press box; and was the first coach to call all plays from the sidelines, a technique now standard in the pros. (Today's quarterbacks all have radio receivers in their helmets.)
In the sixties, football overtook baseball as the country's most popular sport. (Baseball got to keep "national pastime" as a consolation prize.) It drew on the turbulence of that decade, both at home and abroad, and may have reached its peak as a national obsession in January of 1972, when Richard Nixon took time out from his "game plan" for ending the war in Vietnam in order to awaken Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula at one-thirty in the morning before Super Bowl VI and call in a play he was sure would work against the Cowboys--a down-and-in pass to Paul Warfield. (Shula ran the play late in the first quarter; it was incomplete.) In a nation seething with pinkos, longhairs, drug takers, and nonconformists, football was a sturdy bulwark, a blocking sled.
Just as offense expressed the Zeitgeist of the fifties and sixties, so defense is true to the spirit of the nineties, because in defense personal initiative is more important than following a preset plan. The "sack"--a term invented by Deacon Jones, of the L.A. Rams, to denote the play in which a single defender can cause the downfall of the whole offensive plan by tackling the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage--is the quintessential rock-and-roll play: it's about the triumph of the individual over the system. (Jones described the feeling of a sack as being "like you devastate a city, or you cream a multitude of people. It's just like you put all the offensive players in one bag and I just take a baseball bat and beat on the bag.") The growing importance of the sack in the pro game has created a new kind of athlete, whose body is an impressive combination of the strength and the speed necessary to get through the line to the quarterback quickly. The great defensive ends--like Bruce Smith, of the Bills, and Reggie White, of the Green Bay Packers, who stand six feet five or so and weigh two hundred and eighty pounds but are as quick as little scatbacks over short distances--are to me the most awesome athletes in pro sports.
Left to grow organically, football would naturally express the rock-and-roll impulse that values the individual over the group. Yet even in the age of MTV marketing, football is uneasy with this impulse. The touchdown dance, an eighties innovation, is rock and roll on the largest imaginable stage. (Dr. Harry Edwards, a sociologist at Berkeley and a consultant to the San Francisco 49ers, has described it as "the creation of a vehicle to express that joy for which there is no mainstream language.") But the league discourages these uppity displays of individuality. (In the college game, all touchdown dances are against the rules.) At the same time, in other areas the N.F.L. manages to court the game's potential for show. As defense has got better over the years, the league has made rules limiting what defensive players can do--like the rule that says the defensive backs cannot bump the receivers more than five yards from the line of scrimmage--in order to encourage scoring, because scoring is what people like to watch on television. This is one of the ways in which the value of the spectacle has taken precedence over the nature of the game.
On arriving at the N.F.L., Levinson set
about drawing up a new marketing plan for pro football. Howard Handler,
whom she brought with her from MTV, and who had begun his career
as a brand manager for Quaker Oats, was the author of this document-called,
of course, "Game Plan 1997." It begins by defining football as "the
American essence of human competition," and attempts to put into
marketing lingo the wordless passion of the gridiron. It includes,
for example, a graphic representation of the N.F.L.'s six "Core
Equities" and their "Key Symbols":
Action/Power: Hitting, elusive running, circus catches, the N.F.L. Shield.
History/Tradition: Leaves, N.F.L. legends, fathers and sons . . . tailgating.
Thrill/Release: Fans laughing, screaming, frustrated, exultant. Players doing the same.
Teamwork/Competition: Green Bay Packers in the '60s, '69 Jets, the Steel Curtain.
Authenticity: The ball (pigskin), the field, grass, mud . . . sweat, blood.
Unifying Force: The team, friends, families, communities, tailgating.
Also part of the game plan is the "N.F.L. Mission," which focusses on the importance of youth:
Nothing can be more important than how we manage young people (particularly ages 6-11 . . .) into our fan continuum and begin to migrate them toward becoming avid/committed fans.
Critical Action: Generate early interest and enthusiasm. Transform/convert their casual interest into commitment. Amplify to avidity.
How?: Elevate/personalize players; Football education. . . . Increase N.F.L. intersection with pop culture/trends; Continue to give them products that allow them to build and express their loyalty.
Handler's game plan was slipped into a few of the slim folders that Levinson's nine vice-presidents brought to a meeting I attended at 280 Park on a very hot day in July. Three of the V.P.s were people Levinson had worked with at MTV; the rest were longtime N.F.L. guys. No balls were thrown, but there was much discussion of various ways to promote the N.F.L. "brand." Since Levinson's arrival, it has been O.K. to speak openly about the N.F.L. as a brand, and to conceive of the business as a national branding operation, in which the league tries to gain as much leverage as it can by sharing its "brand equity" with "partners." This meeting was a festival of brand names, from Starter to Bud, including Pert Plus, Hershey's, 7-Eleven, Coke, Visa, and Sports Authority. Jim Schwebel, who is in charge of sponsorships, reported that he had "an excellent meeting with Gatorade last week." And Coke's "The Red Zone" campaign, he said, had brought half a million new names to the N.F.L.'s database, which the league can now share with its partners, like Sprint.
"That's good," Levinson said.
"I hope the owners are aware of who is bringing all these businesses to the party," Schwebel said. "It's us. Are we going to get the credit? No."
Jim Connelly, the head of licensing, which is N.F.L. Properties' basic and still most profitable business, spoke next. The retail sales of N.F.L.-licensed goods is a three-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Traditionally, the N.F.L. has sold merchandise in downmarket venues like J. C. Penney and K mart--not just clothes but sheets, stadium blankets, wastebaskets, Christmas ornaments, all kinds of "trash and trinkets." ("Stack it high and let it fly" was the unofficial N.F.L. motto.) But lately Connelly has been negotiating partnerships with high-end brands. "Would we talk to Tommy Hilfiger?" Connelly had asked himself out loud when we spoke earlier in his office. "Yes. We're planning on it. You see his nautical attire, or Ralph Lauren's Polo line-everybody is getting into sports to sell their stuff. Maybe we go in the direction of the understated casual look. You can't walk down the street looking like Joe Torre, in pinstripes, and you can't walk down the street in Armani, like Jeff Van Gundy, unless you're rich, but you can wear exactly what Ray Rhodes"--the Philadelphia Eagles coach--"wears on the sidelines."
Connelly concluded his presentation by noting the extent to which the N.F.L. was kicking the N.B.A.'s butt in the licensing business. "What's going on with basketball?" he asked.
"They got next," said Handler, sarcastically alluding to the clever turn on the neighborhood-
playground line "We got next," which is the N.B.A.'s slogan for its new women's league. Earlier, Handler had repeated to me the N.B.A.'s marketing slogan, "I love this game," and asked, "What is that? The emphasis should be on 'this,' as in this particular game. Because after this game what have you got? The Mailman versus Sir Charles--what the fuck is that? What happens when they're gone?" His point, which I heard frequently at the N.F.L., was that the N.B.A. has achieved some fast and easy market share from Michael Jordan and a few other great individual players but has neglected to promote the game itself and will suffer when Michael retires.
Sports and entertainment may be growing ever closer together,
but there is an important difference between them. Entertainment
is an operation driven from the top down, by a few people who try
to give the public what they think the public wants. Sports works
the other way. A sport is born among the folk, in its relationship
with a particular team. Thanks mainly to television, that relationship
has turned into a commodity, which marketers try to "grow" into
more money by figuring out how the love of a team can be shifted
to the love of a product. But, no matter how much entertainment
and marketing you can spin out of football, there's a part of the
game that remains essentially unmarketable, and nonetheless accounts
for football's mesmerizing appeal to its fans. Football players
are the faceless heroes whose travails represent your travails;
the fact that you can't see their faces actually makes it easier
to feel their pain.
This visceral side of the game--the old, premarketing world of football--is on display each year at the Professional Football Hall of Fame, during Enshrinement, a week-long festival at the end of July in Canton, Ohio, attended by half a million people. Naturally, Commissioner Tagliabue appears at this event, and I joined him on a Friday morning as he flew out of the Million Air terminal in Teterboro, New Jersey, on board an N.F.L.-chartered jet. Last year, the Commissioner was loudly booed at Enshrinement weekend, mostly by Cleveland Browns fans who were angry at him for allowing Art Modell to move their team to Baltimore--an outrage that many fans saw as a symbol of what's wrong with the pro game, which is that the business and the spectacle have become more important than the relationship between the teams and their fans. But if the Commissioner was nervous about the reception waiting for him in Ohio this year, he didn't look it. He stretched his long legs in the cabin--tall and trim at fifty-six, he still has his basketball figure from the days, nearly forty years ago, when he was the Georgetown Hoyas' leading rebounder--and reflected on the state of the N.F.L. "For two decades, up through the nineties, you really had a period of status quo," he said. "And it was great. There wasn't a hell of a lot of change. Now we've got a lot of change." However, he preferred to see change as bringing "creative energy" to the league. He pointed out, for example, the positive side of free agency--that it has allowed the new expansion teams, like Carolina and Jacksonville, to be immediately competitive. "And this has been a big plus as far as bringing new fans to pro football," he said.
Tagliabue was met on the runway of the Akron-Canton airport by Hall of Fame volunteers in new Lincoln Town Cars, which had been lent by local car dealers. He was driven with appropriate pomp to the hall, to speak at an unveiling of new postage stamps depicting famous football coaches, and then to a country club, for a private lunch honoring this year's enshrinees: Mike Webster, Wellington Mara, Don Shula, and Mike Haynes--the Pittsburgh Steelers center, the New York Giants owner, the Miami Dolphins coach, and the Oakland Raiders defensive back, respectively. The invited guests were mostly Hall of Famers from years gone by: Gale Sayers, Paul Warfield, Terry Bradshaw, Deacon Jones, Joe Greene, Ray Nitschke, Joe Namath, Bob Griese. Almost all were wearing the special gold jacket that signifies their place among the hundred and eighty-nine players who have been blessed with the N.F.L.'s highest honor. Whatever force fields of irony I, a New York smart-aleck in Kitschville, had brought with me were instantly demolished, and I was left standing there with a huge grin on my face as I looked around the room at the heroes of my boyhood.
It was not a particularly healthy-looking group. Many of the players winced, clearly from joint pain, as, one by one, they rose to speak to the new enshrinees and to welcome them to "the greatest fraternity in the world," in the words of Kansas City great Len Dawson. Chuck Bednarik, of the Philadelphia Eagles, the last player to play both offense and defense, was sitting at the table behind me. His knuckles were hugely swollen, and the pinkie on his right hand was broken sideways; it veered away from his coffee cup like some grotesque parody of Emily Post etiquette. Frank Gifford, who, thanks to Bednarik, had been hospitalized with a deep concussion after the Eagles-Giants game in 1960, was seated a few tables away, with Wellington Mara. (The Commissioner wondered whether the guys were ribbing Frank over his recent extramarital escapades, but the presence of the eighty-year-old Mara, Gifford's former boss, seemed to keep things above that level.)
The Enshrinement ceremony took place the following morning, outside the hall, which has a huge football-shaped dome as its roof. Although the season doesn't start until August 31st, this was the invocation of it, the ritual arousing of Old Man Football from his sweaty, tormented summer slumber. It had rained earlier, and by the time the ceremony got under way the grass was starting to steam. Paying and credentialed guests were seated on the lawn in front of the hall, while "the people" were gathered on a hill to the right, between a Cyclone fence with barbed wire on top of it and a concrete retaining wall. Most of them were Steelers fans, who had made the two-hour drive from Pittsburgh to witness the beatification of Mike Webster: he had been the center on the great Steelers teams of the seventies, when they dominated pro football. To the left was a raised stretch of Interstate 77-high enough so that passing semis could see down into the scene. The speeches were punctuated with thundering blasts of solidarity from truck drivers on the job.
The crowd did boo when the Commissioner was announced, but not as loudly as last year. Tagliabue kept his remarks brief, and then each enshrinee was "presented" by someone of his own choosing. Don Shula was presented by his two sons, Dave and Mike, who are both coaches in the league. Wellington Mara was presented by Gifford, who declared that Mara was the father any son would wish to have, the "most honest and decent man I have ever known." In a sign of the times, Mike Haynes was presented by his agent, Howard Slusher, who is now a special assistant to Phil Knight, of Nike.
Finally, Mike Webster was presented by Terry Bradshaw, who had been the Steelers quarterback and the so-called Blond Bomber during their golden age, and who now plays the football buffoon on Fox's N.F.L. broadcasts. Webster, known to fans as Iron Mike, is from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, and was the Class of '97 enshrinee who to me best represented the values of old football: with his bulging biceps, he was known for wearing cutoff sleeves in all kinds of weather; he was the rock, the anchor, the guy willing to play in pain, who went for ten years in a row without missing a game until he dislocated his elbow. Though football has evolved into high-tech aerial warfare over the years, the position of center--the one who snaps the ball--hasn't changed since the nineteenth century. It's still a "game" of pushing and shoving and being kicked and punched and bitten.
Bradshaw began by saying of Webster, "I loved him from the very first moment I put my hands under his butt," and he followed with an anecdote about how Iron Mike liked to drink a gallon of buttermilk and take liver pills before games, which meant that by the fourth quarter he was ripping eye-watering farts as Bradshaw squatted over him. (Bradshaw, who can attribute some of his good health to Webster's excellent protection of him, made the Hall eight years ago.) At the end of his speech, Bradshaw produced a football and hollered, "Jes' one mo' time!" Webster took off his gold jacket and squatted, and the Blond Bomber (now mostly bald) got up under his butt for old times' sake.
A few weeks earlier, I had seen a piece on ESPN's "SportsCenter" about Webster's troubles since he retired from football, in 1992. He had lost all his money and his home due to bad investments, and for nearly a year and a half he lived in the back of his car, occasionally sleeping in the Pittsburgh bus station. He has congestive heart disease, and may also be suffering from post-concussion syndrome. He has convulsions and spasms that keep him up at night, as well as a severe varicose-vein condition in his legs, which causes even the smallest cut to "squirt blood everywhere," according to his wife, Pam, who is currently suing him for divorce, and has taken their four children with her to live in Wisconsin. She said she and Mike would sometimes cover his veins with Super Glue, to prevent them from popping in the living room. Toward the end of the ESPN piece, Mike said, "Some things I think horrify me," and, indeed, he looked like a man who had peered into the abyss. He is forty-five, but he looks seventy, easily. Still, he was upbeat: "All I have to do is finish the game. . . . Like John Wayne said, 'I'll finish it, maybe not standing up, but I'll finish.' "
Now, speaking without notes, in a simple, sincere way, Webster asked everyone who cared about football to rise. I jumped out of my chair. Fucking A! I love football! Then he spoke for about twenty minutes, his remarks frequently interrupted by mournful-exultant wails of "Miiike!" floating down the hill from the "Braveheart"-like mass of faces painted black and yellow.
At one point, Webster returned to his semi-mystical theme of the finish. "You only fail if you don't finish the game," he said. "If you finish, you win. You have to measure by what you started out with and by what you overcome. In a lot of ways, we are the same."
The fans up on the hill bellowed savagely. "We love you, Mike! We're with you, Mike!"
"You're going to fail, believe me," he said. "But there's no one keeping score. All we have to do is finish the game and we'll all be winners."
I found myself joining in the din: "Miiike!"
It was a cry of pure American id.
Copyright (c) John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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