With all its is­sues, has the NFL peaked?

Book re­view by Joe No­cera

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BIG GAME The NFL in Dan­ger­ous Times By Mark Lei­bovich. Pen­guin Press. 373 pp. $28

Ien­tered col­lege with a very high opin­ion of my prose — so high that I felt sure I could write term pa­pers with min­i­mal re­search by sim­ply “sling­ing it.” Then I got a pro­fes­sor who had no pa­tience for my per­sonal asides and my clever avoid­ance of the as­signed topic. In the mar­gins, he would write “who cares?” and grade me ac­cord­ingly.

Mark Lei­bovich could have used a pro­fes­sor like mine. As ev­i­denced first in “This Town,” his 2013 ex­am­i­na­tion of Wash­ing­ton’s po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, and now in “Big Game: The NFL in Dan­ger­ous Times,” Lei­bovich is the king of sling. The New York Times Mag­a­zine’s chief na­tional correspondent has a book-re­port­ing strat­egy that con­sists of at­tend­ing events (Tim Russert’s fu­neral; an NFL own­ers meet­ing), hang­ing around the pe­riph­ery and writ­ing what he sees, with plenty of snark and per­sonal asides for good mea­sure. He’s a good enough writer to keep you from want­ing to throw the book against the near­est wall. But if you look closely, you’ll re­al­ize he has noth­ing to say.

Ac­tu­ally, you don’t even have to look that closely. With the Na­tional Foot­ball League’s

cur­rent prob­lems — no­tably, the “tak­ing a knee” con­tro­versy and the knowl­edge that play­ing foot­ball can in­flict brain dam­age — “Big Game” is os­ten­si­bly an at­tempt to an­swer the ques­tion of whether pro foot­ball has peaked. As Lei­bovich writes in the book’s pref­ace: “Are we wit­ness­ing the NFL’s last gasp as the great spec­ta­cle of Amer­i­can life? I’d prob­a­bly put the game’s long-term sur­vival as a slight fa­vorite over the doom sce­nar­ios.”

Then he adds, “Be­yond that, I’m punt­ing.” He spent four years go­ing to foot­ball games, in­ter­view­ing own­ers and var­i­ous NFL poohbahs, at­tend­ing draft days and own­ers meet­ings, and writ­ing a more than 350-page book, and he’s punt­ing? He is, and he does.

The book’s ge­n­e­sis, Lei­bovich tells us, came on July 2, 2014, when — are you sit­ting down for this? — the au­thor got an email from the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ star quar­ter­back, Tom Brady. As he tells us many, many times in “Big Game,” Lei­bovich is a Pats fan (“fan­boy” might be a more ap­pro­pri­ate term), and he’d been want­ing to pro­file the great Brady for years; in the email, Brady in­formed him that he was will­ing to talk to the au­thor. The email led to a few con­ver­sa­tions, and though Brady rarely said any­thing in­ter­est­ing — you’d be hard­pressed to find a less forth­com­ing ath­lete — Lei­bovich be­came friendly enough with Brady’s fa­ther and his trainer that he was able to squeeze out a Times Mag­a­zine pro­file in early 2015.

Although Brady gets the star treat­ment in “Big Game,” it’s not re­ally a book about the play­ers. The real fo­cus is on the NFL’s 32 own­ers — Lei­bovich claims to have in­ter­viewed half of them, in­clud­ing a drunken go-round with Dal­las Cow­boys owner Jerry Jones — as well as Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell, whom he mocks mer­ci­lessly. Still, his prob­lem is that they aren’t much more forth­com­ing than Brady; they don’t re­ally tell him any­thing they wouldn’t tell any other jour­nal­ist on the busi­ness-of-foot­ball beat.

Thus, at the first own­ers meet­ing Lei­bovich writes about, in Boca Ra­ton, Fla., he does the same thing as ev­ery­one else cov­er­ing the meet­ing: He waits around with the pack of re­porters for the own­ers — or any­one else of in­ter­est — to stop and talk to them. As­ton­ish­ingly, this meet­ing con­sumes three full chap­ters.

In the first chap­ter we learn that the own­ers are un­happy with their ac­com­mo­da­tions in Boca — which Lei­bovich uses as a strained metaphor for “some­thing be­ing off-kil­ter with Amer­ica’s beloved blood sport.” He re­ports that New York Gi­ants Chair­man Steve Tisch has a gor­geous girl­friend who speaks five lan­guages. And he re­peats Good­ell’s in­fa­mous remark, when asked about young foot­ball play­ers who had re­cently died: “There is risk in sit­ting on the couch.”

Much of the sec­ond chap­ter is spent de­scrib­ing a hand­ful of own­ers as they pa­rade through the me­dia gaunt­let. Jones is “brash and ras­cally.” Mark Davis, the owner of the Oak­land Raiders — who is de­ter­mined to move the fran­chise to greener pas­tures — is treated by the other own­ers “like their pet rock.” Lei­bovich gives Woody John­son, the Jets owner (and cur­rent am­bas­sador to Bri­tain), the nick­name “Wood Man.”

The third chap­ter is padded with an eight­page de­scrip­tion of the other re­porters work­ing the meet­ing, search­ing for nuggets they can de­liver to their read­ers or view­ers. “The Nugget In­dus­trial Com­plex,” he snarks, even though he is look­ing for his own nuggets.

And so it goes. Lei­bovich tack­les the con­cus­sion is­sue by go­ing to Hall of Fame cer­e­monies and talk­ing to re­tired play­ers about their phys­i­cal and men­tal prob­lems. Noth­ing wrong with that, ex­cept that the se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion is over­whelmed by pages of point­less nar­ra­tion. At the 2017 Su­per Bowl, Lei­bovich de­scribes the par­ties he went to. He ac­tu­ally of­fers a sen­tence that reads, “And this ex­plains ev­ery­thing about ev­ery­thing — or per­haps noth­ing at all.”

To be blunt, I learned noth­ing about the state of pro foot­ball from read­ing “Big Game” that I didn’t al­ready know. But oh, what I learned from Lei­bovich’s sling­ing it! I know that Good­ell doesn’t like pizza. I know that Brady speaks Por­tuguese to his kids. I know that Lei­bovich hates the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins al­most as much as he loves the Pa­tri­ots. I know that Jones was once a shoe sales­man.

As my old pro­fes­sor might have put it: Who cares?


Last season’s Su­per Bowl, fea­tur­ing the Philadel­phia Ea­gles and the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots. With all of pro foot­ball’s prob­lems, au­thor Mark Lei­bovich won­ders: “Are we wit­ness­ing the NFL’s last gasp as the great spec­ta­cle of Amer­i­can life?”

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