Book Review: Mark Leibovich's Endlessly Entertaining "Big Game"
Living in Chicago for two years in the mid ‘90s, I was struck by just how ubiquitous were the players from 1985 Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears team. Many still lived and worked in Chicago, had bars and restaurants in the city with their names on them, plus they were regulars on the popular sports talk shows. Though it had been almost a decade since they crushed the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, in Chicago it felt like they had just won.
This memory came to mind while halfway through New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich’s (author of the very excellent This Town, among others) highly entertaining new book, Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times. Leibovich was discussing former NFL offensive lineman (and now NFLPA president) Eric Winston’s realization as a Kansas City Chiefs player that “the majority of the NFL fans cared about him only as a football player, and not as a human being.” It was dramatic lines like this one that shrunk what was a mostly unputdownable book. The endlessly interesting and funny Leibovich gets too "New York Times" at times in his analysis “of this beautiful shit-show of a league.”
The reality is that NFL players are worshipped, during and after their playing days. So are former college players in major college towns like Austin, Columbus, and Tuscaloosa. Even the ones who don’t star are routinely employed for life by alums of the schools they put on the uniform for, and it’s plainly no different with the NFL. The only difference is that the cities are much bigger such that the opportunities are greater. The ’85 Bears prove the previous assertion in spades. Considering Boston where Leibovich grew up, it’s a safe bet that ex-players from Leibovich’s favorite team (yes, it’s the New England Patriots) don’t pick up too many restaurant checks, nor is it a problem for them to find work in the area. Sorry, but the fans do care. A great deal. Leibovich reports that the NFL is aiming for $25 billion in annual revenues, and that’s just further evidence of how much the fans care. These players are heroes to them.
All of the above requires mention ahead of another passage from Leibovich that comes up close to the beginning of Big Game. Talking about the capital vs. labor (owners vs. players) relationship that defines the NFL in the eyes of some, Leibovich writes that the “Players get prodded, milked for all they’re worth, sold off, put out to pasture, and slaughtered.” Readers likely get Leibovich’s point, and it’s nonsense. Leibovich surely knows why it’s nonsense given his enduring love of the Patriots through good times and bad. The author well knows that when Robert Kraft paid a then-record $172 million for the Patriots in 1994, he was terrified to tell his wife, Myra (Myra Kraft died in 2011). Leibovich is also likely aware that when Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 for $149 million, his investment bankers told him he was making a very bad investment. Figure that Hall of Fame former Cowboy Roger Staubach had tried to put a buyers’ group for the Cowboys together before Jones, but failed thanks to a lack of interest among investors.
These two examples rate prominent mention as a reminder that the NFL wasn’t always a sure thing. Furthermore, it reinforces a basic truth: Jones and Kraft took enormous risks when they became owners. Neither was in the Forbes 400 then, but each is now. That they’ve long been intensely focused on profit and earning a return on their investments is rooted in how much they stood to lose not too long ago. If they and their GMs analyze and “prod” players carefully, and sometimes ruthlessly, it’s because they’ve had no choice. The NFL wasn’t always a great business, which in a sense explains why Jones and Kraft were able to become owners themselves. In Jones’s case, he inherited a losing team with a stadium that had lots of empty seats and luxury boxes. You get the picture.
Most important, in reducing the NFL to a somewhat exploitative concept that’s all about profits, Leibovich is seemingly ignoring just how much kinder the league has become in concert with soaring team values. And it’s not just about rising player salaries. Each year the NFL does more and more to protect the players. What was once a violent game is still incredibly violent, but quarterbacks are protected as best the NFL knows how, but then so are wide receivers who used to risk everything crossing the middle. The players are very valuable because the teams are. And because they’re valuable, their owners are doing everything they can (think nutritionists, weight trainers, psychologists, sleep coaches, etc.) to protect their investment by coddling the players who help up drive up the value of their investment. Notable here is that Kraft was the first owner to buy his team a private aircraft to get around in.
Leibovich goes all New York Times (it's still the world's greatest newspaper despite this) in describing the prodded, sold off and slaughtered, but the reality is different as the author well knows. Crucial here is that it’s different precisely because the NFL and its teams have become so prosperous. Jones and Kraft are once again Forbes 400 members, and they’re not at the bottom of the 400. If the Carolina Panthers fetched $2.5 billion after Jerry Richardson told the team, does anyone want to guess how much the Cowboys and Patriots are worth? It’s a safe bet each would command more than the valuations offered up at Forbes.
So with the critiques (usually they’re saved for the end of reviews) out of the way, it’s now time to write about how much fun Big Game is. It’s truly a blast. Every page is full of really interesting information. Brilliant as Kraft is, Leibovich reports that he has a habit of repeating stories over and over again. He’s also got a really hot girlfriend, and perhaps girlfriends. So does Giants co-owner Steve Tisch. These guys live – and sleep - well.
Leibovich also reports that Kraft seemed “wounded” when Leibovich confirmed to him that President Trump said he “choked” over so-called Deflate-gate whereby Tom Brady allegedly had the footballs deflated for an AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. One could argue that Trump has a point when we consider that per Leibovich, the “multi-million-dollar investigation by the league found the balls weren’t even ‘significantly deflated,” not to mention that “the pounds per square inch (PSI) of the footballs before the game was not recorded by the referees, thus making it impossible to know exactly how much air pressure would have been lost in the balls used by both teams.” Kraft should never have given in, but Patriots fans can hardly complain when we remember the five Super Bowl wins he’s presided over. Still, Trump had a point.
Speaking of politicians, this gem of a book reveals that almost-president John Kerry once referred to iconic Lambeau Field as “Lambert Field,” while wannabe future president Joe Biden once commented to black Washington Post reporter Perry Bacon, “You look like you played some football, man.” Bacon had “in fact never played football.” Oh my, one can only hope that it’s Biden vs. Trump in 2020. The gaffs from these two will be more than entertaining.
Speaking of Trump again, it no doubt hurt (and probably amused at the same time) Leibovich to report it, but Trump wasn’t lying when this most self-unaware of men told anyone who would listen that “I love the New England Patriots and they love me back.” Even better, he spoke of having received a “’beautiful letter’ of support for his campaign” from…the greatest coach of all time, Bill Belichick. Amazing about this is that Trump was telling the truth! Who knew? Among other things, Belichick wrote to Trump “Congratulations on a tremendous campaign,” despite dealing with “an unbelievable [sic] slanted and negative media.” Belichick went on to tell Trump that “Your leadership is amazing” and that a victory in 2016 would “give the opportunity to make America great again.” This column’s been very critical of Trump at times, but this is too much fun!
Moving on to the players, Leibovich reveals things about Colin Kaepernick that his biggest supporters would perhaps prefer remain hidden so that the former NFL qb can maintain his martyr status for as long as possible. Leibovich notes that Kaepernick is among others things “vegan” and “scrawny,” not to mention that he “had seen his play decline since” the Super Bowl in 2013. About the “scrawny” line, a source close to yours truly heard the same from the brother of an NFL scout (feel free to critique away), that Kaepernick isn’t quite in football shape after having lost a ton of weight. Since everything is political and racial today, it’s accepted by media members that Kaepernick was “blackballed,” but let’s be serious. If he were truly seen as 2012-13 good, he’d be a NFL starter. The problem is that he could no longer make so much money off of not being in the league. Who knows, but in Kaepernick’s case it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he hopes to never be signed since his earnings (think Nike) and street cred with the chattering classes are rooted in him being a victim of rich, white, supposedly Republican owners.
As for Tom Brady, Leibovich reports that his dedication to the sport of football is otherworldy. Brady has a diet that his beloved father views as disgusting, but eats in ways that most of us couldn’t because he well knows it’s going to be a “really hard thing for me” when “I don’t have the purpose of football.” Grand as his life is, you almost feel sorry for him. He’s fighting desperately to continue working, to continue doing what most elevates him. As he puts it to Leibovich about life after football, “I’m not a musician, not an artist, what am I going to do, go scuba diving?” You know we live in a great world when people love their work so much that they run toward austerity in order to not not work.
But ultimately Big Game is Leibovich's attempt to once again make sense of this “shit-show” known as the NFL. The author thankfully doesn’t buy into Malcolm Gladwell’s laughable comment that “In twenty-five years, no one in American will play football,” and instead rates the league a “slight favorite" when it comes to prospering over doom. As he puts it, “Pro football has prevailed too many times to bet against, in spite of itself.” Both Gladwell and Leibovich should look at the aforementioned Panthers’ sale for an actual market indicator. Market prices discount the future, and for now they’re indicating that football will be alive and well for a long time from now.
That the NFL will continue to grow is rooted in the happy truth that it’s increasingly a business. Intelligent and entertaining as Leibovich is, he forgets that markets are information machines. Not only is the NFL prospering, but so is the sport on the collegiate and high school level as any visit to Clemson, or for that matter Allen High School (TX) will reveal. This is important because as the money behind football grows, so will the investment in player safety. Gladwell sees no one playing the game because it's so dangerous, but precisely because the sport is so lucrative so will player safety advance by leaps and bounds. Any activity that’s defined by big money generally redounds to those engaging in the activity. Football will be fine, and a major reason it will be is that all the money surrounding it will ensure more and more protections of the players, along with medical care that will knock us over for how quickly it enables injured players to return.
What’s the biggest risk to the NFL? Though Leibovich spends a lot of time on Commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s not him. The big risk is the owners. Leibovich describes them as “old money and new, recovering drug addicts and born-again Christians and Orthodox Jews; sweethearts, criminals, and a fair number of Dirty Old Men.” He adds a quote from ‘49ers owner Jed York, that “You don’t dismiss owners.” There’s your problem, and Leibovich should have spent more time on it.
The problem is that owners pretty much can’t be fired. York is instructive in this regard when we remember that it was Jed or his father who once lectured Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh on “leadership.” The Yorks are bottom-of-the-barrel owners as the ‘49ers’ record since they took over from Eddie De Bartolo attests. And they’re not alone. There are a lot of bad owners in the NFL. This hurts the league.
NFL teams routinely fire coaches, assistants, GMs, strength coaches, and surely players, but owners are protected. Why? The NFL is a private club. As a private club, consistent losers should face the possibility of a forced sale. Indeed, how does it strengthen the league when a traditional power like the Washington Redskins is consistently average to bad? Is it any wonder they’re awful when we remember that Dan Snyder is the owner? This is surely no mystery to Kraft. Leibovich quotes him as saying that no NFL team “will win consistently without good ownership.” Kraft is so right, but bad owners have no reason to sell. Since revenues are shared, lousy owners are able to live off the genius of people like Kraft and Jones.
Funny is that the NFL wants to be a $25 billion business as previously mentioned. Let’s hope it gets that way. It certainly would reach that number more quickly if the owners were able to force out the persistently inept while recruiting energetic Jones and Kraft clones. Simply put, owners can be failures too. Since they can be, a private business should reserve the right to stage votes meant to push out the bad in order to shore up the value of the good. Just a thought. Injuries don’t threaten professional football, but witless owners do.
Big Game is a joy. Leibovich is a very fun reporter who clearly loves his subject. Readers will be more than entertained.