Big Game is a journey through an epic storm. Through it all, Leibovich always keeps one eye on Tom Brady and his beloved Patriots, through to the 2018 Super Bowl. Pro football, this book argues, may not be the sport America needs, but it is most definitely the sport we deserve.
Too violent, too soft, too nationalistic, too unpatriotic—is pro football in trouble? There was a day, writes The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent, Mark Leibovich, in Big Game, a gossipy, insightful and wickedly entertaining journey through the N.F.L. sausage factory, when the league could make sticky problems disappear. Not anymore ... Reading Big Game—a sparkling narrative—one gets the sense that, 'dangerous times' aside, the N.F.L. will survive on the magnetism of the sport it so clumsily represents. Forget the greedy owners, the controversies, the Trumpian eruptions. Think instead of the last two Super Bowls—the historic Patriots comeback followed by the upset of mighty New England by the storybook Philadelphia Eagles, a perennial doormat. Pro football, minus the baggage, can be electrifying and redemptive. It’s September, time for kickoff.
Leibovich seems largely immune to the challenges around access and appeasement that many sports journalists face; he pursues his leads with the freedom of someone who’s embedding in the N.F.L. only temporarily. He writes with a brusque charm, training his eye toward features of the league that many longtime observers might take for granted or condition themselves to ignore ... At the same time, Leibovich is a fan like the rest of us, given to generic, often specious, and occasionally paranoid defenses of his cherished Patriots. As his book unfolds, though, his onetime ability to compartmentalize football and protect it from the nastiness of real life begins to melt away ... Leibovich’s nostalgia for a more innocent kind of fandom is upended, and football becomes another battleground in the culture wars. Leibovich just wanted to bond with Tom Brady. But he stuck around long enough to catch a glimpse into the league’s power structure, and it left him a bit queasy. He has a gift for sniffing out where true power lies, and his doggedness brings him to bathroom meetings among N.F.L. owners and sideline chats with the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell ... Leibovich ends up reporting on a closed-door meeting in which owners debate whether Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the national anthem is simply a 'media problem' in need of new imaging ... If there is a clear relationship between sports and politics, it might come down to whether you find yourself siding with labor or management: whether you think that a player should remain forever loyal to the first jersey he puts on; whether you view athletes as workers or just as people who should feel lucky to play a child’s game for a living.
The New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent has a book-reporting strategy that consists of attending events (Tim Russert’s funeral; an NFL owners meeting), hanging around the periphery and writing what he sees, with plenty of snark and personal asides for good measure. He’s a good enough writer to keep you from wanting to throw the book against the nearest wall. But if you look closely, you’ll realize he has nothing to say ... He spent four years going to football games, interviewing owners and various NFL pooh-bahs, attending draft days and owners meetings, and writing a more than 350-page book, and he’s punting? He is, and he does ... Leibovich tackles the concussion issue by going to Hall of Fame ceremonies and talking to retired players about their physical and mental problems. Nothing wrong with that, except that the serious discussion is overwhelmed by pages of pointless narration. At the 2017 Super Bowl, Leibovich describes the parties he went to ... To be blunt, I learned nothing about the state of pro football from reading Big Game that I didn’t already know.