Tonight, the NFL returns. Which is not to say that it ever truly left. No, ours is a world of continuous coverage of all things, of all sports, and the NFL is chief among them. Indeed, NFL coverage may be about the closest the human mind can come to contemplating the infinite, offering an amount of information that is both exhausting and exhilarating, the content of which often more idiotic than insightful. If it is not the quality of the content, how then could we possibly demand such coverage? The answer is clear: we’re a nation obsessed with the NFL.
A bit more nebulous is why we seem to love professional football so strongly. In fact, the offered explanations seem as numerous as the clichés tossed around by the “expert” booth crews with thousand-dollar suits and hundred-dollar haircuts. Some seem to believe the explanation lies in the character of the league, that the league is popular because Commissioner Roger Goodell has cleaned it up. Others contend it is the very edginess of the league that lends its popularity. Some feel that it’s the politics of the league. After all, its revenue sharing and salary cap policies are more socialist than Sweden. Others feel just the opposite, that the league’s lack of guaranteed salaries make it professional sports’ foremost meritocracy. There’s even something of the biblical: “So the last will draft first, and the first shall draft last.”
If you don’t feel inclined to view the popularity of a sport as derived from something other than the sport itself, perhaps you feel that the game’s popularity comes from the grace and agility of its players. Or was it the power and toughness? No, no, it must have been our basest human instincts to stare agape at mainstream sport’s best approximation of the gladiatorial games. The game also plays out perfectly; it’s on-again, off-again style is perfect for our short twenty-first century attention spans. Or conversely, that style commands our attention by allowing the drama to build.
Of course, we love the game for its colorful rivalries, marked by mirror images like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, or by polar opposites, such as loud, emotional New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and silent, cerebral New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Or, actually, we like the game because we never know which teams are rivals — the grudge matches are determined by who is good in any given year, which varies in a league proud of its parity.
Then there are those who see the popularity of the NFL as coming from the individuals of which it is composed. After all, it is the “ultimate team sport,” in which selfless players toil anonymously in the trenches and on special teams for the good of the game, their very likenesses concealed by masked helmets. Or rather they feature such cults of personality that they rename themselves “Stylez G. White” or, better yet, adopt a quasi-Spanish version of their uniform number as their name. We’re drawn to the perfection (at least in a masculine form) of our human form. By which I mean we’re shocked by the almost comical musculature of men who, in terms of weight and acceleration, resemble our Honda Civic more than ourselves.
Let us not forget the external factors that drive our interest. We’re a nation of gamblers and office-pool participants and fantasy football players. We’re heavily influenced by its distribution. The nonstop onslaught of advertising demands that, if we want the NFL, we go to the NFL. Or actually, it’s the way that only one game a week and four months a year keep us longing for more of the pageantry of celebrations or the professionalism of fines. Yes, surely that’s it. They give us our full yet keep us wanting more of the upsets and parody and dynasties and optimism.
I’ll be damned. I don’t have any idea why I love the NFL or why you love the NFL, much less why we all love the NFL. Maybe there is one unifying reason. Maybe there is something for everyone. Maybe this conundrum best demonstrates our love; we know true love when we cannot put it into words, when no profession based in reason would do it justice. That’s my conclusion. Our confusion is a testament to our love, and that we can’t describe it makes it no less real. Maybe you won’t like that argument. Maybe you think I’m a fool. But please don’t take my actions today as evidence thereof. If you see me prancing around today like a little kid at Christmas, it’s not because I’m crazy — I’m just madly in love with the NFL.