Betray of Game: On Today’s Penalty-Deserving NFL Commentary

Cosell. (Vernon Biever/Getty)

Howard Cosell—the man largely responsible for making modern sports commentating into what it is today and turning football spectating into a careful, tedious study (all while wearing some of the loudest ties)—damn near ruined the game. At a time when the only truly analytical approach to football was being conducted by mobsters calculating the betting spread, his beat-like commentary did something terrible. Harnessing his brash personality and deliberate way with words—and his unchecked arrogance—the law-degree-totin’ foulmouth changed the very nature of how we understood the action on the field. Much of this handiwork involved his ongoing, televised war of words with “Dandy Don” Meredith in primetime. Gone were the days when football was simply football. A new era was ushered in, and with it came the number-crunching sideline savants who bled the game dry of its blue-collar bravado and replaced it with a pedantic, stat-sick approach. Non-athletes were not only welcomed into the press box as vaunted experts, but came carrying a condescending tone toward the battle-hardened veterans who once lived and breathed the game to the utmost. 

Cosell wasn’t bad for the game in the ’70s—much the opposite, really. He brought a newfound appreciation for the reach of sports in America, illuminating the effect that athletes had on society: what happened on the field reverberated throughout. And, more importantly, he offered his keen insights with a check of reality, keeping in mind—for both himself and his audience—that the game was indeed a game. The raw, unfiltered excitement he brought with his now-legendary calls reflected the athletic spirit and vested interest of the country—yet when John Lennon was shot outside of his apartment, Cosell refused to keep the breaking news from Monday Night Football viewers, despite what it would likely do to the mood of the rest of the broadcast.

But the talking bobbleheads over at ESPN, the self-anointed Worldwide Leader in Sports, have made a mess of the tell-it-as-it-is reporter’s modus operandi, mistaking their overwrought analysis of the most insignificant stats for some invaluable contribution to a larger conversation that, quite frankly, is maniacal mumbo jumbo concentrate. Mel Kiper and Todd McShay’s countless mock drafts and Chris Mortensen’s hour-by-hour updates on everything under Commissioner Roger Goodell’s sun are tired, pointless sound bites. Enough already with the downplayed enthusiasm and removed deconstruction. I’d rather see coach Herm Edward all riled up, delivering his inarticulate spit baths, telling a rookie to get his head out of his ass. Or even former lineman Damien Woody’s huggable bear routine.

This Bristol-based circle-jerk of never-have-beens and their perfervid monologues are validated by six-figure (and the occasional seven-figure …) paychecks—and high television ratings, extensive Twitter followings and innumerous Facebook Likes to boot. I understand why ESPN and like-minded networks allocate so much time and money to this programming: It’s a cash cow. But what does Adam Schefter actually do? He is simply the well-placed mouthpiece for organizations that want to pad their reputations and subsequent sales with audience interest—feigned or real—in their team’s depth charts, injury reports and locker-room rummagings. They “leak” him the “news,” and he turns around and effectively sells it at a premium. He’s a glorified PR flunky. There is not a smidgen of added value—at least not that he brings. This would be considered “sponsored advertisement” if it were on any proper news site. The point here is that anybody could report out these releases. However, ESPN doesn’t let just anybody do it. They wrangle journalism students—Mr. Schefter is a proud Medhill grad—who honestly believe they’re providing a community service. And they allocate a large chunk of their daily broadcast time to it.

Yet everyday Joes plop down in front of the boob tube and pay heed to these priggish ramblings. As if what these people have to say matters. We take Mr. Schefter’s word, and the views of his NFL “insider” colleagues, as gospel. And revere the preacher as such as well. Hell, it seems more people watch the fantasy football breakdown than the entirety of their hometown team’s game—let alone post-game analysis done by former players who have more of a real feel for what might’ve happened.

Plainly spoken, in this Madden (the video game) society, we all know better that anyone who has experienced it firsthand. Where did heroism and unabashed adulation go? Who is today’s Johnny Unitas, or Raymond Berry? Larry Moore? Alan Ameche? Baltimore Colts and New York Giants? Football was once a game that carried with it a present-day lore of legendary leaders and their on-field performances. The week after a gunslingin’ outing by Broadway Joe, there was a triumphant energy derived from his winning the game in a magnificent manner—not the throwing percentage or total yards amassed. Now all we hear in the days that follow is how Phillip Rivers’s 450 yards in the air make him the top quarterback to trade for (even if the Chargers are losing) or that make-or-break fantasy draft choice Chris Johnson’s success is being hindered by the Titans’ penchant for slant patterns (even if they are winning).

The narrative of America’s game has become less about the game and more about the box scores and arbitrary assignments of calculable “worth.” But where do “intangibles”—that final effort, a two-minute offense led by the fearless field marshall who bounced back up following a blindside hit that left us thinking his day was over, only to see him stick it out in the pocket and make a few clutch audibles opening holes up for the tailback—go when doling out points for Sunday’s performances?

It’s all a convoluted numbers game now.

The season kicks off this evening, with the New York Giants squaring off against the Dallas Cowboys—two teams with hallowed traditions and true-to-their-colors supporters. And jerseys will be rife about town. As will the work banter and pregame happy hours. The G-Men will dictate much of today’s conversation. But tomorrow, it will be back to the drawing board for most. Fantasy football junkies—and casual enthusiasts in office leagues—will forget about the momentum that carried whichever team through a tenuous third quarter. All that will matter will be the stats. Will Eli Manning’s 330 yards (and whatever that equates to in fantasy points) stack up against whatever defense your team is facing in that week’s game? Is Dez Bryant’s one touchdown (six points, I know) going to do it?

This isn’t an indictment of fantasy football—I can appreciate the allure of it—or the extent to which sports journalists take their work seriously, or even ESPN (which isn’t the sole perpetrator). This is a cry for a simpler time, when stadiums, not unlimited access to the NFL Package on Time Warner, were the promised land.

“After all, is football a game or a religion?” Cosell once asked from beneath his egregious toupee.

Neither, Howard. It’s sheer science. Betray of Game: On Today’s Penalty-Deserving NFL Commentary