Sarah: Phil! Here we are in the Los Angeles Review of Books, writing about football. We are also writing about television, of course. But I feel it is perhaps worth checking in with our readership to discuss why football is important to us, as book-ish television fans, and to explain why people might want to read about it, even if they do not think of themselves as fans of football.
There are lots of reasons, so so many, why one should not be a fan of football. I am not currently sure that I am a fan of football! But even so, football should not be dismissed; football, in general, and particularly in the gloriously embodied narrative that is NBC’s Sunday Night Football spectacle, merits our careful attention. Sunday Night Football is about: narrative temporality, masculinity, femininity, who can be a leader of men, structural racism, class strife, geography. When I think of the 21st century legacy of the kind of literary nationalism shored up in the 1850s, I think of Football Night in America. Phil: also I think that the Patriots’ temporary quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is really hot. All these things are brought richly together in Sunday Night Football.
Perhaps I am overstating the case? Let me go even bigger: I’m not the first to note that the whole Sunday Night event is a majestical confluence of narrative complexity and visual sophistication, and like all rich texts, it offers its best rewards to skilled close readers willing to engage both its formal and cultural nuances. Like Moby-Dick or Absalom, Absalom!, Football Night in America, and football itself, can seem meaninglessly discursive. But all these narratives tack right towards America’s deepest questions of order, history, and belonging.
Phil: Agreed, Sarah! These are all reasons why the non-football-literate reader of our esteemed web-log ought to tune into this coverage. We are also well-positioned to provide a valuable service by differentiating New England Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo — who Bill Belichick appears to have drafted from some sort of modeling agency — from Generation X icon and star of The Truth About Cats and Dogs Janeane Garofolo. I know these guys wear helmets, so it can be confusing. But, to be clear, this person is not the same as this person.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I should also say that you and I are also participants in the Football Industrial Complex. Indeed, this, I believe, is the first year in a long time that neither you nor I are practicing the Art of Fantasy Football. It was weird watching the game(s) last night and not checking in on my team, praying for Jimmy Garoppolo to spread his targets around so that some slot receiver I picked up in the twelfth round can have a chance to get me a point or two. It’s a weird type of investment, I realize, especially given the plagues that have beset the league—or emerged from it—in recent years. Being obsessed with fantasy football—caring deeply about the performance of a dozen individual players who have no real relation to each other and in whom I have no geographical team investment—is so so tantalizingly close and yet so diametrically opposed to the way we should feel about football players. That is, we should care about them as individual human beings who have accepted money to have their brains bashed out for our enjoyment as spectators. Drafting LeGarrette Blount and hoping he’s neither injured nor “questionable” week to week is not the same thing as caring about what happens to LeGarrette Blount. Anyway, what I’m saying is that watching as a non-fantasy-involved spectator this season, I feel both closer and further away from what’s going on onscreen. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Sarah: I would also like to say that this is exactly my tenth anniversary as a fan of football: I started watching the game with a real sense of commitment exactly the week before I gave birth to my first child, and I spent all that fall, in Chicago, glued to the television, nursing my son and crabbing about the Bear’s uneven quarterback Rex Grossman. I know it seems weird that caring for an infant, working so hard to care for a beloved vulnerable body, would lead one to football — a game in which so many humans display their willingness to have their bodies be horribly and perhaps meaninglessly brutalized, even after their parents did so much hard work keeping them alive — but in fact after going through a rapid and unmedicated labor, I was really ready to see the joy in intense body beast stuff, and I was glad for a rare venue where that pleasure was celebrated. Football gets right at such a primal beauty! Watching football made me a better teacher, a more versatile member of society, and a more honest inhabitant of my own body, at least in some ways.
Now though: I’m a little bit off the game. It’s all too much: the CTE, the domestic abuse, the whole fucked up Roger Goodell-ness of it all. I think the game is beautiful and that we should all probably stop watching it, and yet here I am. One of the real questions for me this season is: am I done with this?
Phil: In the past couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with listening to football podcasts. (The dearly-departed Grantland pod empire got me hooked, though Robert Mays is still doing good work under the Ringer umbrella.) The ones I listen to, at least, walk a really fascinating line between being absolutely devoted to the game of football and doing so in the certain knowledge that we are living through its End Times. In other words, any close observer of the way things are going has to come to grips with the idea that this thing cannot sustain itself. That, regardless of all the money and the endorsements and the glory of it all, at some point the sport as a whole will be designated a health risk, and all of this will be over. You and I are probably less inclined to block out this noise, but it’s still hard to imagine. For all the brain injuries and all the corruption, it is really something to see, and not just in terms of brute spectacle. I don’t know that we’re all that close to the fall of the NFL, but I think we can also ask: is football done with us?
FOOTBALL NIGHT IN AMERICA
Sarah: Phil! For the uninitiated, let us explain this show. One of the great pleasures football offers its fans is a way to organize time. The whole week is structured around a slow narrative rising action towards Sunday; you can really sink into the perfectly paced, carefully genre-compliant structure of mid week trades, practice updates, and so forth. Then Sunday: drama! Sheer spectacle! Games are on Fox (where you’re forced to listen to commentary from Troy Aikman and watch the Fox Football Robot, horrible monstrosity) and CBS (bad announcing, I never learn anything). Then the games pause while NBC does the pregame for it’s premier Sunday Night game: Football Night in America is a round-up of everything that’s happened in the day’s games, and, more importantly, it is an opportunity for NBC’s announcers to shape for us a story of what is at stake in the big game Sunday night.
Football Night in America’s main task is to turn the night’s game into a story. Hosts Dan Patrick, Cris Collinsworth, Tony Dungy, Bob Costas, and Rodney Harrison look at the people involved in the coming game and turn them into characters, offering off a series of narrative conflicts we might see unspool in the hours ahead of us. They close read the bodies and temperaments and histories of the players, the cities, and the fans, and they help create for us a kind of genre template for what is to come. It is beautiful!
And I just really want to emphasize, to whatever reader or literary critic out there who might read this, that it is fascinating and impressive to watch these announcers craft a sort of anticipatory narrative arc out of a game when—unlike in fictional narratives, but very like in life—the ending is truly untold. It always makes me wish that Peter Brooks would add a chapter to Reading for the Plot that discussed sports and the way they pit our need for narrative meaning against the fact that life is unpredictable and weird.
That said, because this is football, and Football Night in America is also a fucking brutish display of corporate militarized national greed, the whole thing is also very Hunger Games, with Collinsworth playing a sort of affably dangerous Caesar Flickerman. If football has the capacity to ritualize the beautiful primal beastishness of our human lives, in practice the benevolent Coach Taylor-like attitudes of Football Night in America’s main characters function to make us forget that nationalism is not just a lovely ritual of hard work and good feeling, it is a fucking youth-eating shit show.
Phil: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the NFL season began this year while HBO is between Sunday night prestige dramas. We’ve got anti-heroes, meditations on the American dream, violence, cursing, high production values, problematic representations of women, the suggestion but ultimate avoidance of an actual conversation about race. Did Netflix develop this? Plus, by the time the Pats-Cards game was over, many of us had already been binging for nine hours. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nic Pizzolatto is holding a clipboard somewhere in there. (“The 4-3 defense is a flat circle.”) So, did it disappoint? Was this True Detective season 1 or season 2?
Sarah: Coming in, I had two big questions. First: what sort of horrible Microsoft technology would they require Tony Dungy to battle as he explained football strategy to us? Tony Dungy is a great explainer of football strategy, but they always make him grind his knowledge through some sort of horrible interface, leaving for us this weird informational sausage. I’m gonna say that I was disappointed by Tony’s attempt to wrestle with this year’s version of “The Coach’s Clicker” (they really call it that).
The second question is in a much different register (and it tells you something about the strangeness of watching Football Night in America that these two questions would sit so closely together), and it was: how would NBC allow or require Tony Dungy to address Colin Kaepernick and his (and other players’) protests during the national anthem? This was an address I knew was coming because Tony Dungy has become NBC football’s go-to moral authority, particularly around matters of black manhood: his statement on Michael Vick’s dog-fighting, for instance, is part of how NBC framed Vick’s post-prison reentrance to the NFL.
And Dungy’s statement about the protests — offered up in the form of a spontaneous Q & A, but clearly scripted — was vibratingly tense, riveting and impressive to watch. It’s rare when I’ve seen unsettled emotion slip through his careful, certain, demeanor (not least interesting among his comments: his revelation that he would make his players practice standing for the national anthem, video taping his rookies so they could watch themselves and “learn how it should be done”). I don’t feel fully qualified to discuss everything at stake for him right now, or his role at this moment when Black Lives Matter is intersecting anew with the combined corporate force of NBC and the NFL, but I was struck by his refusal to condemn the protesters even as he carefully asserted that, for himself, at moments of racial injustice, “I stood for the national anthem, but I bowed my head and I prayed.” Dungy’s double gesture of compliance with and resistance to the demands of white American patriotism — I stood up for America, I bowed to a higher authority — offers another key moment in the long American history of protest and piety pressing together, and I came away from it with an intensified sense that this show specifically, and Dungy in particular, matter to how the ideas of “race” and “America” and “freedom” are narrativized right now.
Phil: I found myself waiting all day to hear an announcer offer anything like a statement of outright support for Kaepernick or any of the other players who chose to protest in some way, but this was maybe expecting too much of the booth. (Though, I will say, Chris Berman came pretty close during the Niners game on Monday night as the camera followed Kaepernick walking around the sidelines shaking the hand of each and every one of his teammates.) That said, even Dungy’s ambivalence on Football Night in America still felt like a sharp counterpoint to the rolling reports of fans booing President Obama’s recorded 9/11 message at stadiums around the country. It was unsettling to learn that, for a not insubstantial number of Americans, booing the sitting president as he delivers a video-taped address memorializing the lives lost on 9/11 apparently is patriotic while quietly sitting or kneeling in protest of demonstrable structural inequalities is for sure not patriotic. Thanks, Obama!
WHY IS CARRIE UNDERWOOD DRESSED LIKE A GLADIATOR?
Sarah: If you know anything about Sunday Night Football that’s not related to football, it might be that the show starts with a musical number performed by a blond country music star. It used to be Faith Hill; now it’s Carrie Underwood; once this was excellently parodied by Jane Lynch on Saturday Night Live. The reason why this performance happens is clear, as it is the same reason why women do much or most of the NFL’s sideline commentary and post-game player interviews: it is because NBC knows that if you want to patrol the boundaries between brutality and civilization, if you want your viewers to look at a brutal spectacle through the particular lens of its ritualizing, society-upholding capacity, then get some blond women up in that scene. (Here we might read the blond country civilizing figures of Sunday Night Football as a clear differentiating tactic from the messy barnyard romp that Hank Williams Jr. oversaw for so long on Monday Night Football).
This year they got a new song, a sort of classic rock number with a “We Will Rock You” riff, and they gave Carrie Underwood a gladiator costume, as though to make literal her role of “fashioning true physical risk into civilizing metaphor.” Seriously they gave her what look like silver sequined shoulder pads. Phil: I think this is a questionable decision on several levels.
Phil: I realize that it’s fashionable for each generation to imagine itself to be the generation after which everything went to shit. Sports were better before all those moneyball dorks showed up and ruined everything! The internet is killing books! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! But, that said, it’s very hard for me to imagine that Carrie Underwood is anything but like a B+ version of Faith Hill. According to the Googling I just did, last night was the first time in a decade that the theme song wasn’t some version of “Waiting All Day for Sunday Night,” which is sung to a Joan Jett tune. It’s catchy, it’s silly, it’s probably putting a little money in Joan Jett’s bank account—it’s great!
Plus, that song captured a lot of what you’ve already said about Sunday Night Football: that it’s a TV event based on the slow narrative build-up of an entire week of events, mostly not football-related. The new song doesn’t yet have that iconic charge, though I suspect it’ll grow on me. The true horror of this new opening sequence, on the other hand, is its repeated insistence on showing us Eli Manning lip-syncing the theme song. I ask you this: why? I understand that Peyton Manning is a genuinely funny comic actor—chick-en parm you taste so good!—but surely the producers of SNF realize this was not a family trait. There are literally hundreds of professional football players out there, many of whom have appealing personalities and don’t look like Mr. Bill. How do you end up with Eli Manning doing this? Were there no kickers available? Was Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia busy? This is a professional broadcast, but I think sometimes it turns into that moment at summer camp when the counselors put on a skit at the talent show.
Sarah: About Eli Manning, you speak the truth! I really like that dude, and when he beats the Cowboys I feel like some kind of goodness in the universe has been upheld (that is not a thought, by the way, it is a feeling) but he is not charismatic, especially when carrying, like, some weird satchel?
As for Carrie Underwood, I like her fine, and I think that this new song is a smart attempt to channel the foot stomping anger of her best song, “Before He Cheats.” But the problem is that Carrie Underwood, who is squarely in the world of what my friend Dan would call “Bud Light Drinking Country” (rather than the superior “Whiskey Drinking Country”) has, unlike Faith Hill, not yet figured out how to convincingly convey that she has meaningfully encountered suffering, either her own or anyone else’s. I don’t think she can really do a good job of introducing Sunday Night Football, of patrolling the boundary between brutality and civilization, until she gets a little more in touch with the hard beautiful truths of rough experience that it is her job to hold back.
THE RISE OF JANEANE GAROFOLO
Phil: So, there was a sports game that occurred during this television show, and there were actually some pretty compelling narratives, or at least characters, involved. We can start with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald, the old men—by which I mean they are 36 and 33 years old— looking for perhaps a last chance at glory. Fitzgerald, for his part, pulled down two colossal touchdown receptions, including what ended up being his hundredth career TD. So much of watching these shows is about paying attention—or practicing the form of self-care that is choosing NOT to pay attention—to the compulsively repeated observations of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. Either Collinsworth needs a software update, or he was contractually obliged to refer to Fitzgerald as a “future hall-of-famer” every time anything good happened. “I hope he never retires,” CC exclaimed wistfully at one point. He even made a reference to Fitzgerald’s eventual hall of fame induction speech. The easy thing to suppose here is that Cris Collinsworth devotes an unusual percentage of his fantasy life to imagining, in great detail, the eventual induction of Larry Fitzgerald into the Football Hall of Fame (“And there’ll be cucumber sandwiches—no, mini hamburgers!—and I’ll get one for him at the reception, and I’ll hand it to him, and he’ll say, ‘Nice pass, Cris!’ And we’ll all laugh! Oh how splendid it shall be!”). But the color commentary is just an out-growth of the narrative-building you love on Football Night in America. They’re here to tell us what worked or short-circuited on every play, but they’re also here to remind us of the role each play and each player plays in the building story.
Palmer resists the Grim Reaper’s lingering scythe as he soldiers into his mid-30’s while Collinsworth imagines the day that Larry Fitzgerald joins him and Galadriel and Elrond on a boat ride to the Undying Lands.
Sarah: Undying Lands! Phil, I am not embarrassed to say that I love Cris Collinsworth, although I do not think this was a particularly special performance on his part. For me, this game was more about my mixed emotional response to the two teams, both of which I vaguely resent in the unthinkingly ideological way that football invites us to encounter the world. I don’t like the Cardinals because, as a water-anxious Midwesterner, I don’t think anyone should live or play football in Arizona (well, maybe some people should live there, but not nearly the number of people who do). And I don’t like the Patriots — a team of which I otherwise might approve, given that they are an old-timey team from a “real city” — because Belichick and Brady have always rubbed me the wrong way. It’s hard to pinpoint my dislike for the Patriots: it just seems such bad form for Belichick to be so good while enjoying it so little, and Tom Brady is dapper and satisfied in a way that always (this is Midwestern too) puts him right behind pre-1989 Taylor Swift on my list of “people who should be taken down a notch.”
However: the bittersweet narrative of the aging, last-grasping, Larry Fitzgerald warms me towards the Cardinals. And now we have this new bit of eye candy, Jimmy Garappolo, squeezing in a moment on the mainstage while on-probation Brady keeps his arm warm with Gisele! I really felt ready for anything. And also, this turned into a really satisfying game of football: It had all my favorite things, including being the kind of game that turns into, in the final minutes, what is essentially a battle of narrative pacing. The Cardinals were primed to win — they were two points down, had the ball, and were almost there, but could not win too soon, lest the Patriots get another chance and be able to pull out a victory.
Phil: And then America’s Boyfriend Jimmy Garoppolo and his band of Patriots swooped in. This was the other narrative that was interesting to me, in part because it will ultimately be a semi-tragic one for New England’s newest handsome QB. That is, Garoppolo is only house-sitting until New England’s other handsome QB returns home. In four games, Jimmy is going to have to hand his properly inflated game ball back to Tom Brady, who will then nefariously take that game ball, coat it in an artisanal hallucinogenic or replace it with a whoopie cushion or whatever, and bump lil’ JG back to the sidelines. This game was, to some extent, about the rise of Jimmy Garoppolo, the true testing of his worthiness, but, no matter how well he does, no matter how heroically he performs, he’s still taking a seat in a couple of weeks. Like you, I have no love for the New England Patriots, and it’s hard for me to really root for the underdog victory of a person who looks like a matinee idol, but still, there’s some small part of me that feels bad for the guy. Say a word for Jimmy Garoppolo. He ain’t got nothin’ at all.
BEST AND WORST
Sarah: Should we do our best and our worst? Besides the overall excitement of the fourth quarter, the best was definitely Jimmy Garappolo’s frantic huffing of smelling salts right before the kick off.
I mean it is obvious that I like football because it just so clearly aligns with nineteenth century novels, but I don’t expect there to be an association this obvious. I could watch that raven-haired heroine toss his head around for hours!
Phil: For me, the best was Martellus Bennett. He’s a great tight end, rescued from the catastrophe of the Chicago Bears to form a dynamic duo with Rob Gronkowski, maybe the greatest tight end of his generation, in New England. So he’s in a good spot. But there were two things I loved about him on Sunday. First, he was one of the handful of players league-wide to show solidarity with Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter by raising a fist (with teammate Devin McCourty) during the anthem. It was the weekend’s biggest stage, and he’s one of the reasons that this growing protest was visible on it. Then, things took a turn for the whimsical.
In his talking head introduction, rather than stating his name and collegiate alma mater, Bennett announced that his name was “Marty,” and his alma mater was “The Imagination Agency.” I didn’t know whether Bennett was trolling Sunday Night Football or paying tribute to Gene Wilder or what, but, in a feature that often makes professional football players look like droids who have been given the command to identify their serial numbers, Bennett jumped off the screen. It was later revealed, maybe even more delightfully, that The Imagination Agency is Bennett’s multimedia company that produces children’s books and apps. If you dig even deeper, you’ll find that Bennett’s bio on his company’s website lists a different alma mater: “Orange Dinosaur University where his focus was coloring outside of the lines and making stuff with his creative and funny bones.” FUNNY BONES! The NFL is full of scandals and bad dudes and greed and corruption, but it’s also got a bunch of awesome weirdos. I salute you, Martellus Bennett.
Sarah: Okay, the worst was truly heartbreaking for me; it was watching the commercial in which Larry Fitzgerald shills for horrible for-profit higher ed travesty, the University of Phoenix. I am not going to link to it here, so you can just trust that it involves every overly-earnest sentimentalized trope possible: close shots of Fitzgerald’s earnest face, pans over Fitzgerald-family photos, lovingly-shot footage of Fitzgerald’s beautiful children, appeals to the Fitzgerald family’s abiding and traditional inter-generational family love (its old-fashioned morality signaled by the emphasis on Fitzgerald leaving a message on his mother’s answering machine, as though she is too good and loving to get a smart phone). I have never been anything but a fan of Larry Fitzgerald — Cris Collinsworth says “He’s a joy to be around!” and I believe him — but this commercial was either horribly naive or maliciously cynical, or maybe both. I’m not an expert on for-profit colleges, but if you even do the quickest googling you’ll see why this ad is so particularly horrible in this context: not only do for-profit colleges stifle the purposes of universities in general, The University of Phoenix has made veterans its special customers. If the NFL is a corporation that partially makes money off of recruiting young Americans with few economic opportunities into the military, the University of Phoenix is a corporation that makes money by capitalizing on the debt those young Americans are willing to accrue after they leave military service, in pursuit of a better life. Football, I guess, is horrible?
Phil: I don’t need more Eli Manning in my life.
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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