The Magazine

The Week That Was

Christopher Caldwell is ready for some football.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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When I was around the age of 20, the National Football League started to annoy me, and it hasn't stopped annoying me since. There are few institutions--none outside of academia--that mix pomposity and anti-intellectualism with quite the gusto the NFL does. You have the Roman-numbered Super Bowls and the shake-your-booty halftime shows. You have the gladiatorial fanfares that precede every ad and then you have     cripes     the ads themselves, which, since the invention of Viagra, make it impossible to watch sporting events in a family setting.

The NFL commercializes everything. No team can reach the other's 20-yard-line without our getting a "Red Zone Update" named after some laxative or motor oil. The almost theological role of beer would require an essay of its own; we won't even broach it. The dumbing-down is not just a side-effect in a profession where brawn matters. It is actually part of the ethos of NFL football in a way it is not in other sports. ("Duane, the key for this Tennessee defense today is gonna be to keep the Dolphins out of the end zone." "That's right, Darrell, and you gotta think Miami's gonna wanna putta lotta points on the board.") Those who credit feminism for the fact that 60 percent of undergraduate degrees now go to women should examine the role of football-watching before leaping to conclusions.

And yet, football has never bored me. On a deadline Sunday, it is a dangerous thing for me to be anywhere near a room with a football game on--or even something resembling football, like a Detroit Lions game. And I must avow that the parts of football that won my heart four decades ago--back in the day of 14-game seasons, kickoffs from the 40, 15-yard holding penalties, and uprights on the goal line--were the very parts that prefigured today's cheesier game.

On Sundays when I was 8, I'd go over to the house of my Greek friend Charlie, where nobody spoke English terribly well or understood football in the least. We'd eat Snickers bars and 3 Musketeers from the boxes full of them that his family kept in the kitchen (it seemed odd, but who was I to judge the Mediterranean lifestyle) and root for the New York Giants, who were the most-watched team in New England long after the Patriots were founded.

This was the era of Fran Tarkenton and the amazing Homer Jones. But the actual games paled beside This Week In Pro Football, which aired every weekend of football season in the early 1970s. "This Week" took the highlights of all the games and set them to this strangely thrilling music. I don't know quite how to describe it--it was like a rock version of English march music (Elgar, Holst), played with swing-band instruments. Watching all that fast-cut football action taking place to a musical accompaniment made my 8-year-old head spin. And then there were the gravelly-voiced narrators, whose accounts were perfectly pitched to my juvenile sense of crisis, logic, and justice. "The Cowboys rode into the City of Brotherly Love hoping to avenge a whipping the upstart Eagles had given them in September "--that kind of narrator.

Watching an hour of this made the stakes of pro games on Sunday afternoon seem vast. I couldn't shake the drama all week long. I would walk to school with my arms outstretched and my palms upward, looking up at the slate-colored sky, waiting for the descent of the long bomb I would catch with 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the game that was on in my head, accompanied by that soundtrack: Rump da-da dump-dump, dump-dump, dump-dump. Football inhabited me. Whenever I am told about Islamist groups showing videos to recruit people for jihad, I imagine a gory equivalent of This Week In Pro Football. I doubt I'm wrong.

Over time, much of American culture has become more like This Week. The reality TV shows I overhear all hide the banality of their subject matter behind a hypnotic disco soundtrack. (Boomp, chick. Boomp-boomp, chick. "I love the way this bolster brings out the ecru in the wallpaper   " Boomp, chick. Boomp-boomp, chick.) I don't watch much TV. But I will have it on Monday night, when Tom Brady leads the mighty Patriots into the trenches of Buffalo, ready to do battle against the upstart Bills, hoping to reclaim their rightful