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IS THE NFL NOW BIGGER THAN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA? I AM SERIOUS
Burning Man bows, too, making us ask if the world doesn’t operate until Patrick Mahomes debuts for another monumental season when nothing else matters to Roger Goodell and 32 billionaire owners
As the Burning Man sheep flee Black Rock City with Chris Rock in the back of a truck, it peppered more thinking about life. Is it inherently possible the National Football League — fearing nothing, taking money from Taylor Swift for rentals — has become larger than the United States of America? The league doesn’t care if we’re surviving the hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere. The league plays halftime military odes like obligatory soap. No?
Why would Roger Goodell and 32 owners care about ESPN’s existence, thanks to a raging dispute with Charter Communications and my own system in southern California, and whether it depends on Robert Iger’s concern that Aaron Rodgers is making his debut with the New York Jets? Why would they need 15 million cable subscribers when they’re already launching fresh deals with the streamers? Why would any of it matter if nailing an available NFL enterprise — say hello to Josh Harris, who saves us from Dan Snyder in the nation’s capital — makes you one of the biggest humans on Planet Earth?
They just shrug because Patrick Mahomes, obviously the hottest athlete in any sport if we’re talking sheer volume, tries to win his third Super Bowl championship. At 27, at the beginnings of a lengthy prime, he debuted Thursday night against the Detroit Lions in a city that can hoist football with its baby back ribs. You may think two titles in four years is enough for now. You don’t know him.
“I think I always have that chip on my shoulder," Mahomes said. “It's more that I understand how lucky I am to be here. You don't have these windows where you can win Super Bowls too long usually, and luckily for us that window has been very big. But you go out there and you have that mentality every single year, you’re going to try to win that thing again.”
So America does what it never does anymore, watching the debut, throwing more ratings wonders at another fruitful season in a TV industry losing digits like nasty informercials. Not too long ago, it was Goodell and the owners who worried about broadcasters when the league underwent a concussion crisis, the Colin Kaepernick kneeling protests and bad people everywhere. Now the networks shake their shoes in the faces of the groveling Igers, unconcerned about 10 players suspended for sports gambling as Las Vegas prepares for an unfathomable Super Bowl within a hoot of 60 legalized sportsbooks. The NFL likes to say “the foremost principle is protecting the integrity of the game.” The rest of us call it hypocrisy, while Goodell is about to sign another contract for whatever he wants — or Jerry Jones gives him — after his recent $120 billion media rights deal.
Why would the billionaires care, when the public shows up to watch and gamble every Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Friday (day after Thanksgiving) and Saturday? Can we just try Wednesday and call the week complete? The San Francisco 49ers made Nick Bosa the highest-paid non-quarterback ever, with a five-year, $170 million extension. That prompted the newly retired J.J. Watt to say, not sure which network he’s currently at: “I have a little more digging to do, but I’m starting to feel comfortable saying that I would consider un-retiring if offered a similar contract.
Watch someone swoop in with an offer. No one has any contractual concerns, even the Cincinnati Bengals, who keep toying with Joe Burrow — does Mike Brown realize it’s 2023? — as if making sure he stops toying with abusive pass-rushers. The Chiefs will do a deal with Chris Jones and the Minnesota Vikings with Justin Jefferson. Goodell? He has so much idle time lately that he did a commercial for a ManningCast, which is a real word now, along with Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins, Pat McAfee, DJ Khaled, Mike Tyson and Livvy Dunne. Who is Livvy Dunne? That a 64-year-old commissioner would know speaks volumes for his popular culture whims, a bit deeper than those of his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue.
Whatever issue the world has, the NFL wants none of it. Bill Belichick is about to lose his gig and supposedly his longtime cohort, Linda Holliday, who likes to spill online and might do more about Grumpy. Brady is a single monster who has another full year before his next gig, assuming the Fox Sports deal ever happens. Everywhere the NFL looks — migrants, the rise of more Covid cases, awakening Joe Biden, prosecuting Donald Trump, China, Russia and Ukraine, India, Spanish women’s soccer — doesn’t pique any interest.
They care only about Mahomes and a 39-year-old who wants to bring him down. “I believe we have a legit chance to do it,” Rodgers said. Actually, they care about the money, which could launch its own NFL-independent nation. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wrote, “I offer this as high praise: Roger Goodell’s pro football concern is this nation’s most pervasive, potent entertainment product, smothering all other American hobbies, holidays, sports, TV shows, and movies.”
The league vs. Taylor Swift. That’s about all I have. Burning Man went home.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.