Of all the things that can be traced back to World Wrestling Entertainment steakface-in-chief Vince McMahon, the short-lived mega-bust that was the Xtreme Football League was probably the worst idea. Not the most offensive or exploitive or ugly, since McMahon’s many accomplishments in those areas speak — scream, really, scream their own ignorant red-faced bafflement in an endless spittle-rich promo — for themselves. But worst-conceived and worst-executed? Consider this: the idea behind the XFL, which existed for one season in 2001, was to give fans an all-access experience of a dumber, faker, more violent NFL that would be played without all the rules that make the NFL so embarrassingly soft.
You know the bullshit rules I’m talking about, imaginary demographic cohort. It’s the stuff you hate! Ridiculous baby-bitch rules like fair catches and in-the-grasp were eliminated and glaring NFL entertainment oversights such as neglecting to have players and coaches participate in soft-scripted plotlines or insufficiently be-sexing the cheerleaders were remedied. But what was most striking about the XFL’s promotional language — besides the steroidal and heroically misplaced confidence and the weird syntax and the fact that the commissioner was named Basil DeVito, all of which are pretty striking — was that the XFL’s primary selling point wasn’t the league’s valiant de-pussification crusade or extra-objectified cheer squads or the fearless choice to hire announcers dedicated to “truly telling it like it is.” What jumps out most was Team McMahon’s insistence that the XFL was to be a league that, finally, gave fans what they were supposed to want — closeness, to “feel like they are a part of the action.”
At some level, McMahon — who is monumentally dumb, but not at all stupid — obviously should’ve understood that football fans might not want to be all that close, thanks, to a mistake-filled 13–6 game between the San Francisco Demons and Memphis Maniax. But that the football was bad, I think, was not the XFL’s fundamental failure. Neither was it imagining that fans were clamoring for an endeavor that squeezed the cheerleaders into still-hotter hot pants, stuck Jerry Lawler and Brian Bosworth in the broadcast booth, and trusted Casey Weldon and Rashaan Salaam and people named Kirby Dar Dar and Yo Murphy to deal with weird and confusing new rules and play exciting, high-quality football. It’s simpler than that. At the height of his power — by which I mean both big TV ratings and plaudits in Fortune — McMahon for once miscalculated the lowest common denominator and misread his audience.
He tried to give them giddily crass WWF entertainment — pontoon-looking fakebreasts to leer at, babyface-and-heel storylines to cheer at, cartoonish violence delivered courtesy of a luridly exploited athletic workforce. (The non-union XFL players were paid small, non-guaranteed salaries and forced to pay for expenses like health insurance) It didn’t help that the XFL was ugly to watch — sad upskirt photography interspersed with Tommy Maddox overthrowing receivers or He Hate Me going off tackle, while The Boz issued on-mic squirts of Skoal-juice into an empty Busch Light can. But McMahon was shooting, as he usually does, for what amounts to intercourse-free pornography — rote bombast, bad acting, worse politics, unconvincing grunts and convincing discomfort and a general sense of druggy, fucked-up desperation — while apparently unaware that NFL’s fan-porn is something unspeakably softer, stranger and more sentimental. Imagine one of those heavily airbrushed, sexless Playboy nudes in which a fresh-faced woman with breasts like medicine balls is posed demurely on a ladder in a library, wearing ankle socks and heels and, say, a bow tie for some reason. It’s like that, only in the NFL version she’s chastely serving hot wings to a bunch of Cowboys, “Troops” and Regular Guys while Clint Black, Roger Staubach and Ronald Reagan look on approvingly from the bed of a Ford F-150.
Or, if you want it coherent and un-porned, I mean this: McMahon’s miscalculation was both to rely on poor Kirby Dar Dar and Yo Murphy to bring the virtuosity and, more importantly, to think that the XFL would win by bringing fans closer to some messed-around-with McMahon-ized version of “real.” It didn’t help that the football sucked, but NFL fans do not want to be that close to football.
So, some real football things: Week 6 in the NFL was a nightmare of egregious cheap-shot hits that resulted in concussions, which made it a lot like Week 5, or more or less any other week in the NFL. The league responded to this by very seriously considering a stepped-up disciplinary regime for egregious cheap-shot hits, and by issuing five-figure fines to some of the players who delivered the aforementioned egregious cheap-shot hits (and one, Dunta Robinson, who authored one of debatable cheapness). Smart media people almost-too-carefully parsed just how egregious those hits were. Less-interesting media people praised the NFL’s response before it was even clear what (if anything) that response would be or delivered extra-righteous it-is-what-it-is-isms. The best writers saw a shameful and familiar inertia in the league’s power elite and pointed out contradictions and inadequacies in the discussion of all this not-new brutality. NFL players, for their part, decried even the NFL’s Very Serious Noises about cracking down on these egregious cheap shots — Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder vowed to continue using his helmeted head as a weapon, haters be fucked. James Harrison, who was fined $75,000 — a little less than a third of what he makes every quarter of every game — for one of the two concussions he authored last week, publicly pondered leaving football altogether. Comments sections and bottom-feeding sites like Bleacher Report remained frothily toxic shit-bogs of ill will, poor usage and noxiously entitled aggrievement — the general sentiment ran to the argument that The Media should stop whining because no one cares. On Tuesday, the NFL removed the photos of Harrison’s fine-worthy tackle from the league site, where they had been available as framed prints, saying “We regret the mistake.”
There’s the temptation to say that it was, more or less, like any other week in the NFL. But while it was, in many ways — the brain carnage on the field, fans reveling in palsied atavism, players revealing previously unimagined universes of self-righteous delusion — what made the past week worse was what happened when the football discourse set itself to the task of Getting Serious About All This. To be fair, the issue of how best to keep NFL players from destroying each others’ brains is an exceptionally tricky problem — the physiological results of extreme violence will be a part of football as long as violence is a part of football, and both generalized extremity and violence fall somewhere between “part of football” and “essentially the whole of football.” Mitigating violence in football is like trying to mitigate avarice in finance — wise insofar as violence and avarice lead to bad things, but fundamentally doomed insofar as both are the engines of the endeavors they poison. In both cases, though, the discursive failure might be more glaring than the substantive one.
A series of stricter punishments for dangerous and already illegal tackles is not any more an attempt to turn the NFL into a violence-free flag football league any more than the government’s (similarly limp, similarly full-throated and half-hearted) attempt to, say, regulate the trade in CDOs is an attempt to replace the free market with a Hitler-inspired Islamo-Socialistical Kenyan-style barter system. But this sort of thing is tough to talk about, because anything that speaks to an essential rottenness at the core of something one kind of likes and hasn’t really thought all that much about, honestly, is going to make one feel bad, both about liking that thing and not noticing all that rot. And so the easy answers: thus the revelations of the economic collapse — that the market was not self-regulating, was not working, did not even make any fucking sense for the most part — lead to the reassuring self-righteousness of Randian fury or peevish CliffNotes Misesianism, which suggest that someone else — gross, grasping poors or stupid government — screwed up this objectively very good thing.
The long-running, still-intensifying conversation surrounding just how incredibly bad for one’s health football is — and how negligent essentially everyone involved with the game has been in allowing that to happen — delivers the same sick drop-in-the-gut sensation once it becomes clear just how bad things have been allowed to get. Alan Schwarz has had a blockbuster piece on this subject in the New York Times seemingly every couple weeks; earlier this week, he discovered that the same helmet that you’ll take from Channing Crowder’s cold dead hands has been not-tested to ensure that it meets essentially no safety standards. In both cases, the sense is something like the old “Saturday Night Live” skit in which an ordinary conversation in the backseat of a car suddenly gives way to the revelation that, holy shit, a cat is driving. At which point the car goes flying over a cliff.
Tea Party fucks concerned about being herded onto the road to serfdom don’t see or can’t imagine that a crass and ungovernable plutocracy — something crueler and arguably more arbitrary and every bit as un-free — is that road’s other terminus. NFL players concerned about more vigorous enforcement of rules turning the NFL into a lame-o flag football league are similarly unwilling or unable to see the other end of the continuum — the passive, negligent creation of a sport so dangerous, insular and brutal that only the most desperate will participate. NFL writers commonly use “gladiator” as a compliment, but it was not, historically, much of a career choice. It wasn’t a choice at all, actually — gladiatorial combat was waged between prisoners, between slaves.
This is what McMahon didn’t get about the needs of football fans — the NFL’s patriotic pomp and macho sentimentality and layers of advertising ritual and branded synergy are both so necessary and so narcotizingly effective precisely because of the harshness of the game at their center. The distance, the performance is what makes the brutality palatable. It’s what allows the illusion that two human players can ram their heads — encased in helmets made to the yeah-whatever standards of some faceless and unaccountable board of industry self-regulators — into each other over and over again at a high rate of speed, then reliably and uncomplainingly pop up like characters in a video game. Fans don’t want to get closer to the crown of James Harrison’s helmet any more than they want to watch Yo Murphy cut a promo, but neither do they want any of it to feel fake. They — we, really, because I know what I’m going to be doing on Sunday afternoon and talking about next week — demand the soft authenticity of real explosions viewed at a safe distance. It seems, at times, that Vince McMahon actually overestimated his audience.
After five weeks of predictive performances that ranged from sub-mediocre to notably sub-mediocre, I finally scaled the heights of meh-grade success in Week 6. I would like to dedicate that success to all the haters. The coin is regressing, in its modest Canadian way, to the mean. It’s still beating my ass. I don’t really want to talk about it. The coin flips are by Garey G. Ris, the lines are from Sportsbook.com.
Sunday, October 24
• Pittsburgh Steelers (-3) at Miami Dolphins, 1pm — DR: Pittsburgh; ATTTLCTDC: Pittsburgh
• Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons (-3.5), 1pm — DR: Atlanta; ATTTLCTDC: Cincinnati
• Philadelphia Eagles at Tennessee Titans (-3), 1pm — DR: Tennessee; ATTTLCTDC: Tennessee
• Washington Redskins at Chicago Bears (-3), 1pm — DR: Washington; ATTTLCTDC: Chicago
• Jacksonville at Kansas City (-9), 1pm — DR: Kansas City; ATTTLCTDC: Kansas City
• Cleveland Browns at New Orleans Saints (-13), 1pm — DR: Cleveland; ATTTLCTDC: New Orleans
• Buffalo Bills at Baltimore Ravens (-13), 1pm — DR: Baltimore; ATTTLCTDC: Baltimore
• St. Louis Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (-3), 1pm — DR: St. Louis; ATTTLCTDC: St. Louis
• San Francisco 49ers (-3) at Carolina Panthers, 1pm — DR: San Francisco; ATTTLCTDC: Carolina
• Arizona Cardinals at Seattle Seahawks (-5.5), 4:05pm — DR: Seattle; ATTTLCTDC: Seattle
• New England Patriots at San Diego Chargers (-3), 4:15pm — DR: New England; ATTTLCTDC: San Diego
• Oakland Raiders at Denver Broncos (-8.5), 4:15pm — DR: Oakland; ATTTLCTDC: Oakland
• Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers (-3), 8:20pm — DR: Minnesota; ATTTLCTDC: Green Bay
Monday, October 25
• New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys (-3), 8:30pm — DR: New Jersey G; ATTTLCTDC: Dallas
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.”