x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Even the president bows to NFL royalty

The American football season starts tomorrow, with everyone from the White House to schools in Green Bay rearranging their schedule around it.

A young fan watches teams warm up before an NFL pre-season football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs last week.
A young fan watches teams warm up before an NFL pre-season football game between the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs last week.

Americans cringed when they heard President Obama had scheduled a televised address to Congress tomorrow.

Not out of concern for the subject matter and content. (Well, they are concerned, but that's another story.)

You see, any US president's speech tends to get delivered in mid-evening (East Coast time), meaning this one would pre-empt an event listed on personal calendars and circled in bright colours.

For most male adults, and more women than you might imagine, the anticipation for opening day in the National Football League (NFL) turns them back into children awaiting their birthday. Especially so this year, with a 132-day lockout that carried deep into July bracing them for the horrifying spectre of a cold, dark winter without Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the Manning brothers, the commissioner Roger Goodell and player suspensions.

Fans able to set aside their fears and logically assess the labour dispute sensed the obvious: that an industry with US$9 billion (Dh33bn) in annual revenues, one that made rich men richer, would settle by the time the season was due to start.

Still, the sad history of idled professional sports gave them pause. All four of the US's major sports have endured work stoppages.

The backdrop made this one different. Football is so essential to America's identity that the owners and players had to compromise. The ATM that pours out money to each side could not stay unplugged for too long.

Inevitably, a deal was signed. Football fanatics stepped back from the ledge. The party would start as scheduled - the Green Bay Packers, the Super Bowl champions, against the neo-contenders, the New Orleans Saints, tomorrow night.

Then real life threatened to intervene again. For part of the game, the airwaves might be commanded by the basketball-loving commander-in-chief.

The crisis passed quickly. The president and his people know sports. So, he will clear his throat and commence his speech 90 minutes before kick off, never mind that the western half of the US will be wrapping up the work day or on the commute home, unable to watch.


They have got theirs straight in Green Bay, making certain students will not miss a minute. Not of the game - or the speech - but tailgating. Local schools are closing early. In the morning. Eight hours before kick off.

All seriousness aside, for some Americans emerging from a hot summer, professional football is a five-hour energy drink that lasts five months. For others, it is a pill that might not cure society's ills, but provides three - or six, or nine - hours of amnesia.

Let us not ignore the tangible benefits. Unemployment, a projected topic in the president's talk, would rise without it. (Not just for the minimum-wage stadium custodians but the millionaire players, adding to the welfare rolls.)

Crime? According to the indelicate linebacker Ray Lewis, himself once charged with murder, it would rise, too. (He offered no data to support the claim and subjected himself to mockery without specifying if he were referring to players instead of fans.)

Several studies have concluded that the workplace is happier and more productive when employees can stand around the water cooler and banter about whether the coach of their team should be fired immediately or be granted one more game before getting axed.

Football is king - plus queen, prince and princess. The last televised exhibition game a week ago - played by guys who, if they are lucky, will stand on a sideline this weekend - drew more eyeballs than a typical game in baseball's National League Championship Series.

Though the sport's following has grown exponentially since the 1987 season, its place in the culture became apparent then.

With NFL players out on strike, owners decided the fans would rather be fed crumbs than starve. They brought in a mostly motley crew of replacement players - one quarterback was found on work leave from prison - and rigged a season.

Not everyone took kindly to the "scabs", as they were charmingly labelled. One group's bus was pelted with eggs on route to a game.The egg throwers? Striking players.

The league and its stand-ins were lampooned so severely that the warring factions came to their senses and struck an agreement, ending the experiment after three comical weeks of games. Their legacy lives on with a cinematic rarity: a decent sports film called The Replacements.

There will never be any re-replacements. The sport is held in too high esteem for that. It long ago replaced baseball as the national pastime. Everybody knows it, none more so than the jump-shooting president.

Tomorrow, he will present an address of grave national importance. Then, according to the White House, he will kick back and watch some football.