The NFL needed a good day, Sunday, and needed it badly. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump had made some famously intemperate remarks about those players who would not stand for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner before the opening kickoff of a game. Something about how a team owner should fire any “son-of-a-bitch” who would do that. One might want to pause, here, and ponder the sort of names players call each other and are called by coaches. Probably none break down in tears upon being called an SOB. But never mind.
Trump’s rant made it certain that many more players would rally to the cause… whatever that cause is. It began as a legitimate action (in my opinion) by one player who was distressed by the high profile killings of black men by police from various jurisdictions. Then it became something else. Protest about the right to protest. A broad spectrum action meant to draw attention to racism and “white supremacy.”
What was certain was that the media would cover the protests relentlessly. The games would go on but they would be overshadowed by protests and politics of the sort that the media can neither resist nor get enough of. The timing, for the NFL, couldn’t have been worse.
So far, the season had not gone well on the field and the television ratings were commensurately disappointing. The games had been, for the most part, badly played and boring. The excitement and the violent execution were missing and the game needed to get them back. In the absence of tough, close games, the old American fervor for football — especially professional football — seemed plainly to have cooled.
There were other problems, as well. Too many games and too many of them boring, sloppily played affairs. Too many penalties. Too many unappealing, boorish, and even criminal players. Too many ads during the broadcasts. Too many injuries, many of them serious, with long term effects on the players, and some of them causing degenerative brain damage.
But other than that…
So Sunday would have been a good time for some good football. Otherwise, it would be all about the protests. About which, one believes, the average fan probably feels… resentful. There is a deep vein of patriotism among NFL fans. The ceremonial performance of the Star Spangled Banner is a quasi-sacred rite for many of them. They appreciate the military color guards and the fly-overs of fighter planes in formation. They respect the flag. None of which should be surprising. There is an undeniable martial element to the game of football with its violent taking and defending of territory. The opposing linemen collide with each other “in the trenches.” Quarterbacks throw “long bombs,” while they try to avoid “blitzing” linebackers.
Many fans would be inclined to believe that well-paid NFL players are something like honored warriors and that they have far better reason to feel gratitude and pride in their country than to protest its shortcomings. And since the country doesn’t seem to be running short of political protests, why not just be good soldiers, give it a rest on Sunday, and play some football.
But Trump had stirred the nest and the hornets would surely swarm. The protests were predictable. But the games would still be played, once the last notes of the Star Spangled Banner had faded and the last player had gotten to his feet after “taking a knee.”
Would there be anything in the games for the fan who now had a bad taste in his mouth?
Well, if the game that two American teams had crossed the Atlantic to play in London was any indication, the answer was, plainly, “no.” The Baltimore Ravens couldn’t get out their own way. The Jacksonville Jaguars — nobody’s idea of a football juggernaut — moved up and down the field, running up the score and then rubbing salt the Ravens’ wounds with a fake punt when the game was already settled.
There were the usual fumbles and scuffles and the fan who had settled in to watch at 9:30 in the morning, Eastern time, wondered why he had bothered. The game was poorly played, with19 penalties, and not as close as the 44-7 score would indicate.
A fan could have been forgiven for thinking, “They flew two teams to London for this?” And that does bring up the question of why play NFL football in London in the first place? They have their own sport of football-light, aka soccer, and it is vastly popular. In London, NFL football is a novelty.
During its best years (which are behind us), no real fan of the NFL thought of football as a “novelty.” That fan might not have been able to tell you exactly what it was, but NFL football certainly was no damned novelty. Nor was it “entertainment.” Not entirely, anyway. That word was insufficient. The NFL was much more than that and what it was included things like the flag and the singing of the national anthem and those military jets roaring low overhead before the games.
That part of it has atrophied but it is not entirely dead.
So the NFL got lucky with the games that followed that stinker in London. The Patriots got a great, game-ending drive, engineered by Tom Brady and beat the Houston Texans who looked, all afternoon, like they were good enough and hungry enough to take down the champions.
Detroit missed a win at the end when a receiver came up short, by inches, of the Atlanta Falcons’ goal. The Chicago Bears beat the Pittsburgh Steelers when the game went to overtime. The Eagles beat the Giants on a last second field goal of more than 60 yards by a rookie kicker. Aaron Rogers brought the Green Bay Packers back from down 21-7 at the half and then tied Cincinnati Bengals in the last seconds of their game. Then he took Packers down into field goal range in the overtime with the kind of cool, heady play that is cooked into his DNA.
Good games, then, which is really the point of the NFL.
But maybe not the whole point.
There was a moment before the kickoff at the game between the Steelers and the Bears. All but one of the Steelers’ players decided to remain in their locker room during the playing of the national anthem before kickoff.
The player who came out and stood, hand over his heart, was offensive lineman Al Villanueva who played his college football at West Point then served three tours, as an Army Ranger, in Afghanistan.
Good as some of the games were, this was, far and away, the day’s best moment.
The next day, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he regretted not coming out of the locker room for the anthem.
One suspects he was not alone.
Geoffrey Norman’s column, “Fourth and Long for the NFL,” will run early each week this season.