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For the uninitiated: this is my third annual Super Bowl Mailbag. That feels like an accomplishment.

The following takes are based on questions my friends submitted to me. This is actually the first year I had too many questions (and too much work to do!) to answer all of them, so big time apologies to people who sent in questions I didn’t answer. I genuinely enjoyed them all and wish I could’ve written more and answered them all.

Onward…

“In terms of deflategate, was this football’s “say it ain’t so, Joe” moment? Was that the day the music died? Or has football ever really had enough innocence for it to be lost in a scandal?” -Amanda, Nashville

Deflategate? Absolutely not, no. Nobody with half a fucking brain gave a shit about Deflategate, which was the appropriate response. Many of us with 49% of a brain or less, however, thought it was the funnest shit ever and really enjoyed talking heads on both “sides” of the issue getting really, really upset over a bunch of shit that involved Balls. 

This tweet is still the only relevant thing you’ll ever need to know about Deflategate:

One of the things I find most amazing about the NFL is its incredible ability to, historically speaking, cover up everything. I mean, beyond the recent Peyton Manning HGH story (that was subsequently spat on by all American media outlets), can you name one NFL player who took steroids? I identify as an average NFL fan in terms of knowledge-base and I can think of exactly one, (1980s flameout linebacker) Brian Bosworth, and I’m not even sure he ever officially tested positive. But I mean, fuck, everyone was obviously taking steroids, right? And like, they probably still do, no? The point is, they have been able to (again, historically speaking) internally handle things like steroid use way better than baseball has.

But an equipment manager deflating some footballs – CAN’T COVER THAT ONE UP. And sure, critics will also point to off-the-field issues that make the news all the time, but really, the NFL ultimately benefits from that shit. It makes players out to be unreliable entities who deserve lopsided, criminal, owner-friendly contracts because they sometimes get DUIs, and shoot themselves in the foot (leg*) in clubs, and drink beers in YouTube videos (the horror!).

Football has never, nor will ever have a Say It Ain’t So moment. The real event in question was too inextricably linked to America, and a time, and place. (Also, to clarify: baseball’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” moment that is being referred to is an apocryphal tale that supposedly happened after the trial that vaulted the 1919 AL Pennant-winning White Sox team, of which Joe Jackson was a star player, into the public eye for having intentionally lost the World Series. A newspaper man erroneously reported that a kid asked “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the smooth-swinging, illiterate outfielder to “say it ain’t so” in regard to what the press was saying, which was that they threw the games intentionally, which they definitely did [though Shoeless Joe and his .375 average and runner thrown out at the plate offer sincere evidence that he, and maybe others, were wrongfully accused]. It wasn’t “so” in the case of the exchange – again, it was almost completely fabricated – but regardless, the beautiful imagery of Innocence Lost lives on.)

One of the reasons football history has no moment akin to Shoeless Joe Jackson and seven other dudes being kicked out of baseball is because baseball, and the MLB, went through a lot of the growing pains other leagues never had to go through. Baseball was the sacrificial lamb – as soon as the game started attracting big sums for team owners, corruption followed like gang busters – the 1918 World Series is widely believed to have been “thrown” as well. And contextually speaking, baseball represented so much to American culture from the turn of the twentieth century and well into the television era, so much that no sport ever would represent again. People lived and died with newspaper articles and (later) radio broadcasts. God, ever read masturbatory memoirs written by New Yorkers who grew up playing stickball in the streets between 1947-1956, the echoes of Red Barber their background music? That shit is fucking insufferable, and yet it stimulates the dick tip/clitoris with the raw essence of baseball. Anyway, I’m getting tangential here but the point I want you to take from this paragraph is that in 1919, America had a huge fucking identity crisis: coming out of World War I, it was all about fairness, cleanliness, and being respectable. You want evidence for this shit? Don’t ask this history major, just trust that I wrote an 80-page undergraduate thesis loosely based on that idea. And know this: the temperance movement obviously won out that same year (in the form of prohibition). Women earned the right to vote, and earning some previously denied agency had them out and about town doing things like heading to the ballpark. Meanwhile, gangs were popping halfies thinking about the profits to be made bootlegging. Rich old white men, AKA baseball’s ownership group (how far we’ve come! I bet there are at least two ownership groups headed by people of color in 2016), were scared to fucking death that the most sacred thing in sports was going to get fucked with: honest-to-god competition where everyone is trying really, really hard! This is the most pivotal factor in keeping fans interested, and the most sacred thing to a sports league that has cartoonish dollar signs lighting up their eyeballs like a goddamn slot machine: the integrity of competition. 

But baseball figured it out. After a (most-certainly bribed) jury found those eight dudes innocent, new commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis kicked them out of the game for life. He made betting on baseball and throwing games the worst fucking thing a person can do. When the NFL’s balls dropped and it started growing acne all over its back face, it knew these things. It knew that if the “level-playing-field” theory was ever challenged it would destroy any and every fan’s belief in the game. Put another way, football (and basketball, sure) were baseball’s younger sibling: they got to watch baseball get wasted and crash a Wrangler into a telephone pole before sort of getting it together and entering the military, while football and basketball knew that if you’re going to get wasted and drive a Wrangler, drive on a road with fewer telephone poles. The point is, football will persecute the shit out of an equipment manager in COURT because hey, at least that is going to distract people from thinking about real, actual problems created by football. Namely, former players dying at young ages with brains akin to a Yukon Gold potato and dudes injecting themselves with unseemly substances to make sure they can hit dudes really fuckin’ hard. 

And Amanda, lastly – and really, this is the best point to be had here – you’re right. “Football” and “innocence” are as good as antonyms to one another. They do not belong together. Part of the reason this CTE shit fazes us for two seconds right before we order a bloody mary at 11 a.m. to get ready to watch some fucking football is because we never thought of football as a space where rarified people discuss science: this is football, and we are prepared to watch other people die if that’s what it takes.

“Who would win in a fight to the death, a Bronco or a Panther?” -Max, Burlington, VT

I mean, a Bronco would need one solid knockout kick, right? Which I think is a good metaphor for what the Broncos need to win this football game: a major Panther injury or some other shit that greatly changes the game at just the right moment. I don’t see it happening. They are going to get clawed to death.

“Say i’m not a football fan, haven’t been paying attention all year and know little about each team, but I’m going to a Super Bowl party and want to at least be passable in SB conversation. Can you give me one line to say about each team (which of course I’ll repeat throughout the night) as well as one take down I can use to trash fans of either side?” -Nick, Frederick, MD

Love this question. First of all, I would encourage you to go into the Super Bowl geared up with a couple of things in your bag of tricks – one really obvious take on each respective team that everyone in the room will agree is sharp, but it will also provoke conversation that you can participate in, and then one more subtle thing that may or may not come up! It’s like preparing for a job interview – you should know who designed the website, even though they will never ask you who designed the website… UNTIL THEY DO.

I’ll give some examples of talking points that would take you twenty minutes or less to prepare.

On the Panthers side: “Cam Newton just has so much fun out there.” This is perfect because you can immediately identify who at the party takes football (and life) too seriously – those who bristle and offer resistance to this fundamental fact – and which people might actually be worth talking to more – those who smile and nod. When the grouchy guy who demands silence during Peyton’s snap count pipes up with some kind of tangent about how Cam Newton is ruining football, keep it simple: “I don’t know, man, aren’t sports supposed to be fun?” This is a side many people in the room will appreciate. You can also repeat this throughout the game. You may sound soft, but at least you just like fun.

[Side note: I kind of have these moments where I’m like, “I feel like these people who hate Cam Newton are straw men created by those people who want you to know just how progressive they are” that are rudely interrupted by real life. Case and point: a short, white-haired white dude walked into my office today to buy a newspaper and he had a Manning shirt on. I said, “how do you like your chances?” or some other vague attempt to strike up conversation and soon enough he was telling me he, like his hero Bill Romanowski (RED FLAG, FOLKS), would like to choke Cam Newton. I would pay so much money to watch either of those guys try and do that.]

On the other side of the ball, go with the easiest thing you could possibly say, “Sooo… this is Peyton’s last game right? Is he going to die on the football field?” Sure, that serious guy who has a running commentary on the blitzing packages will smell a rat from a mile away, but nobody can argue with the sentiment of those questions. This is definitely, 100% Peyton Manning’s last game as a quarterback. So that makes this take too obvious, right? I really don’t think so. I think a couple of people will chuckle, and a couple of people will chime in with “yes, absolutely.” Sometimes that’s okay. Establish the camaraderie. Eat chips. Hide in the background.

UNTIL: you get a chance to use a couple of your ACES IN THE HOLE™. Before the game, read (Panthers’ cornerback) Josh Norman’s Wikipedia page. It’s honestly a fascinating story of a dude who didn’t even get a D-1 scholarship offer until after his freshman year of college despite a prolific high school career, and has now become the best cornerback in the game (admittedly, a title that seems to shift every couple of years, weeks, or hours). You can then spit out some facts about Josh Norman, or perhaps just the above information will do.

On the Broncos side, do the same thing with their best defensive player, Von Miller (birth name: Vonnie B’Vsean Miller, which is a fun fact unto itself). Miller has a much different story than Norman – he was a heralded recruit who was then picked #2 overall in the NFL Draft – but he almost single-handedly beat New England last week, shredding the offensive line and getting pressure on Tom Brady that allowed Denver to drop seven or eight guys back into coverage. Just don’t say that last part unless you want righteous Peyton Fan to start asking you heavy-hitting questions about “hard counts” and “inside technique.” Pretty advanced stuff, guys.

“If you were hiking in the woods and a tree fell on your leg, crushing it completely, who would you prefer to amputate your leg and carry you to safety, Eli or Peyton Manning?” -Avery, NYC

Okay, first off, if I’m hiking in the woods and a tree falls on my leg, I am not surviving. If you know me well enough, you know that I am soft. I would probably ask Eli to throw a football at my head and get it over with, or Peyton to slam his forehead into mine in order to do the same because any football Peyton threw at this point in his life would carom off my head without me even noticing.

But since this is an entirely hypothetical scenario we’ll pretend I’m that guy James Franco played in that movie where he was stuck under a rock (which, by the way, is the first time I thought to myself, ‘goddamn I would die fast in a fucked up situation’) and that Peyton or Eli is ready to come get me.

At this point, it’s Eli Manning, which is an insane statement. I don’t think Peyton would make it. I’m not even sure he could amputate a leg with all the right tools! He can’t even throw a football 10 yards downfield! He certainly wouldn’t be able to carry me, a 200 pound man, to safety. Every bone in his body would break. Good thing 300 pound men won’t be chasing after him this weekend, am I right!?

Eli hardly inspires confidence, though. Is Cooper Manning available?

“Why is football called football?” -Taylor, Denver

I would ask Blair Walsh or Scott Norwood.

No, I don’t know, man. I mean, the obvious answer is that it evolved from rugby and used to involve much more kicking, and gained popularity known as “football” and who is going to change the name of a sport when it’s blossoming into a bona fide money-making cash cow?

And in all fairness to american football, the sport Americans call “soccer” was named just 13 years before football was (according to Wikipedia) and nobody really gave a shit about either sport for awhile thereafter. So it’s not as though they stuck a flag in land previously inhabited by someone else and then started swinging their dicks around willy-nilly. That came much later, (slash is America’s own creation myth, obviously).

It is certainly reflective of the American id that we cling on to its nonsensical name and consider everyone else in the world crazy for not understanding what we mean when we say “football.” And really, they do know what we mean. Because we are Americans, and they study shit like “the crazy things self-absorbed Americans believe” because hey, we have a modest-sized collective penis that we regard as gargantuan, and the psychology behind that is fucking fascinating. I presume.

“Why do people find football enjoyable? Like, what is a non-football lover missing?” -Lisa, Detroit

This is a question I ask myself a lot. That doesn’t mean I’ve come up with an answer.

First, I’ll tell you what I love about football: broadly speaking, I shamelessly love the violence and spectacle. The sheer athletic prowess of everyone on the field is so in-your-face and exciting that I often find myself gawking at a catch, a hit, a throw. I bet that sounds really stupid to someone who doesn’t like football though, and I respect that. I’m not sure a non-football lover is missing anything. In fact, I often envy those who live without a pressing desire to watch football every Thursday, Sunday, or Monday in the fall and winter.

In terms of football’s redemptive qualities on the macro level – youth leagues, high school, college, and the NFL – well, there are none. No, I’m kidding. I actually think there are plenty, though I’m undecided as to whether or not they outweigh the destruction caused by the sport.

This year I wrote for a local newspaper in North Carolina and I fell hard in love with a high school football team that went undefeated and had a real shot at winning their first state championship before losing a head-scratcher in the semifinals. Many of the things I loved could be summed up to you in ~10,000 short hours if you watch the Friday Night Lights series in its entirety, but I’ll try to explain them here: it is the most concise (and albeit, archaic) display of masculinity I can think of. Men are trying to work together to rip off the heads of another group of men trying to fuck your shit up. This makes for powerful bonding, teaching, and learning experiences. It makes for an emotional ride that is impossible to ignore, or simulate in some other fashion.

And look, I’m not recommending getting sucked in. A riptide of masculinity probably isn’t the most interesting thing to a lot of people. Football literally kills people. It is a generally bigoted and conservative institution that isn’t a lot of fun to think about underneath the surface-level of guts and glory. So if you don’t understand it, then good for you. (But seriously, watch Friday Night Lights.)

“How excited are you for the classic combination of Beyonce and Coldplay at the halftime show?” -Jesse, San Francisco

I feel like the Super Bowl halftime show surprises me every single year. In fact, I can think of at least three times when I went into it feeling like, “eh, this artist is going to suck,” and emerged with a great respect for that artist. Two of the examples are so embarrassing I wish I could cheat and just not name them, and that would be Prince and Tom Petty. How the fuck did I not expect greatness from Prince, you ask? I don’t know, man, I was 19. That show rocked my fucking world and obviously I’ve been listening to Prince ever since. Similarly, I would’ve never thought of Tom Petty as a badass until he destroyed shit in what, 2009? And lastly, Bruno fucking Mars played a damn good halftime show and I don’t care who knows it.

But Coldplay? Like, really guys? Fuck. I’m hoping I’m surprised, and I’m sure Beyonce will add something, but what is this going to look like?! I guess that’s the exciting part? Too many questions, soon to be answered.

“If Broncos win who gets the MVP?

I feel like someone would have to do something really insane for this to happen and Peyton not win the MVP, right? That said, the Super Bowl MVP is always a kind of interesting thing, meaning it doesn’t always go the way you might imagine. Can I get a Desmond Howard, anyone?

And I will also add that even Peyton Manning knows the Broncos are in the Super Bowl for one reason and one reason only, which is their defense. So I could picture Von Miller, Aqib Talib, or DeMarcus Ware working their way into the conversation. But we don’t need to worry about this. The Panthers will win and Cam Newton will lift the Super Bowl Trophy and all the short, squat white men with Peyton Manning shirtsies will refuse to watch football until, well, until the start of the 2016 season. Because they are weak, and stupid, just like me.

Does Eli Manning genuinely want the Broncos to win?

I love this question. It made me laugh. But honestly, I think he does. I think he knows Peyton is going to retire and if Peyton retires with fewer Super Bowls rings than Eli it’s going to make for some insanely awkward Thanksgivings for years to come.

“Hey, Eli, whaddya say we got out there and throw the pigskin…”

“Well, I don’t know, Peyton, last year you–”

“I WENT FOR THE TWO-HAND TOUCH AND SLIPPED AND FELL ON TOP OF YOU ELI! GODDUGUNIT”

Do you think Cam Newton cares that his team mixes DC and Marvel superheroes?

You are a nerd and I don’t understand this.

… Because you know he should.”

Okay.

-Gorski, somewhere sort of close to Pittsburgh

Love you Gorski.

Under-explained, gratuitous Super Bowl pick: Carolina 27, Denver 16