The Heart of Monday Night

The beautiful drama of broadcast football

If you time things right, you can burrow into approximately 12 hours of football-related programming every Sunday. Pop out of bed, read the paper, and--wham!--ESPN is zipping you through previews of the upcoming games; then luxuriate through the East Coast game, have a bite of lunch, tune in the late game, treat yourself to dinner and some highlights, then catch the Sunday-night contest. Finish the orgy off with a full hour of Football Tonight, or maybe the news if you still find the outside world worth your time, and so to bed, as Samuel Pepys famously wrote, wishing they'd invented football 200 years earlier so he wouldn't be stuck with bearbaiting on a Sunday.

It's nirvana, really, and surprisingly easy to pull off (or slump through--surely so active a verb can't be appropriate here). Some guilt does tend to arise around 4:00 p.m., generally of the I've-wasted-an-entire-day variety, but the late-afternoon snap of ESPN's highlight show slides you on through those qualms into a comfortably Homeric (as in Simpsonian) plenitude. And I do mean "nirvana" in its most Zen sense. Watching the same touchdown run replayed ten times or so lulls you into complete acceptance of the world's vagaries: Of course the safety was going to fall down, the linebacker was going to miss the tackle, and off to the races he went. So it was written.

But the quintessential pro-football experience remains ABC's flagship Monday Night Football, (8:00 p.m., Channel 5) still the network's ratings colossus after three decades on the air. (It had better be a success, with a price tag reportedly topping half a billion per year.) A hardy survivor, MNF has weathered our culture's masculinity decline, from its Seventies Playboy highs to a Nineties Viagroid slump (the Gifford/Dierdorf years), and emerged in the Clinton era both smarter and more gender-savvy. The Seventies broadcasts showcased Howard Cosell's windy perorations (if only he'd had William F. Buckley doing color commentary--then Howard would have been taken seriously in New York intellectual circles!), legendary party boy Don Meredith's boozy farewells ("Turn out the lights, the party's over," he'd croon late in the game, sounding fairly well lit up himself), and even the sleazy legacy of T&A crowd shots that foisted on the world the former cameraman (and shameless Russ Meyer imitator) Andy Sidaris, auteur of such implant-fests as Savage Beach and its even bustier sequel Return to Savage Beach.

The Nineties, in contrast, put us through Dierdorf's fumbles, Gifford's missteps, and even that horrific Hank Williams Jr. theme song, which has inflicted about as many rhymes for "night" upon your head as there are...er...dogs in the fight. So this show could tell, or at least sublimate, a story about how the American male--sob, sob--has lost all his privileges, and must now subsist on a sparse diet of full salaries (still a dollar for every 70 cents a woman earns) and The Man Show. Instead the program has been pared down to jack-of-all-sports Al Michaels on play-by-play and retired QB (and football mystery "author") Boomer Esiason on color, and the downsized MNF has turned both female-friendly and hard-newsy, cannily merging up-close-and-personal features on the players with the kind of narrative framing suitable for a presidential debate or a wrestling pay-per-view. The result manages to be as authentically epic as TV gets on a weekly basis.

The phenomenon, it should be noted, is exclusive to pro football. College football is about mass: Having attended an undergraduate institution where 100,000 fans regularly crammed into a stadium to watch our student athletes pummel their student athletes, I can attest to the fact that attending a college football game makes fascism immediately comprehensible. When the wave surges around the corner of the stadium, it's join or die. Whereas the pros are about class: The social stratification evident inside every pro game suggests pre-Revolution France. The centuries-long (at the present turnover rate) waiting list for Redskins tickets is our closest approximation of hereditary nobility. Inside the stadium, the richest scurry to their luxury boxes, while for the canaille, it's let them drink beer. Spending the first three-quarters of the game getting tanked and belligerent, fans go berserk if the home team loses--and sometimes, as recent evidence suggests, even if they win. (This explains the Eagles' decision to cut to the chase and set up a courtroom in the bowels of the stadium itself to expedite disorderly conduct cases.)

If the pros are best appreciated at a distance, stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of MNF's achievement. Anyone who has attended a live sports event can't help being infected by the replay virus. At the event itself you turn to the scoreboard to see what really happened, half expecting to see the actual players return to where they started and run half-speed for your convenience. Dividing the game into the tiniest possible segments with a battery of 22 cameras (who can forget Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart sobbing on the sideline after being benched?), MNF ferrets out the humanity within the players' armor without condescending or, for the most part, sensationalizing. Interviewing the Cowboys' injured Michael Irvin about his career prospects a few weeks back, Esiason managed a somber empathy worthy of the best Barbara Walters celebrity conversation. If you want a truly mass art, this is it.

In service of that ideal, both announcers know to stay in the background. Michaels earned a spot in the Zeitgeist hall of fame with his "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" call at the 1980 Olympics, and he's the consummate old-style professional, content to call the game rather than manipulate it into an audition for his own talk show. I love the fallen-leaves-on-campus aroma of legendary college-football announcer Keith Jackson ("Let the big dogs hunt!" he once barked before some big ol' Southern boys took on some differently garbed big ol' Southern boys), but Michaels is the rare football broadcaster who sounds like he could carry on a non-sports conversation without looking for his cue cards. I bet he tests great with female audiences in the 25-49 age bracket.

Boomer, noted at first for an inability to emit any sentence with dispatch, has learned to make his point without too many interruptions. Not that he should be too smooth, you understand. If anything, what we want from color men is more than a little opacity, some glimpse of the recondite discipline of x's and o's in which football is spoken. At the same time, the ideal color man needs to strike a balance between good jargon ("They're in a two-deep zone here, with the safeties rolled up and seven men in the box") and mere jockisms ("They're looking for someone to step up and make big plays, because that's what great players do, they make big plays in big games.").

Yet Boomer manages not to preen or waste time. More or less unwittingly, he's found a happy medium of B.S. Unlike basketball announcers, whose styles range from Dick Vitale's self-parody to Bill Walton's appealing hippie asceticism (fast decaying into irritating know-it-all asceticism), Boomer understands that his job is to talk the talk and keep out of the way. Unlike baseball announcers, he refrains from getting misty over Donald Hall's Fathers Playing Catch With Sons when fall rolls around. Whether by choice or not, he also stays off the Telestrator, which mostly serves to draw goofy (and useless) circles on the screen. Similarly, his slight drawl makes everyone feel at home--as trad goes, it's entirely natural and unpretentious. Besides, what's football without a Southern accent?

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