Big Game (Harper Collins, 2018)
Buy: Amazon US, Amazon UK
Listed: Longlist, 2019 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing
Over the last few years, the NFL has stumbled from one controversy to another. The damage from concussions and the NFL’s efforts to dismiss and downplay them have been extensively reported, numerous cases of domestic violence have been handled with varying degrees of incompetence, and at least one player remains unable to find work after peacefully protesting during the national anthem. Oh, and the New England Patriots may have deflated some footballs.
Few would argue that the league has handled any of these crises well and yet little seems to damage the popularity of the sport. Mark Leibovich, who writes for the New York Times Magazine and mostly deals in the world of politics, wanted to explore behind the scenes. His book is the result of a “four-year odyssey” that saw him interviewing the commissioner, Roger Goodell, hanging out at owners meetings, talking to Tom Brady and, briefly, being insulted by Bill Belichick.
Since Leibovich is a Patriots fan and his entry into the world of the NFL came as the ‘Deflategate’ scandal was unfolding, the Pats have a central role in the narrative. Even so, Pats-haters shouldn’t find this too hard to take. Leibovich acknowledges with good humour that plenty of fans hate his team and its followers and is more than willing to poke fun at Belichick, Brady and team owner Robert Kraft.
In fact, Leibovich pokes fun at almost everyone he comes across. Kraft is portrayed as pompous and self-serving, always concerned about how he is viewed by others. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is obsessed with his legacy and admits, during a prolonged drinking session with Leibovich, that he would rather have his place in the Hall of Fame than another Super Bowl ring.
Roger Goodell, meanwhile, is an overpaid punchbag, raking in profits from the owners while acting as a convenient target for angry fans. And Tom Brady is such an out-of-touch celebrity that he doesn’t know the address of his own house.
Most of the major issues facing the league are covered in the book. The physical toll the game takes is highlighted in an excellent section where Leibovich visits the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the anthem protests are the focus on a chapter in which Goodell and several owners meet a delegation of players, and so on.
Leibovich’s status as an outside observer makes it hard for him to analyse these issues in meaningful depth. He can’t unearth the volume of anecdotes that a writer like Jeff Pearlman does and he doesn’t have the contacts to get inside a dispute in the way that, say, Mike Freeman did with 2015’s Two Minute Warning. It feels like Leibovich’s background material comes from the same sources you and I would read and that his, admittedly colourful, brushes with bigwigs don’t produce many significant additions.
The first interview with Tom Brady, for example, which comes early in the book, is a good read because Leibovich is a perceptive interviewer with an eye for a telling detail. After that, however, he keeps returning to Brady, only to be rebuffed or get only a tidbit, and the saga soon becomes boring. It also adds to the book’s flabbiness: it could be 50 pages shorter without any significant loss of material.
Big Game is an entertaining read and a good summary of the NFL’s troubles over the last few years. Fans who already follow the league closely, however, will find little to surprise them.
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