Our national institutions serve many purposes, from personal security to (sometimes misplaced) faith in a power larger than us to the basic sense of comfort we get from knowing there is a collective, and we are a part of it. But more than anything: They give us a place to organize, a spot around which we can gather. Institutions are a star in the distance we can stare at to orient ourselves. Without them, we can feel adrift.
The last American football game -- non-exhibition, actually-mattering version -- played was a lousy one, 201 days ago, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Philip Seymour Hoffman had died earlier in the day; Jay Leno would do his last show a few days later; the Seahawks destroyed the Broncos in every possible way. That last football game was the most watched event in American television history, with 111 million viewers witnessing a 51-year-old Anthony Kiedis with his shirt off. Football has been gone that long.
Football, as a sport, has never been under more fire than it is right now. The NFL is dealing with its woeful response to the Ray Rice incident, its shameful response to the retired players medical damages lawsuit, the increasing sense that the league is becoming a series of global marketing and television production meetings occasionally punctuated by punts.
College football is imploding, the recent TV-fueled spate of greed having shifted the landscape of the game into something that even its most devoted supporters can now barely recognize. And all this money is being raked in on the backs of players who aren't allowed to capitalize financially on their efforts, who are in fact ostracized if they even attempt to profit in any small way off their labor, name or likeness. All this while more and more studies show that the game itself is irreversibly violent, that CTE isn't caused by big hits or poor tackling technique, but the very nature of the sport, the basic meat-grinding of the whole endeavor. Working in public relations for a football must often resemble what it's like to work for Philip Morris.
At least, that is, until the games begin playing again. If there is one pattern that has emerged in the last few years of Football In Turmoil (While Not Really In Much Actual Turmoil), it's that the punditry takes turns kicking the NFL and college football all offseason, speculating on The End Of Football, and the NFL takes all the public relations hits with its typical tone deafness … and then the games start and everyone forgets all about it. Seriously, how often do you hear the average fan talk about CTE, or the NFL's repulsive insistence on punishing weed smokers more than wife beaters, or any of it, once the first ball is kicked off? Football has the ultimate trump card: The games themselves.
The only real in-season public relation catastrophe football has dealt with in the last five years? The replacement officials and the "Golden Tate game," which led to the sense that the game itself was being corrupted. That's the only thing, deep down, the public truly cared about. The NFL crawls along on CTE research, making amends to former players with brain injuries, changing its policy on domestic violence -- but it swiftly resolved the replacement refs issue, posthaste. The NFL knows what it's doing.
Football -- because of its intrinsic connection to American life, because of gambling, because it is essentially perfect television programming -- is bulletproof. And its success absorbs all other sports', pushing them around, changing them forever. Football is so big now that other sports must work around them. College basketball has lost conference ties and rivalries that went back a century because football needed more television money. Baseball seems to be trying to make itself into something more tightly packaged for television because football's ratings are so insane. We all work around football: The goal is to try to find some leftover air to breathe.
Thus, we organize around football. It is a massive an institution -- something that hundreds of millions Americans all engage in together, at once -- as this increasingly fractured and niche country has left. There is nothing that ties whole seasons together like football does.
From Labor Day until Groundhog Day, football provides us the start and stop points of our weeks, the peak of the weekend, the Monday recovery (with hair-of-the-dog Monday Night Chaser), the Thursday night buildup, the Saturday and Sunday release, and the whole process starting up again, renewing. It is how we look at our fall and our winter. This cycle infuses everything, structuring how we process the baseball playoffs, the World Series, the start of the NBA and NHL and college basketball. And it's of course it's not just sports. Football is the skeleton of Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and New Years, and any other day we congregate. It is every part of our lives.
And this coming weekend, these next three days in August … this is the last time it won't be with us for a long time. Starting on next Thursday night -- actually Wednesday night, if you're counting that Georgia State-Abilene Christian game at the Georgia Dome, which I'll of course be attending -- football will provide the programming format for American lives for the forseeable future. It won't be until February 2, 2015 -- 165 days from today -- that football isn't America's thumping soundtrack again.
Football is about to return. This weekend is either your last weekend to survive without, or your last weekend of respite. Football is almost here. Once it gets here, it can be difficult to remember anything else. Spend this last weekend wisely. Soon, as always, it'll all explode.