NFL obsession with ‘bigness’ tarnishes the legacy of the AFL

Is it too late to note that the professional football season that just ended with what could only be described as a thud marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the American Football League of sainted memory?

It was little noted. More precisely, it was ignored. There must be a reason. In the fiercely controlled National Football League, every grunt and groan has its carefully defined point and purpose.

So we are left to conclude that this unmistakably historical milestone was given the bum’s rush because the mere memory of the good old AFL still makes the football powers-that-be squirm during the daylight hours and wake up in a cold sweat late at night.

The NFL has always liked to pretend it won that fabulous six-year “war” precipitated in the fall of 1960 when eight pipe-dreaming upstarts, including our own Billy Sullivan, took on the Goliath of the Gridiron. Smartly, the AFL lodge brothers allowed the NFL’s pompous old fools to get away with that, there being no advantage in rubbing it in.

But the coup that the uppity eight pulled off by parlaying an initiation fee of about 50 grand into property holdings that on average now exceed a half billion bucks in value amounts to one of the snappier triumphs in the annals of American capitalism.

The brash rebels of the AFL won on the field and off the field, in terms of substance and in terms of style. They changed the game, altered irrevocably the national sporting scene, ran off the old order, and may now be properly regarded as having promulgated modern sport. The forming of the American Football League was the most important event in pro football history. Although the Sullivans had to bail out along the way, somewhere Billy is smiling more widely and warmly than ever.

Sometimes brilliantly and sometimes clumsily, it has all led, of course, to the lavish spectacle that we had lately in Super Bowl XLV, although finding the connection seems sometimes a strain. Is this what was intended, you wonder?

It’s already clear that Soupey XLV will be remembered as a solid, entertaining, fairly dramatic game played in a badly flawed setting loaded with farce performed by fools. We are talking, obviously, of the folderol, the stuff around the game, all the other pieces of the “Show.” Does any of that matter as long as the game itself is okay, you might ask? To the NFL, it does. For the NFL sees itself not as a mere league of sporting enthusiasts but as a brand, which is a fancy new term for a corporate colossus seeking to dominate a market place. The business of pro football only just begins on the gridiron.

The Super Bowl as it has evolved over 45 years has become much more than the game’s signature event, let alone the occasion for deciding which team is best. It has come to define and illustrate how the game sees itself and how it wants to be seen by the world. If XLV is the yardstick or any measure of what the NFL wishes it to be all about out, then this game is more troubled than suspected.

The lid is off. As Soupey swelled over the years into an increasingly smug and flabby production, the sporting media were tolerant, even compliant. Television is totally in the bag and the league has always been smart about taking care of the knights of the keyboard. But that’s changing. As never before, the event’s wretched excesses are being exposed and decried.

In a Washington Post analysis tartly headlined – “After a bloated Super Bowl in Dallas, it’s time to rein in the big game” -- Sally Jenkins, easily one of the dozen best columnists in the dodge, rakes the NFL over the coals big-time. She itemizes all the event’s runaway absurdities from the flyovers of the Navy’s four F-18s, which could neither be heard nor much seen from inside a domed stadium but cost taxpayers $450,000, right down to the $900 parking fees, $25 hamburgers, $19 margaritas, $12 glasses of wine, $10 beers and cab fares routinely set at four times whatever showed on the meter. All of this, of course, on top of the price of admission, which began at $800 a pop. For a mere $200, however, you could stand outside the stadium and watch the game on a big screen.

The Super Bowl has become a monument to the fine art of outrageous gouging to go along with its fundamental premise of mindless overstatement. In the custody of Jerry Jones, the infamously imperial owner of the Cowboys, the folly could only have been spiked the more. Somehow Jones managed to con the state of Texas, currently engaged in a round of vicious budget cuts, into donating $31 million to his little Soupey fling. It is a game at which Jones excels. The state also picked up about a quarter of the price of his hideously over-priced billion dollar plus Taj Mahal of a stadium.

Much infected with that legendary Texan obsession with sheer bigness for its own sake. Jones wanted his party to be the very biggest and lustiest in the history of sport and he wanted his stadium to smash the Soupey attendance record of 104,000 held by the old Rose Bowl in Pasadena. NFL poobahs, who have their own hang-ups about bigness, were only too pleased to play along with Jerry’s Napoleonic flights of fancy, hence the decision to erect thousands of temporary seats high in the end zone and station 850 more in scattered locations, plus make room for still hundreds more in standing-room locations. The idea was to waste not a square inch that might be occupied by a sucker willing to pay heavily for the dubious privilege.

But the weather didn’t co-operate and in the stormy lead-up to the game more problems reared and then the fire marshalls got antsy and ordered sections closed, all of which Jones’s minions in concert with the NFL’s flunkies failed to handle professionally, mainly because they were more worried about bad publicity than the care and convenience of the suckers. The result on game day was a major league fiasco.

The horror stories are piling up of people who paid a fortune for seats that stunk or were very different from what was promised, or worse still they never got to sit in. On top of that, there are the complaints of thousands who claim it took upwards to four hours to even enter the stadium, mainly because of inadequate security procedures, causing them to miss much of what they had so dearly paid to see. The stories are countless and at long last, the media are running with them. The NFL, with its once mighty prestige about to further erode in a very messy labor dispute, can no longer get away with sitting on such stuff.

The result being that now the biggest thing Jones is getting out of his big fling are the size and number of the lawsuits being filed against him and his Taj Mahal. For many, the best part of this entire dumb story is that it’s turning out to be such a huge embarrassment for Jerry Jones. But he’s hardly alone. When it comes to playing the games that sports-owners play, Mr. Jones has plenty of company.
For a closing thought, more wisdom from Ms. Jenkins:

“At its best the NFL is a deeply embedded piece of American culture, with an indissoluble bond with fans. But it has grown far removed from the grass-roots recreation it started as, the competitive emblem of mill towns and their enormous civic resilience. As fans, we share the blame for being willing to pay anything for it. We’ve allowed league owners to cash in on American pride and hunger for entertainment. We should at least insist they share in American economic problems.”

You could call this tale “So Big,” only Edna Ferber already grabbed that title so how about “Too Big,” or, better yet, “Bigger is not always Better!”