Welcome Back, NFL. You Bring Out The Best (and Worst) In Us All

America’s game will return Thursday, when the Ravens and Broncos meet in Denver. Well, as much as something can “return” when it never truly goes away.

Professional football, like no other sport, has become central to the fabric of life in this country. It isn’t a pastime like we once called baseball. The NFL isn’t a diversion. It’s a way of life, a big business that sells identity as much as it peddles sports. It taps into who we are, defines much of what we are, and keeps us coming back by highlighting what so many wish they were.

At its best, football speaks to our highest potential. It’s a celebration of power, fearlessness and sacrifice. What is produced comes from the synergy of men who, individually, can affect only but so much change; but can become heroes with the help of fellow men. There’s a reason the NFL so seamlessly merges its brand with traditional, patriotic symbols. These ideals both inspire by celebrating the human spirit and encourage respectful competition that’s an engine for growth.

The NFL also speaks to our worst. It features games more likely to unite people around bloodlust than love. It traffics in identity politics, where the beauty of “us” is always a circumstance from becoming an ugly discussion about “them.”

It quenches America’s thirst for violence, then taps into our collective sympathy when someone’s actually hurt. It asks the world of its players, discards them when they’re no longer useful, but not before extracting every bit of physical utility they possess. While selling the notion of a level playing field, the NFL is segregated in the worst ways, with whites making decisions and everyone else respected almost exclusively for their bodies. We hate to see our heroes fallen, weary and battered from years of abuse, but we encourage them to suffer through pain for our enjoyment. We’d prefer football be safer…but not if it means it won’t be football. Because we want football, to the point where we think we can’t live without it.

The NFL is corporate, but decidedly human. It’s masculinity, distilled and commoditized, covered like a soap opera. It’s is big business run amok, but can turn any metropolis into a small, provincial town where the only thing that matters is the next game. It gives us something we can all talk about, but often encourages us to yell obscenely in the process.

NFL football is far less important and grave than war, but it’s the same thing at its core — sophisticated savagery.

Our allegiances are often arbitrary and misguided, but they seem mean to everything to so many of us. The toll it takes is immeasurable, but so is the perceived nobility of the end result. It causes us to fight with, for and against each other, and to quarrel with ourselves about what exactly we’re watching. It hurts us, but never so much that we don’t come back for more.

It speaks to both America’s struggles and its excesses. Those on top are in it for the money, and have convinced everyone else that what matters is their hearts. While asking for more of their money, of course.

The NFL speaks to who we are, what we want to be, and what we’ve become. It taps into our selfishness while extolling the virtues of communal interaction. We love how it showcases men doing manly things, even though we all know large groups of men usually mean trouble is right around the corner.

We see our best and worst, but more than anything, we see ourselves. The NFL makes us feel good about ourselves, even as we recognize how much of it is bad. You could say the same for America, and that’s why this is our game.