Rich People Things

The impression you get is that Robert Kraft just lost track of time. Another long day is closing at the New England Patriots owner’s vast tumbled Redwood of a desk, the daylight lowering and — uh oh, Kraft has just remembered that it is almost time for Thursday Night Football. Thursday Night Football which is like Monday Night Football, only without the benefit of Jon Gruden’s manic clairvoyance or the non-benefit of Chris Berman’s baffle-shrieked halftime highlights, and which no one watches because it’s on the NFL Network. Anyway, so Kraft is up and out of the office and onto his waiting golf cart (I know), which he pilots himself through the Foxboro, Mass. sports complex that he developed, until he gets to what appears to be… well, this is where it gets confusing.

Kraft arrives — you don’t see him tossing the golf cart key to a valet, but we can only assume he got there by cart — at an establishment with outdoor seating and wine and a general posh yacht club languor, but also close enough to Gillette Stadium that it is visible, lights on, in the background. Wherever Kraft winds up is, also, where the NFL’s Thursday Night Football commercial ends — on Kraft’s plump, plummy grin. The commercial has also shown us, intercut with the 655th-richest man in the world‘s journey from his office to his date with some alfresco prime rib, a host of other ordinary joes and josephinas — bakers and uniformed civil servants and office drones eager to cut loose with some late-week AFC North action — making their own pilgrimages footballward. The overall sense is that the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots is something like first among football fan equals — a guy as psyched for NFL games as your average fan, but one who happens to own some very nice bespoke shirts and, um, a football team.

Well, really he owns the football team and the stadium in which they play and the sprawling $375 million outdoor mall around it — it’s called Patriot Place and, as a commenter pointed out a couple weeks ago, is probably home to the venue at which Kraft enjoys his meal. (And, coincidentally, easily reachable by golf cart) Were he not in the television commercial, there’d be no real reason to single Robert Kraft out for criticism — or praise: those are some nice rich-guy shirts. He’s the sort of billionaire you don’t really notice — the kind that would give $25,000 to John McCain’s PAC in June of 2008, then another $25,000 to Barack Obama’s in August. Kraft once, controversially and perhaps not intentionally, gave one of his three Super Bowl rings to buff, Modigliani-headed Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.

He’s that kind of billionaire, but he’s also the kind that grew up in suburban Boston and took a risk in buying the Patriots at a time when their value was low, and in so doing probably prevented the team from leaving the region. Stack him up against the NFL’s more outwardly ridiculous plutocrats — Daniel Snyder, idiot boy-king owner of the Washington Redskins and the man behind the roundly unloved ’50s-themed trans-fat dispensaries Johnny Rockets; taut-faced embodiment of grandiose oil-country venality Jerry Jones, who owns/is the Dallas Cowboys — and Kraft is just another swell. Still, there’s no reason, outside of his presence in widely aired TV commercials and several appearances during every Patriots broadcast — where he sits in a luxury box high above the field — why football fans should or would want to know what Robert Kraft looks like. He doesn’t play football, after all. He develops malls.

But being in those NFL commercials and on all those broadcasts ensures that Kraft is more recognizable to the average football fan than virtually any of the players on his payroll. Kraft isn’t alone in this — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pursues cameras with a Heidimontagian wantonness, and has surely appeared in more unwatchable Papa John’s commercials than any of his players. Jones also had a recurring role on the toxic long-form Axe Body Spray commercial that is “Entourage,” which is both heartrendingly perfect and, I’d argue, significant.

Aesthetically, “Entourage” is basically a homophobic live-action Skymall catalog with occasional nudity and bad jokes. Dramatically, it’s as slack and rote as a Family Circus cartoon (with occasional nudity and worse jokes). Look at it politically, though, and “Entourage” finally gets kind of interesting, and a bit more instructive for our purposes here. Not interesting in terms of actually containing an explicit or even implicit critique of anything — for all the show’s manic and unconvincing Hollywood insider-ness, there’s not an ounce of satire in it. But “Entourage”‘s frantic, joyless consumerism, which is palpable in everything from the brand-building personal relationships to the actual consumerism-consumerism itself — no other show, ever, has so concerned itself with the question of what kind of watch a particular asshole should buy his girlfriend — winds up being damning all the same. What’s supposed to be an exercise in glossy wish fulfillment — the wishes being for money and the sense of impunity that comes with it; for women; for just the right sorry-I-fucked-that-other-model wristwatch for your ladyfriend — winds up repellent, claustrophobic and terribly dull. The series’ inability to stop gawking at all the idiot affluence on display is so crippling that the show itself winds up never quite happening. Instead of offering a dramatic experience, “Entourage” plays like a long commercial for everything, a big dumb ad for every conceivable ill-conceived purchase. It’s a commercial for being rich, made by rich people.

Which makes casting Jerry Jones in a recurring role perfect. There’s also something apposite about Jones showing up in those (horrible, even considering that one of them involves Jones getting socked in the beans by a fourth grader) Papa John’s ads, too, since national Papa John’s ads are in the same vein — they’re commercials for the crowd-pleasing force of nature that is brushcut CEO “Papa” John Schnatter, basically, with cameo appearances from his airport-quality pizza. But the same principle holds for both — the flatlined punchline, the only possible purpose, of putting these billionaires at center stage is to give the (non-billionaire) audience the notional frisson of seeing an actual billionaire acting like a regular human.

There’s a breathtaking vanity to this certainty that we’d rather watch Jerry Jones do something than watch someone else do it, because Jerry Jones owns a football team — or that we’d take some sort of thrill in knowing that Robert Kraft watches football just as we do, but while wearing fancier shirts in a mall he owns. But there’s also something kind of sad about that certainty, because it’s so manifestly wrong. The rich might be different from you and I, but they’re not necessarily more interesting. To anyone outside their peer group, at least. Thus the for-us-by-us noxiousness of “Entourage,” or the poignant fraudulence of Everyman Billionaire Robert Kraft and his relatable-everyman golf cart and poor naugahyde-faced Jerry Jones’s evident and poignantly mislaid faith in his own charm. Thus, too, the ghoulish what-if-the-megarich-actually-had-to-work prank/program that is “Undercover Boss” (which premiered after the last Super Bowl on CBS). All of them testify, nauseatingly, to the mad, perspective-obliterating vanity of great wealth.

And so, too, does the fact that Kraft and his fellow owners are laying the groundwork for a lockout shortly after this NFL season ends. This is hardly the only place in which we can see the devastation wrought by the rot of our nation’s discursive tendency towards glib wealth-fluffing. But while the terrified, brutal brainlessness of Tea Party Randianism’s foundational makers-versus-takers mythos will surely do worse things to our nation than would the 2011 NFL season starting a few weeks late, the point is that all this self-defeating vainglory comes from the same dim, self-enamored place, and terminates in the same ulcerous isolation. Repeat often enough that the rational magic of the market delivers the only true justice we know on earth, and the risk is that people will start believing that shit — believing that great success can be reverse-engineered to reveal great worthiness, and that those who have less must inexorably deserve that fate. This is what brings the sour-faced dowagers onto the National Mall when some doughty millionaire demagogue demands it — the idea that what they have earned is so manifestly and deservedly theirs that there is no higher call than to hoard it, context or consequence be damned.

It is a churlish, childish way to look at one’s life, but also a very popular one. And it is also how we wound up with Jerry Richardson, the owner of the Carolina Panthers and the man with the dubious career credit of having essentially invented Hardee’s, rising to address his peers back in March 2009. The scene was the NFL ownership meeting, and the discussion concerned locking out players when the NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement expires in March of 2011, should the players’ union not accede to the owners’ redrawn economic map. The owners were demanding the addition of two regular season games (without an extra bye week) to the schedule, as well as claiming a slice of revenues that would effectively hand the league’s players — that is, the guys who play the actual games — an 18 percent pay cut. (The NFLPA released its counter-proposal this week)

Richardson had a unique perspective among those in the room: he is the only NFL owner to have played in the league, and caught a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the Baltimore Colts’ 1959 NFL Championship win, then quit the NFL two years later after Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom refused to give him a $250 raise. But that was a different Richardson — since his playing days, he’d made a lot of money in the bad burger biz, become a big wheel in Carolina Republican politics, and fired his own sons from their jobs in the Panthers front office. Things change, people change, so on.

“We signed a shitty deal last time,” Richardson told the assembled billionaires and multi-millionaires, referring to the last collective bargaining agreement, which dedicated almost 60 percent of the NFL’s annual revenues to player salaries. “And [this time] we’re going to stick together and take back our league and fucking do something about it.” The crowd reportedly erupted into cheers. The owners were ready to take back what wasn’t actually theirs, ready to reclaim their league from the limping, concussion-marred athletic geniuses who give it its value. The workaday billionaires and unsung heroes in the executive suites were, finally, ready to stand up and get what they were certain they deserved.

Two and a half months to find my level, and my level is… exactly that of a coin. I’m not going to dwell on this, because I’m not proud of that particular level and because I know that the coin has no actual intellect, but I will say that I’m happy that I have a brain that allows me not to pick Carolina this week. They’re starting someone named Brian St. Pierre, who was a doctor on a soap opera last week, at quarterback. DeAngelo Williams is out for the season. Expect Jerry Richardson to start lobbying hard for a lockout around halftime.

Week 10 (and overall): David Roth: 6-8 (69-69-8); Al Toonie The Lucky Canadian Two-Dollar Coin: 6-8 (69-69-8)

Sunday, November 21
• Oakland Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers (-7), 1pm — DR: Pittsburgh; ATTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• Houston Texans at New York Jets (-7), 1pm — DR: New Jersey J; ATTLCTDC: Houston
• Baltimore Ravens (-10) at Carolina Panthers, 1pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTLCTDC: Carolina
• Washington Redskins at Tennessee Titans (-7), 1pm — DR: Tennessee; ATTLCTDC: Washington
• Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (-6.5), 1pm — DR: Detroit; ATTLCTDC: Detroit
• Green Bay Packers (-3) at Minnesota Vikings, 1pm — DR: Green Bay; ATTLCTDC: Green Bay
• Buffalo Bills at Cincinnati Bengals (-5.5), 1pm — DR: Cincinnati; ATTLCTDC: Buffalo
• Cleveland Browns at Jacksonville Jaguars (-1), 1pm — DR: Cleveland; ATTLCTDC: Cleveland
• Arizona Cardinals at Kansas City Chiefs (-8), 1pm — DR: Kansas City; ATTLCTDC: Arizona
• Seattle Seahawks at New Orleans Saints (-12), 4:05pm — DR: New Orleans; ATTLCTDC: New Orleans
• Atlanta Falcons (-3) at St. Louis Rams, 4:05pm — DR: Atlanta; ATTLCTDC: Atlanta
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers at San Francisco 49ers (-3), 4:05pm — DR: San Francisco; ATTLCTDC: Tampa Bay
• Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-3), 4:15pm — DR: New England; ATTLCTDC: Indianapolis
• New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles (-3), 8:20 pm — DR: Philadelphia; ATTLCTDC: New Jersey G

Monday, November 22
• Denver Broncos at San Diego Chargers (-10), 8:30pm — DR: San Diego; ATTLCTDC: Denver

David Roth 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. And he tweets!