Big Game - The NFL in Dangerous Times by Mark Leibovich - An excellent book that might better have been titled “The Quirky Billionaires Who Own the NFL”.
My sons, Jonathan and Michael, seek out books for Christmas gifts to me. It is not easy for them to know what I might have read. Since my reading of non-fiction has declined they often gift non-fiction books.
Leibovich, in writing about sports, is abit like myself in that his primary job is not sports reporting. He is a reporter on politics for the New York Times. He is based in Washington, D.C. He spent 4 years in research and interviews delving into the NFL.
He provides vivid vignettes uncommon in sports reporting. The opening pages recount Gisele Bundchen, supermodel wife of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, visiting the Philadelphia Eagles locker room minutes after the Eagles 2018 Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. Leibovich refers to her as the Brazilian First Lady. It is a striking image of a goddess striding amidst the exhausted and triumphant warriors who defeated Tom and bestowing her congratulations upon them. Most can do no more than mumble in reply. What is unstated is how rare such a stroll is in professional football. In 41 years of covering Canadian professional football I have never seen an opposing player’s wife in a locker room after a game. In the winning locker rooms at 18 Grey Cups I have never seen a family member in the room until long after the game. Tom and Gisele are football royalty for Gisele to grace the winners in their locker room with her presence.
Leibovich is skilled at apt phrases. On the billionaire owners, who refer to themselves as “the Membership”:
…. the Membership gets to keep most of the NFL money and none of
the brain damage.
Another phrase by Leibovitch describes “Nuggets” avidly sought by a segment of NFL reporters:
They are the bite-size, lightweight, drive-by, Twitter-ready items about
who is being traded, released, signed, suspended, arrested, diagnosed with
In our current media world “Nuggets” are featured in the 24 hour cycles of sports broadcasts. Thoughtful analysis is rare for it requires conversations. I admired Leibovich for having discussionss rather then mining for Nuggets. It is hard for current reporters to have conversations. Sports shows are filled with Nuggets. Players, coaches, executives and owners have been conditioned to speak in Nuggets. When I seek to have a conversation with a player as a sports reporter they are surprised.
While he draws conclusions from his interactions with the NFL it his observations of the NFL elite, especially the owners, that most interested me. Players come and go. Owners endure. Owners rarely make more than an innocuous public remark in scrums. They are more forthcoming in conversations.
Letting the owners speak for themselves was fascinating. With great wealth and position assured they have no need to be politically correct. How the media relations director for the Houston Texans must have agonized when team owner, Bob McNair, discussing the Washington team name told Leibovich how he:
….was not offended by the name “Redskins” and explained that he had
grown up in North Carolina around many Cherokee Indians. “Everybody
respected their courage,” McNair said of the Cherokees. “They might not
have been respected for the way they held their whiskey, but ….” McNair laughed.
Jerry Jones, the publicly flamboyant owner of the Dallas Cowboys, is equally exuberant in private life. He craves attention. At the same time he lives life with a joy few can match. Even fewer can match the capacity of Jones for alcohol. Leibovich recounts a boozy afternoon interview with Jerry in the team bus, outside the Cowboys annual golf tournament,where Jerry appeared no worse for wear after drinking cups of Johnnie Walker Blue scotch whiskey. Leibovich spent several hours sleeping on the bus after trying to keep up with Jerry. The chapter was titled “This Man’s Liver Belongs in Canton”. (The Ohio city of Canton is home to the NFL Hall of Fame.
(My next post will complete the review.)