By David Roth
So many ridiculous and mostly inexplicable things happen during the average NFL broadcast that they can become indistinguishable, just one big loud wash of certitudes and platitudes and bad word choices and bad life choices and lite beer commercials. In reality, all these ridiculousnesses are different. Fox wrapping Tony Siragusa in an acre of fleece and khaki and turning him loose to wander around an end zone and malaprop his way through various obvious observations is clearly not the same thing as an official delivering a convoluted and legalistic explanation of a play in which multiple penalties were committed; both are not nearly as weird as Fox's decision to broadcast NFL players and coaches reading the Declaration of Independence before the Super Bowl. These are all very strange things, but they're not the same type of strange.
For the most part, we inhabit the strangeness of an NFL game -- the bizarre stylistic curlicues; those weird haranguing Denis Leary truck commercials; the constipated cant from the broadcast booth; outcomes hinging on subjectively and selectively applied and wildly arcane rules --in the unconscious way that a fish inhabits water.
We don't necessarily notice how strange it is that everyone on the pre-game and halftime shows is laughing wildly for no reason, or shouting what is effectively nonsense over each other, because it's always like that. But when these things do manage to penetrate our protective familiarity -- when a viewer's mind, for whatever reason, rouses itself long enough to wonder what the hell Jon Gruden is talking about, and why the hell he's talking about it in that way, with that syntax and those particular syllables accented -- it can be a little unsettling. From the comfort of the game-watching moment, we awaken to a sudden and strange new reality, which is not actually new at all. That reality being that the NFL (which we know how to watch and in many cases have been caring about and thinking about and watching comfortably for a long time) is actually and actively insane. It's spectacularly violent and spectacularly sentimental, supremely conservative in a dozen or so mostly non-political ways and also relentlessly avant-garde and strange.
This is all sort of a long way of saying that it's easy not to notice how weird it is that the Detroit Lions always play football on Thanksgiving Day.
Like many strange things having to do with the NFL, this is something that happens because it has always happened. There's no special reason why the Lions should always play a nationally televised home game on Thanksgiving, except that the Lions played on Thanksgiving in 1934, and have done so ever since. The Lions and Cowboys have been playing football on Thanksgiving for longer than 24 NFL teams have been playing football, full stop. The Cowboys at least have their increasingly poignant/satirical "America's Team" thing going for them. That the Detroit Lions always play on Thanksgiving is… well, you just read the words, so you already know it's weird.
It was weird when the winless 2008 Lions were beaten 47-10 on Thanksgiving. It was weird when Joey Harrington was invited to Thanksgiving for four straight years, during which time he passed for five Thanksgiving interceptions and zero Thanksgiving touchdowns. Stoney Case threw 23 passes for the Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 2000; Mike McMahon threw 20 the year after that. Those results aren't weird, necessarily -- that sort of thing happened to the 2008 Lions a lot, and Joey Harrington was, after all, Joey Harrington. That no one really wondered how or why the Lions kept getting to play on Thanksgiving was, in retrospect, weird. Or it would've been, if we weren't already watching NFL games in that fish-in-water way.
There was, to be fair, some grumping about all this -- Gregg Easterbrook, in his pre-disgrace days at ESPN, did his signature huffy professor thing about the unfair advantage afforded to the Thanksgiving home teams, and it's doubtful that anyone, anywhere was especially psyched to watch the 2001 or 2002 or 2008 or 2009 Lions play football, on Thanksgiving or on any other day. Those four teams won just seven games between them, and none of those wins came on national television on Thanksgiving Day. For all that, though, the tradition endured, mostly unquestioned and fully permanent. It endures today, with a Lions team that is not all that bad and not all that good, either -- these Lions are flubby but fun to watch, and mostly just sort of heel-ish and YOLO and overstated. The tradition will endure.
The tradition will endure in large part because the NFL believes that all traditions should endure, and are to be treasured and esteemed; the league is as grandiose and weepily sentimental about its heritage and history as it is unsentimental and coldly vicious in its approach to labor relations. That a league so scrupulously and relentlessly on-message and brand-aware would continue to send Detroit's goof-squad out there as part of its holiday showcase is odd, then, but not inexplicable -- it's just an instance of the NFL picking tradition over reason and everything else. This is something the NFL does a lot. The oddest thing about the Lions' permanent invitation to Thanksgiving, though, is probably this: It works.
It helps if you like the Lions, of course, which I might as well admit that I do; I even found watching Joey Harrington to be a compelling experience, in the way that watching "The Shining" is a compelling experience. But if the persistence-unto-permanence of the Lions on Thanksgiving is mostly silly and mostly a result of the league's signature sentimento-conservativism -- and it mostly is and totally is, respectively -- there's also something endearing and accidentally sincere about it. There are a great many old and not-so-good things that the NFL insists are actually Treasured Traditions of America's Game, but extending the Thanksgiving Day invitation to the Lions year after year, regardless of how good or bad or objectively unacceptable the team is, feels like the right and most Thanksgiving-appropriate thing to do.
Think of the Lions, if you like, as a sort of drunk uncle who shows up every Thanksgiving. Some years he's fun to be around. Some years he shows up really early or really late, with a box of stale donut holes, a sad wilted centerpiece and some wine he bought at the 7-11. That the NFL keeps asking this particular uncle to make a toast every year -- and insisting that every toast, no matter how scotch-y or off-topic or uncomfortably political, is just so stirring -- is a little strange, perhaps. But if, one year, that uncle didn't show up, everyone at the table would notice. The party would go on, of course, but it would be smaller and sadder for the absence. We'd miss him.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.