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Football Nation

Mark Leibovich's Big Game exposes a rarefied caste of powerful idiots

There is an ice sculpture, ornate and increasingly sweaty, with an array of gleaming half-shelled oysters and girthy crab legs strewn tastefully around its base. It is cold in the room—that heavy gathering-of-wealthy-older-persons cold that’s achieved only through a degree and intensity of air conditioning that approaches industrial refrigeration. It is too bright, too—bright enough that the pink cheeks of the wealthy older people gathered there drinking and talking in groups of four and six seem to blaze and leer; the men are as a rule markedly older than the women. The music, if there’s music at all, comes from featureless men in evening wear plonking through standards on a nearby stage. There also may not be any music. The conversations, which are loud and loose and relentlessly assured in that open bar way, are the thing.

Little limpid pools of spilled gin are either shining under the too-bright lights or vanishing into luxuriant carpet. The people passing hors d’oeuvres move expertly through it all, unthanked—around the puddles and the wizened pawing hands, into and then out of the pods of increasingly drunk people eating various things off blinis and discarding skewers and the bones of various meat “lollipops” onto tabletops and bar surfaces and discreetly into unlucky potted plants. This party is always the same, although it does not always have the same attendees. It is the very worst party in the world, and the most comfortable and most insecure people in American life are there.

Mark Leibovich is there, too, because it is his job. It is Leibovich’s strange and arguably good luck that he is both better and more experienced at writing about these parties than anyone else alive. As the unofficial ambassador to power at the New York Times Magazine—his official title is chief national correspondent—Leibovich generally attends these parties in Washington, D.C., where he comes and goes among the capital’s permanent class of soggy machers and taut-faced mansion creatures and post-human media grotesques and elected officials. At those parties Leibovich notices a great deal and later relates some portion of that; the resulting stories have been compiled into the wry and tidbit-strewn and subtly bleak books like This Town and Citizens of the Green Room.

It is the very worst party in the world, and the most comfortable and most insecure people in American life are there.

There’s invariably something a little queasy about all that, if only because there’s something nauseating about knowing that these parties are happening in the first place. Leibovich’s books reliably deliver massive payloads of frisson and traffic gossip at what current sentencing guidelines would designate as federal levels. They are unstinting in portraying their cast of grotesques as grotesque, but they’re also never just that. He has a gift—and there’s no way to write this without it looking like a dig, which it is not—for conveying the extent to which he is in but not of that bizarre demimonde. His D.C. books are broadly beloved by the people on the receiving end of Leibovich’s photorealistic lampoonage despite the presence of a frankly inconvenient volume of truthfulness in them. There’s also an element of scandal to those books, naturally, but the D.C. personages involved are both too strenuously knowing and too aware of the grace their power affords them to stress over it too much. “He’s been writing this book for a long time—and most people should have been aware of that,” D.C. party legend Sally Quinn told Politico after This Town came out in 2013. “I knew when I invited him to my Christmas party he was working on it.”

There’s a case to be made that Leibovich’s beat shouldn’t exist, if only because of the even more compelling case that the class he so nimbly sketches should be walking around with ankle monitors on, at the very least. But Leibovich is not a mark and does not present his cast of sozzled partygoers and preening goofs and legacy blowhards and their attached grifter remoras as anything but what they are. They may love his books because they are fun to read, but more likely it’s because they are the sort of vain weirdos who just really enjoy seeing their names in print.

All of which is to say that Leibovich has in a sense spent his entire career preparing himself to write Big Game, his new book about the NFL and the vain weirdos that populate its upper castes. It helps that Leibovich is himself a serious NFL head—an old-growth Patriots fan, as he notes often, one whose fandom dates back to the since-vanished age when being a Patriots fan was as unpleasant to endure as the team’s dreary dominance now is for everyone else. But it’s Leibovich’s years in the field—his long tours in the melting shadow of those garish ice sculptures and the blast zones of those open bars—that prepared him best for the work he does in Big Game. His book is about the league’s power elite—owners like Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the Patriots and commissioner Roger Goodell, but also sleep-deprived scooplet-merchants like ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, unquestionably one of the great players in the game’s history and, more questionably, someone presently attempting (with the help of his personal wellness svengali, Alex Guerrero) to pivot into being a sort of aspirational lifestyle brand.

The preening members of the NFL’s power elite are no less vain or ripe for the Leibovich Treatment than Sally Quinn’s party set; they’re also about equally bulletproof in terms of the protection their various privileges afford them. They’re probably less prepared for it, if only because they’re so unaccustomed to being written about quite this way. But also, here as there, it doesn’t really matter—the powerful tend to stay that way, and the various oafish disgraces and tossed-off idiocies they make just bead harmlessly atop the gilded surface of their fame like a cocktail on a Scotchgarded carpet. It’s that last part that sours the fun, but the realization mostly arrives later in the party. That is part of Leibovich’s gift.

The NFL, in the soaring grandiosity of its ambitions and the broader grandiosity of its grandiosity, repeatedly mistakes itself for a nation state—a sort of parallel America that has dedicated itself to making its military adventuring as profitable, sponsor-friendly, and telegenic as possible. It has often acted accordingly, always in swaggering and overdetermined ways and quite often to its detriment. The league, for all the noise of its recent feuding with former aspiring NFL team owner and current president Donald Trump, remains both impossibly rich, historically popular, and reliably self-thwarting. Its ruling class is petty and vain and entirely shameless; they are, almost to a man (and they are virtually all men[*]), so insulated by privilege and power from both consequence and the contours of normal human behavior that they are only intermittently recognizable as people. In this way, if not only in this way, they resemble the political celebrities that Leibovich describes. “After a while,” Leibovich writes of his D.C. subjects in the introduction to 2014’s Citizens Of The Green Room, “they acquire a shiny otherness—a stately gaze, a sweeping pace of movement, and sometimes comet trails of entourages.” The NFL’s most powerful people, more or less without exception, have passed through the same looking glass.

Indeed, the time Leibovich has spent around the fame-brained weirdos of political media and the gnarled power creatures of elite D.C. is perhaps the only relevant experience that exists for listening to Robert Kraft extemporize grandly and repeat the same three stories over and over while diagramming The Winner’s Mind, or watching Roger Goodell doofily outline the NFL’s plan for world domination. These are people who are used to being called Mister whenever they show up on NFL broadcasts, and who reliably behave as such. Leibovich, who has been around, knows enough to call them what they are, if also enough to do so mostly by quoting them directly.

“He kept saying my name to punctuate sentences,” Leibovich writes of NFL commissioner Goodell, before noting the commissioner’s tendency to revert to jargon. “He tells me he is a big believer in ‘what I call the third solution,’” Leibovich writes, “‘You have one solution. And you have another solution. But it’s usually not either one, it’s the third solution.’” Feel free to take a moment to think on this if you need it.

The NFL repeatedly mistakes itself for a nation state—a sort of parallel America.

There is no one right way to write about a powerful idiot, let alone an entire bulletproof caste of them. But the simplest and most effective one is probably something like this. In his time with Roger Goodell, a man who is paid roughly $40 million annually to eat shit on behalf of the NFL’s owners when they do whatever it is they want to do, Leibovich notes all the stuff that Goodell wants him to note—his vigor and firm handshake and ruddy good cheer and executive focus and impressive exercise routine—but also chronicles everything else that the commissioner does and says as he does and says it. Leibovich cites but notably does not emulate an instant-classic 2014 Wall Street Journal story—the headline is “NFL’s Roger Goodell Seeks To Right Past Wrongs”—that made a big deal out of Goodell ordering pizzas for a tense NFL executive meeting and declining to eat even a slice; his underlings, out of deference or whatever else would make a hungry person not eat pizza, sit there long into the night watching the pizzas go cold. He describes the posturing and pretense—from Goodell, from smug grandees like Kraft and shameless whiskey-wicked hustlers like Jerry Jones and ostensibly affable mediocrities like Jets owner Woody Johnson—as he observes it, but he also doesn’t pretend that it works.

This does not look especially innovative or revelatory here on the page, I’m sure, but anyone who has read the usual reverent copy that tends to accumulate around Goodell will recognize what’s included as essential context. This is because writing about Roger Goodell, the powerful commissioner of the most lucrative sport in America, if done straight, eventually defaults to describing a hail-fellow goofus doing Executive Things at a setting of maximum backslap, hitting his talking points as best he remembers them, and little more. Goodell, a Senator’s son who has never held a job outside the NFL, is as plummily unreal as any of Leibovich’s usual D.C. subjects both in how seriously he takes his job and himself and in how plainly and tragicomically mediocre he is despite that self-regard. “Thank you for looking after the game,” Goodell tells Leibovich that NFL fans tell him. “I hear that a lot, I hear that all around the country, all the time.”

If there’s a pungently Trumpy scent hanging over that last Goodell statement—the combination of an unconvincing assertion and the force-multiplying implication that this unconvincing thing is something You Really Are Hearing More And More—it’s  a perhaps-inevitable reflection of the class of weaksauce elites in question. Trump himself figures in Big Game around the margins, both because of the racialized beef he pursued with the league after some NFL players chose to protest police brutality and violence during the national anthem and because Trump belongs to the same strange superclass of hyper-public rich guys as the NFL’s owners.

The competition between Jones and Kraft for Trump’s affection and attention is something like a subplot in the book’s last third; the sentence that reads “it was not lost on Jones that Trump had so conspicuously cozied up to Kraft during the 2016 presidential campaign” is among the most cursed that I have ever beheld. Leibovich talks to the man himself a little bit, and Trump’s pudding-brained contributions to the narrative bring home just who and what we’re dealing with, here, both in terms of candlepower and engagement. Here, for instance, is Trump attempting to tell some kind of story about Deflategate—Trump called it (yes) “a witch hunt”—and Tom Brady in September 2016:

It’s so ridiculous what they’re doing to him. He said: “Mr. Trump”—he calls me Mr. Trump, which he shouldn’t, because we play golf all the time. Anyway, he says: “Mr. Trump—Donald,” he doesn’t even know what the fuck to call me. It’s the craziest thing. He’s a friend of mine. A really good friend of mine.


Among the grandees and graspers and goofs that populate Big Game, only a few really register as real people. There is Tom Brady’s family, pleasant upper-middle-class types from California whose son—he comes across as a personable if gullible jock—has entered a weird universe they can’t quite comprehend. There is Mark Davis, the sweet goofball son of conflict-seeking old-NFL weirdo Al Davis, who seems just to be vibrating at a different frequency than his peers in the league’s ownership class and is regarded as something of a ward of the league. But most everyone else has vanished into the roles they’ve chosen and the strange stain-resistant self-regard in which they’ve wrapped themselves.

Trump belongs to the same strange superclass of hyper-public rich guys as the NFL’s owners.

Some do this more happily than others—Jones grants Leibovich an interview on his bespoke party bus and gets him so wasted on top-shelf blended scotch that the journalist winds up sleeping there for several hours; the last thing he remembers is Jones storming a hotel bar in search of “cee-gars.” But there is never a sense, from anyone with any power—from the franchise-holders whose teams make them rich, from the commissioner they employ, from the journalists kept alive by the tidbits those power players drop as needed, or even from a superstar like Brady, who has retreated into some pseudoscientific fantasy of techno-nutritional immortality—that any of their responsibilities even register as such. As in Leibovich’s political books, every player seems innately to understand that they are playing a game. This is not the same thing as having perspective—it is in fact something like the opposite of that—but it does at least fix them all in place relative to each other.

The difference, of course, is that football is a game and the NFL, despite its pretenses, is not a real nation-state. It is a business that has spent several decades getting deliriously high on its own supply, and while the consequences of its games—the league’s all-too-literal body count—are undeniable and real, they have also been rendered abstract for the people in charge of it all by dint of the money and the power that all that violence throws off. It is easy to enjoy Big Game, because Leibovich is so commanding in his storytelling and because of its outsized and oafish constellation of protagonists. It is much easier to enjoy than the strikingly similar books that Leibovich writes about the people who are in charge of the actual levers of power in the actual nation-state in which we live. The painful part, which sticks and stings in unusual ways and unexpected places, is how closely the two mirror each other. All this money and all that power and all those endless identical parties populated by all these utterly mediocre and perfectly feckless people, all the ridiculous feuds and childish posturing and stupid status-driven spats up top and all that all-too-real carnage underneath—it runs on rails, and it runs all the time. The fathomlessly entitled dauphins in both camps will, depending on the day and their whims, bully you into bowing reverently before the national anthem or demand your deferential civility as they blast racist lies into your face. It’s a business and it’s a game, but also it’s not.


[*] Correction: This article has been revised to correct a mistake in the original version: there are eight NFL clubs in which women hold a primary ownership stake.