It manifests as a gathering noise – aggro drums and big dumb tubas, overlaid by the sonic palimpsest of hundreds, thousands of beery dudes bassing up their voices and intoning "The frozen tundra of Lambeau field" in a yeasty, unconvincing imitation of the late NFL Films announcer John Facenda. And then there is the muddied, muddled yowling of an eight-dude pregame show set, and then at night there is the screaming – just straight-up screaming – that comes from Chris Berman's monstrous, booze-purpled lungs over ESPN's highlights. Grace notes, too: the terse, impatient crypto-Rumsfeldian disinformation campaign of a coach's press conference; the audible line-against-line grunt emanating from the field of play on every down; the impatient buzz from the crowd and the low tones of the announcers, because a player is down on the field; the glottal honk of CBS's Tony Siragusa in a golf shirt, talking about toughness from the sidelines. It's just noise out of more noise, to a certain extent, but these specific sounds mean something. They mean that it's NFL season again.
Culturally, of course, it increasingly seems that it is always NFL season. Jamming and stunting, taunting and jeering, bellowing and signifying, hitting, demanding and demanding and demanding things from figures on the other side of a TV screen: these are all-season things, and obviously don't need a Jaguars/Texans game in November to give them context. The dumb stuff all has a faint sense of the NFL around it, if you think to look. "The Real Housewives of New Jersey"? A pre-game show gone feral and angry, goosed with burnt umber tans, periodic instances of depressingly cartoonish pontoon fake breasts, and industrial-grade pill habits. Rageful, baffled protests against the Non-Ground Zero Non-Mosque? Basically just New York Jets fans getting ready for the season to start. Katy Perry's videos? Direct-to-television broadcasts from the brain of a guy masturbating in the bathroom at Cowboys Stadium. The only difference between Fox News and Fox's pre-game show is that "Fox and Friends" features nine fewer commentators, is half as loud, and does not (sadly) employ Jimmy Johnson. These are FACTS.
All right. They are obviously not facts. And while they are things I see, they're not everything I see when it comes to what is, increasingly and increasingly undeniably, America's most popular sport. Because I also really do enjoy watching NFL games, and I really do enjoy the exercise in creepy human-based commodity trading that is fantasy football. My own push-pull revulsion/attraction to the NFL is strong and undeniable, as jarring and odd as flipping the channel to find a full-volume Chris Berman highlight, that brief and disorienting pre-mute-button blast of shrieked puns coming from his tiny-eyed, upturned-prosciutto of a head.
There are only a few minutes of actual action in the course of an average three-hour football broadcast, which means that much of what you see when you watch a football game is filmcraft. I believe I've covered the talking head portion of it – covered it in beautiful, beautiful adjectives – and won't do any more of that here, except by mentioning that everyone should watch this brief video of Chris Berman screaming at interns.
And the commercials that so pad the running time are pretty horrid, generally – the dullest Americana-baited truck ads, the most violently muttish beer ads, a thousand instances of salesmanship done at the pitchfork-point of they're-all-going-to-laugh-at-you gay panic. But that's sort of always true of commercials, and it doesn't really take away from the game itself (although it kind of does). Few sports play better on TV than football, and I can't think of any sport whose live-and-in-person iteration is so much less enjoyable than its televisual counterpart. Because of how artless the stuff surrounding the average game is, and because of how artful the broadcasts are, it can be easy not to notice just how entertaining and well-paced a NFL game feels on television. Or it can be easy not to notice it until you realize that you've just watched a full half of a game between the fucking Redskins and the double-fucking Eagles, and the score is 10-6, and Dan Marino is pretending (at least it seems like it) to yuk it up with Shannon Sharpe on the CBS halftime show about something or other, and you can't tell what that maybe-funny thing is because everyone else on the set is just howling, tears almost in their eyes, about some other thing you also couldn't make out. And then it's time to get a sandwich and think about how you got there.
And how do we get there? To our couches, I mean, or to wing-reeking bars or wherever it is that you watch NFL games. For me, it's a product of forgetting just about everything that draws me to the other sports I care about. No pro sport has fewer good writers writing about it. No pro sport's athletes are treated worse – there are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL, and Cord Jefferson, among others, has written about the league's deplorable non-policy on the brain injury endemic in the sport; the union, run for decades by a Hall of Fame ex-lineman named Gene Upshaw, devoted untold amounts of time and money to ensuring that retired players received as little money as possible. And no sport anywhere features such unconscionably nasty ownership – imagine a cruel country club in which the billionaire members spend all their time complaining about the membership dues and insulting the staff. It's not just that I dislike a lot about the NFL. It's that I have a hard time, sometimes, understanding how a decent human being could like anything about the NFL. So why do I bother making myself forget all that every Sunday?
Not because I care about any one team all that much; I was raised as a Giants fan, and watch their games, and I am inexplicably drawn to the ultra-moribund Detroit Lions, probably because of that very moribunditude. I forget about all the above because I actually like watching football games – for all the steroidal, exploitative stuff, the game of football itself is intricate and it's exciting. The players are amazing athletes and do amazing things. I like the fact that plays don't work if every player on the field doesn't do his job properly – there's something socialistic and weirdly just about that, and it makes watching each play much more interesting than, say, watching a baseball game. And of course I like drinking beer and eating sandwiches on Sunday afternoons. And, despite or because of all the stuff I've spent this column going on about, I really do enjoy writing about football.
All that good aesthetic stuff, as well as the noxious exploitativeness, the self-enamored coaches and the players' desperate vainglory are interesting to me, and every year that I've written about the NFL I've found a few new narratives that I enjoy following week to week – a few years ago, it was then-Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Mike Martz's descent into Colonel Kurtz-ian madness and the balls-out weirdness of the all-offense Cleveland Browns. And before all that and most of all there was the nightmarishly bilious brilliance of the 2007 New England Patriots team that missed out on an undefeated season when they lost in the Super Bowl – to an underdog New York Giants team. So sometimes the sociocultural rubbernecking and the latent rooting interest stuff all comes together. Other times, many times, the game just seems like a big, noisy, super-dumb concussion machine and I hate it. But always, and usually against my better judgment, I am fascinated by it. We'll see if that's still true in Week 15, but for now – despite all the noise, despite Berman's cornball puns, despite myself – I am indeed ready for some football.
And now, to prove it, I will make some almost certainly erroneous against-the-spread predictions on the NFL's Week One games. In order to highlight my ineptitude at this, I will be making my picks against Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin, an actual Canadian toonie flipped by Garey G. Ris, my former colleague at the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix. The point spreads are courtesy of Sportsbook.com.
Thursday, Sep. 9
• Minnesota at New Orleans (-5), 8:30 pm – David Roth: Minnesota; Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: Minnesota
Sunday, Sep. 12
• Denver at Jacksonville (-2.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Denver; ATTLCTDC: Jacksonville
• Miami (-3) at Buffalo, 1:00 pm – DR: Miami; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• Detroit at Chicago (-6.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Detroit; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• Indianapolis (-2) at Houston, 1:00 pm – DR: Indianapolis; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• Atlanta (-2) at Pittsburgh, 1:00 pm – DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• Oakland at Tennessee (-6), 1:00 pm – DR: Oakland; ATTLCTDC: Oakland
• Cleveland at Tampa Bay (-3), 1:00 pm – DR: I predict nosebleeds and splitting headaches for those watching this game. Also I think the Bucs probably win, so Tampa Bay. ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Carolina at New York Giants (-7), 1:00 pm – DR: New Jersey G; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G
• Cincinnati at New England (-4.5), 1:00 pm – DR: Cincinnati; ATTLCTDC: New England
• San Francisco (-3) at Seattle, 4:15 pm – DR: San Francisco; ATTLCTDC: Seattle
• Green Bay (-3) at Philadelphia, 4:15 pm – DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
• Arizona (-4) at St. Louis, 4:15 pm – DR: Arizona; ATTLCTDC: St. Louis
• Dallas (-3.5) at Washington, 8:20 pm – DR: Dallas; ATTLCTDC: Dallas
Monday, Sep. 13
• Baltimore at New York Jets (-2.5), 7:00 pm – DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: Baltimore
• San Diego (-4.5) at Kansas City, 10:15 pm – DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: San Diego
David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is "Hot For Teacher."
Photo by storyvillegirl, from Flickr.