The National Football League has been knocked around for the past few years like an undrafted rookie receiver, battered by the concussion controversy, domestic violence, Deflategate, and anthem kneelers. Commissioner Roger Goodell, the defender of the Shield, has become the planet’s highest-paid piñata. Fewer viewers are tuning in to what has been the country’s Sunday entertainment for more than half a century. “Are we witnessing the NFL’s last gasp as the great spectacle of American life?” wonders Mark Leibovich.
What began as a profile piece on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became a four-year journey for Leibovich, whose day job is chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. Along the way the lifelong Pats fan from Newton attended owners’ meetings, league drafts, championship games, Hall of Fame inductions, and Steeler chairman Dan Rooney’s funeral. He had sitdowns with Brady, Goodell, and New England owner Bob Kraft, and multiple encounters with owners in lobbies and at parties. His conclusion? The game’s appeal is powerful and durable, but we’ll await the replay.
There is no conventional story arc, nor any breaking news. The NFL’s issues have been thoroughly chewed over, and Leibovich’s conversations with Goodell produced nothing that will stop any presses. What makes his narrative enlightening and entertaining is his level of access and his perspective as an outsider, which likely helped his entree to owners and others who knew that the author didn’t cover the league regularly and was writing for a distant deadline.
Leibovich, whose best-selling book (“This Town’’) dealt with Washington’s inbred political class, has a similar take on the owners, who are pro football’s senators — “tycoons of enlarged ego, delusion, and prostate’’ who arrive at meetings of the “Membership’’ by town car and wheelchair. They’re either “pioneers’’ who bought their franchises or “settlers’’ who inherited theirs.
Their numbers include Atlanta’s Arthur Blank (“a dead ringer for Grandpa from ‘The Munsters’ ’’), Carolina’s (former owner) Jerry Richardson (“Baby Huey . . . but in a bad mood’’), Dallas’ Scotch-swilling Jones (“This man’s liver belongs in Canton’’), and Kraft, whom the author says can be “whiny’’ and “sniveling’’ but whom he still finds endearing. “He was such a familiar and smaller-than-life figure,” Leibovich writes. “He felt accessible.”
Kraft’s collection of Super Bowl rings (“garish fist ornaments’’) has given him considerable status among his fellow Members, who both admire and are annoyed by him. “You didn’t have to do the 28-3 in the ring,” Blank told Kraft, who had his team’s Super Bowl baubles encrusted with 283 diamond chips to commemorate the Patriots’ comeback from 25 points down to beat the Falcons. “It kind of pissed me off.”
Boston fans will savor an abundance of material about the hometown team. The chapters involving the Patriots (among them, “Beware the Pissed Off Pretty Boy,’’ “ ‘I’m Drunk, I’m Stupid, I’m a Pats Fan’, the Man Told Police’’) are filled with delectable tidbits. The best of them involve the confluence of Donald Trump, coach Bill Belichick, Kraft, and Brady. Trump, a failed USFL owner who was spurned in his bid for the Buffalo Bills, is obsessed with the league’s most successful team and brags about his friendship with its iconic figures.
“He just feels warmly toward me, Belichick does,” raves Trump, who said that the hoodied coach kissed and hugged him on the sidelines before a game and told Trump that he loved him. “Isn’t that the craziest thing?”
Kraft, who is chummy with Trump, was disconcerted to hear that the president had dissed him. “Did Trump really say that I choked [by not suing the NFL over Deflategate]?” he asks Leibovich. “Did he really compare me to Romney? . . . It was a shock to read that.”
Yet Trump all but genuflects to Brady, urging Leibovich to call him and ask about his “great friendship’’ and “[h]ow is Trump as a golfer?’’
While Brady makes himself uncommonly available to Leibovich and is responsive and thoughtful to queries he ultimately proves “graciously noncommital’’ about additional in-person meetings. Their final conversation after this year’s Super Bowl was a predawn audio e-mail file from a sleepy-voiced Brady answering a list of questions.
The answer to the most pressing question — how will the story end between Brady and the Patriots? — is provided by his father, the book’s refreshingly blunt soothsayer. “It will end badly,” the “Original Tom Brady’’ predicts. “It does end badly. It’s a cold business. And for as much as you want it to be familial, it isn’t.”
The NFL in Dangerous Times
By Mark Leibovich
Penguin Press, $28. 372 pp.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.