There is one alpha-dog-dick-swinging-bone-crushing-hypermasculine Empire in all of America, and you better believe its axes do not revolve around D.C. The one great Empire in America is not politics or pop culture or science or the media or even religion; no, the Empire conquered religion decades ago, taking a day from God. When Sunday wasn’t enough, it conquered Monday nights and began mounting an attack on Thursday, too.
Professional football is the American religion. The NFL is our one true Empire—its cultural and commercial cache unchallenged in American life, even as it appears to wane. For the first time in decades, the League seems at an inflection point; for the first time in recent memory, it feels like the Commissioner may get carried out on the Shield like a stretcher.
Few people could be better prepared to chronicle the oligarchs as they stare down their twilight than Mark Leibovich, who has made a career in that other crepuscular arena: politics. Leibovich exposes frailties, foibles and considerable strengths, from wildcatter and heavyweight drinker Jerry Jones to the dignified Rooneys, whose family business is the Pittsburgh Steelers. The parallels between the owners and politicians are humorous and horrifying: the paucity of humility, common sense, estrogen or melanin—both cabals of rich, predominantly white men. The main difference is that while in Washington they believe they run the world, NFL owners do indeed run theirs.
And what an impressive world it is! Billions of dollars, millions of eyes, the perfect metaphor for American exceptionalism and American violence: a cruel game known for its sadism, its savagery and its atavistic supplication before those ideals. On any given Sunday/Monday/Thursday, highly compensated men burn and die like stars, hundreds of supernovae exploding and winking out like the neural networks of these slowly condemned. Their brains are succumbing to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which coats them in protein and kills the neurons, reducing heroes to wrecks—a true existential crisis that threatens to end the game as the horrors of it become indisputable.
The NFL conquered America via suburban guerrilla warfare, house by house, availing itself to television and white flight. It was the perfect game for the powerful medium—rectangular and linear, turn-based like a JRPG, the American man’s final fantasy—and soon millions bore witness to violence. It was (and still is) uniquely immune from the powers of the Fourth Estate, neutering journalism like all great Empires do. The networks most primed to check its powers are beholden to the billions they paid to air the Empire’s games, controlled further still by “access,” which requires more ring kissing than muckraking.
But the Empire is fraying at the edges, accumulating “dings” like its player’s brains. The most conservative of our cultural touchstones is being attacked from the right by Trump and the Neo-Nazis and the faux-pressed, a previously unthinkable assault on the Empire’s oligarchical class. This is the bizarre revolution in which the proletariat attempt to defend the aristocracy; wherein the people’s closest proxies—the players—are jeered and maligned for their social stand.
Beyond Trump and his armies, one can see the signposts that may yet lead to oblivion even without his hastening: Ballghazi, the trivial and inescapable national obsession with possibly deflated footballs; Aaron Hernandez, convicted murderer and sufferer of football’s brain damage; Ray Rice, brutally knocking his wife to the ground and dragging her from the elevator; the disgusting race for Los Angeles, which San Diego and Oakland and St. Louis spurned, all within 14 months; the endless parade of suicides, domestic and sexual violence, legends and veterans and out-and-out Gods with brains drowned in Tau protein.
And yet, on one special Sunday in Chicago, I had the opportunity to watch the Buffalo Bills on CBS. It’s a rarity that feels like noblesse oblige; the Empire’s draconian dissemination rules make the Bills so hard to see outside of their snowbound kingdom that it often feels like a personal slight.
Still, I put down Big Game to watch.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, he is a contributing reporter to A Beautiful Perspective and has been seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Chicago, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.