A snafu regarding Super Bowl media credentials has ruined my beach day.
My former employer put up their VIPs and high rollers -- and, for the sake of administrative convenience, me as well -- in a swanky beachside boutique hotel just north of South Beach. My accommodations are the envy of friends and colleagues cooped up in the media hotels near the airport, a 45-minute Lyft expedition from everything that matters. I'm determined to spread the wealth, so I invite some of the guys over each day to enjoy the amenities: beach chairs, a poolside bar, a chance to rest and recharge between deadlines and dinner, a bathroom that is not communal.
But I don't have my game credential yet, and that's a major problem.
The Super Bowl weekly credential and game credential are two separate maximum-security placards. Media members pick up the first for themselves on Sunday or Monday. The second must be picked up on Thursday or Friday by one designated individual per outlet whom I like to call the "quarterback."
Inexperienced desk editors often get mixed up when handling credentials and list themselves as the quarterback when filling out NFL paperwork in late December, even though they will be in New York or San Francisco and the pickup location is in Atlanta or Miami. That's what happened today: I am covering my eighth Super Bowl in person, an old hand for whom a bucket-list opportunity has become a routine. Many of my supervisors are young enough to be the younger siblings of my former algebra students.
I leave a few of the usual suspects at the beach and hustle back to the convention center to deal with the snafu. My former employer rented out a production/promotion headquarters somewhere nearby in South Beach. I am welcome to stop by so long as I make an appointment. Covering the Super Bowl is now an afterthought to our Super Bowl coverage. My immediate supervisor is too busy producing videos and podcasts to help me once I get him on the phone. The next editor up the chain of command wants me to hand my phone to the person at the credentialing desk so he can go full Karen (I have a pass to use that term) on a veteran media relations director upon whom I will rely on future credentials. I explain that this is a terrible idea on many levels.
Eventually, the NFL folks give me an exact phone number and verbal script to relay to my supervisor so he can relay it to his supervisor, who can recite it to someone at the top of the league's credentialing org chart, designate ME the quarterback, and relay that information back to the folks at the desk.
The whole affair takes an hour. I hustle back to my hotel room to stash the three credentials (two for colleagues) I now have custody of, and then out to the beach. My little oasis of chairs and towels has been colonized by half of the New York Giants press pool, most lounging in business casual wear, looking relaxed and ridiculous.
"Somebody had better move so I can lay down," I say, and someone does.
It's late in Super Bowl week. Most of us are starting to wind down before the hustle of Sunday itself. It's time to enjoy the luckiest job in the world: the Super Bowl, for pay; Miami Beach on an expense account. Warm sunshine in January. Bathing beauties in bikinis made from bass guitar strings. Jazz and cocktails in faux-speakeasy cantinas. NFL legends by the pool. A strange fairytale intermezzo from everyday middle-aged life that I somehow find ways to gripe about.
Everyone has heard about COVID. Sometimes, we talk about COVID. No one has any idea what's coming.
The 7-Eleven on my corner is empty. The county highway that runs past it is empty. The world has shut down around us over the last few days, hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute. The NBA. The schools. The restaurants, businesses and stores. My family is waking up to a "snow day" which (more or less) still has not ended nine months later. But we need milk. I need to see evidence that the world still spins. And 7-Eleven is open.
As COVID descended like a dense fog, the NFL and NFLPA did their darndest to self-destruct. Word around the convention center hallways and poolside cocktail hours in late January was that the new NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement was nearly a done deal. But the union's actual ratification vote dovetailed with the start of the COVID crisis. Tensions were high and common sense was low, which always seems to be the case when it's time to vote on a contract.
Here's how CBAs in most industries are negotiated. Management presents a united front, which is easy to do when you are a relatively small entity with a concise set of goals (i.e., "make more dough," or "spend as little as possible" in the public sector). A handful of union negotiators, meanwhile, ask for input from (let's say) 1,500 constituents, getting no response from most and earfuls of unrealistic gibberish from the biggest malcontents and most unreasonable blowhards. The negotiators then carve out dozens of thankless hours of their personal time for planning, research, and the meetings themselves. They do their best to not get the crap beaten out of them at the table by management, which A) holds all the means of operation and B) knows that most unions would last six seconds in a strike, if they are blessed with the legal right to strike at all. The negotiators return to their constituency with a few hard-won concessions, then get castigated as loudly and publicly as possible by the folks who couldn't be bothered contributing anything more than their union dues in the first place.
That's precisely how the NFL's CBA negotiations went down. The league's one-percenters, the guys who will be able to sell their names to beer and insurance companies for seven figures when they are 65 years old, publicly ripped the deal. Some loudmouths suggested that they could build the Pouncey Bros. Building & Loan to serve as a strike fund, and people who should know better believed them.
Many of my colleagues lost track of the fact that the NFLPA is, in fact, a player's association, as is written on the label, and not another institution trying to keep the players down. Players themselves also seemed a little mixed up. Folks running for leadership positions in the union sounded weirdly anti-union. On Twitter, union reps begged their constituents to ask them questions instead of getting info from a teammate who never attended a negotiation meeting and earns 50 times more than them.
Meanwhile, the stock market crashed. Some players faced a different financial reality by Friday than the one they had faced on Monday.
Delays to contract ratification (or a "no" vote) could have potentially been a knock-on to the start of free agency. Some of my colleagues wanted the NFL to suspend free agency anyway, even though it could be handled safely via phone, Internet, and already-negotiated-at-Prime-47-in-February agreements, because #drama. I wanted to be able to do my job while my wife and children scrambled to figure out how remote school worked. And I wanted the players to ratify the best contract they were gonna get, because the alternative was guaranteed to be brutal.
You remember mid-March. The fear. The uncertainty. Society sinking in quicksand. I shuddered as the NBA pulled players off the court, as my inbox flooded with cancelled school activities, as the governor shut down every element of everyday life, and I didn't stop shuddering until sometime in April when I was numb to the fact that playgrounds and department stores were closed, family vacations were cancelled, grocery store shelves were empty, and American culture was fracturing as though it had spent a decade waiting for a good reason to do so.
"No one is on the road," the counter person at 7-Eleven says. "Everyone is home. Everyone is scared."
Yes we were. But the NFLPA ratified the CBA. Free agency was on. The draft and schedule announcements were on. The NFL would push through toward a season in September.
Because, of course, everything would be back to normal in September.
I back my car into an SUV in the supermarket parking lot. No one is hurt. The other shopper is driving the War Machine armor and doesn't get a scratch. My back end looks like the 2019 Eagles receiver depth chart, but I'm insured.
Grocery shopping feels semi-apocalyptic. Some shelves are still empty. Masks are now required, and they come with an emotional shock that, months later, many American adults have still made it their business to not overcome. Announcements are unnerving. "One package of chicken per customer, please." "Follow the arrows." "Please keep store associates and fellow shoppers safe." Shopping feels like speed-running a spooky video game level. No wonder I was too rattled to properly check my six when pulling out.
There are no sports in the world. No bubbles. No cut-outs in stands. Sports cable channels show replays from past years. Legal gambling apps offer action on ping-pong and soccer from obscure corners of the world. The non-NFL news is mostly speculation about when and whether anyone would take the field/ice/court again.
But the NFL held a draft, so my professional life for two months has been fairly normal: mock drafts, scouting reports, a few interviews, regional radio stations calling at odd hours to interrupt their All-Time Sitcom Field of 64 and Mount Rushmore of Edmonton Oilers Goalies filler with real sports talk about Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa.
Then the draft itself arrived like a stimulus package for my whole industry. We met Bill Belichick's dog, saw Kliff Kingsbury's creepy Pornhub living room, and watched all-tuckered-out Grampy Goodell nearly drift off to sleep in his easy chair. The Packers drafted Jordan Love, and Aaron Rodgers reached for the high-end hooch. The Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts, and neighbors shouted at me about it during socially distanced, other-side-of-the-street conversations.
The grocery store was dystopian and even the walking path around my local lake was barricaded, but work felt normal.
The NFL made the right decision to hold its draft, just as it made the right call to proceed with free agency. No one was harmed by the virtual draft. It kept many, many people in my industry in business when advertisers were cutting bait. Heck, the 2020 draft went smoother than most, and the NFL looked a little more human and intimate with its hoopla ripped away. The NFL is an entertainment industry at the apex of a multitude of other entertainment industries. It did its job, allowing me to do mine.
But May would bring no travel to minicamps, not even across the bridge to Eagles camp, and no plans for long-range features. I looked forward to a little rest. New Jersey's COVID numbers were dropping. There were whispers that beaches would open, reports that outdoor transmission is rare. There might soon be sports again, school again, life again.
I received a text message while contacting my auto insurance provider. It was from my managing editor. The exact wrong time of the year for a new assignment. Not a congratulatory call about outstanding draft coverage. A "bring your playbook" call.
It was time to job search in a world with no sports. Or school.
I'd complain or plead for sympathy if I didn't personally know dozens of other people in the same damn boat. Or worse.
Yesterday, Patrick Mahomes uttered the phrase "Black Lives Matter" in a player-produced PSA. Today, Roger Goodell apologized for not listening to NFL players earlier on social justice issues, encouraged players to speak their minds and peacefully protest, and stated "we, the National Football League, believe that Black Lives Matter."
What a simple statement. What an obviously correct sentiment. What a ridiculous position to feel nervous taking a stand for, let alone feeling it's somehow proper to take a stand against.
Every topic is politicized and inflammatory as summer approaches. The pandemic itself has somehow become a political issue. Wearing a mask causes the sort of people who scream at Little League umpires to lose their minds in Walmart, and a major news network treats each of them as if they are Paul Revere. Condemning systematic oppression and "backing the blue" (whatever that means) have become an either-or proposition.
Some weeks, the only reasons I get into my (repaired) car are to drive to a grocery store or to a protest. I march and carry signs, listen to speeches and sermons, kneel in silence for eight minutes and 46 seconds, for the broad national issues and specific local ones. I look to my left and my right at these protests and see an America that's diverse in a hundred ways that it feels trite patronizing to itemize. I see the folks who oppose the events and the message, and they don't look the same, because they all look more or less the same.
We protest by day, hurry home by nightfall. In the morning, we read about tear gas and shattered windows, rows of protesters protected by rows of moms flanked by rows of dads . If families are on one side, what are the people on the other side telling themselves? Would my wife be wearing a yellow tee shirt tomorrow? Would I be brandishing a Leaf Blower of Resistance?
Wearing a mask is taking a side. Following the rules is taking a side. Believing in science is taking a side. Admitting systematic racism is real, prevalent, and abhorrent is taking a side. Valuing people over property and the lives of the elderly and infirm over the economy is taking a side. Choosing not to choose is making a choice.
And then Mahomes and other athletes spoke. They dragged Goodell and other sports executives into the light. They shifted the conversation in a way that emboldened and encouraged others. The players forced the NFL to take a side.
Like it or not, we live in a nation built by advertising. We want what we have been told to want since birth: cultural desires most of us cannot articulate, amplified, branded, and reflected back to us in 30-second commercials whose jingles from childhood we remember better than the voices of long-deceased loved ones.
Advertisers love individuals such as Mahomes: quarterbacks are our aspirational figures and culture heroes; youth and vitality are our most cherished possessions; and yes, the more demographics, the better. Meanwhile, 1980s businessmen are comic book movie supervillains, reality television stars our comic relief.
Advertisers cannot gerrymander. Suppressing the "votes" of those who don't like their products makes them no money. They want Mahomes to represent them, so they want to stand for what he stands for. Men like Goodell want what advertisers want. Mahomes and other athletes recognized the power of their platforms and seized it. The market chose a side. The culture war wobbling atop the pandemic in the summer of 2020 will eventually end in a rout.
Not that it looked that way at the time. Not that the war is even over yet, nor the most important battles even fought. But if Roger Goodell can say Black Lives Matter then I can, and those who feel threatened by the phrase become the ones who are forced to explain themselves.
As summer arrived, protests quieted, and social justice in all its forms became (for many of us) another plank in a platform, another file folder atop a heaping to-do list. It's easy to be cynical and claim it was all performative, from Goodell's mea culpa to all the suburban marches through middle-class streets.
But I look back on the sports arenas that later became voting precincts and league- and player-supported voter registration drives and think that Mahomes had a significant little role in changing the world.
It's an NFL Sunday. There is football on television. I even have a job, or jobs; I am doing better than many friends and colleagues. And I am even legally, safely (?) settled in at the bar.
I rarely cover NFL Sundays from any stadium. It's not cost-effective to travel to Foxboro, only to discover that the week's biggest story is brewing in Seattle, and there's little time for postgame interviews when writing long around-the-league roundups. I've gone to the same tavern on Sundays for over a decade to watch five or six games at once, then return to the home office for the late games, followed by an evening and night of furious scribbling.
New Jersey's governor opened bars at reduced capacity in early September, but I initially worked from home via NFL RedZone, NFL Game Pass, NFLGSIS, and other resources to avoid crowds when the Eagles kicked off in the 1 p.m. window. The 0-2-1 Eagles play on Sunday night this week.
The bars are nearly empty anyway: not many folks in my corner of the nation are ready for indoor activities just yet. But my wife has returned to hybrid school, and my kids are about to return on a reduced schedule. It's time for me to "go to work." I miss too many storylines when working from home, then spend the early week trying to catch up while juggling multiple assignments. And frankly, more importantly, I miss feeling normal.
My "normal" is a bar on a football Sunday, and also an occasional haircut, a trip to the gym or the coffee shop, moody mornings prodding the kids off to school, teenagers clomping back and forth from various activities, family day trips, marching band Friday nights, beer sessions on buddies' back porches, and of course the chance to ply my trade. All of those things returned, some of them briefly, in late summer and early autumn.
My normal is also a privilege. All of our "normals" can be taken away by sickness, injury, accident, violence, unemployment, or infirmity; global catastrophes are just huge bundles that impact many of us at once. Every normal day is a gift that can be taken away by a reckless driver, a match in a wastebasket, a blood vessel popping in your brain, an armed assailant with too much rage and/or unchecked authority. And not every American gets to enjoy the same normal. Normal deserves to be cherished, nurtured, shared and improved.
Not much of note happens on this particular Sunday. The Browns win a dizzying shootout with the Cowboys. Bill O'Brien coaches his final game for the Texans. The Eagles eventually beat the 49ers. But Sunday feels like Sunday while the weather is still warm, outdoor dining in parking lots is a pleasant novelty, Zoom conversations have become less foreign and impersonal, masks feel as familiar as socks, and the sports world again connects millions of fans with shared experiences.
COVID numbers are rising. An election is looming. The NFL has been forced to shuffle some deck chairs due to a Titans outbreak. Times will soon change. In 2020, normal was very abnormal, and even more fleeting.
I am watching Monday Afternoon Football, and I am miserable.
The Steelers don't play football at normal times anymore. Last week, their matchup with the Ravens was postponed repeatedly, finally landing on Wednesday afternoon. Some Steelers bloggers and radio personalities, folks with midsized platforms who should exercise discretion and responsibility, stomped their feet and claimed that the NFL was twisting the schedule in knots to accommodate Lamar Jackson. Sure, and Hugo Chavez was pulling the strings from beyond the grave, too, so sue the electoral college.
March's devastating disaster had become December's excuse for petty rivalries and childish sniping. Forget overflowing hospitals, rising unemployment, and indifferent government responses: the real injustice is that the Saints get to play the Broncos' 12th-string quarterback while the Steelers get inconvenienced again.
December did not fall the way spring fell. COVID numbers rose steadily and frighteningly, but even here, in the nanniest of the nanny states, restaurants and gyms remained open. Sports leagues stayed in business, give or take some schedule adjustments. Schools opened and closed according to various hybrid models. Days grew colder and darker, activities more limited, but there was no sudden shock, just wearying dread
The Eagles benched Carson Wentz for Jalen Hurts, and I steeled myself for a quarterback controversy that would dominate all of my radio appearances and increasingly rare casual conversations. Now the Ravens were losing a sloppy Monday matinee to the Washington Team That Can't Even Be Bothered With a Name Anymore. The Ravens, with Jackson and others back, would face the Cowboys on Tuesday. The disruptions in the NFL schedule were exhausting. Quarterback controversies were exhausting. Real national news, simultaneously hopeful and shameful, caused sleepless nights. No wonder I felt so bad.
I had contracted COVID days earlier, but I did not know it yet. The fatigue, headaches, and body aches just felt like a 2020 bummer, the congestion like December in New Jersey.
My wife fell ill as well and got tested at the local I Can't Believe It's a Medical Facility because our primary medical provider, like most primary medical providers, is a mediocre veteran quarterback just good enough to not be worth the hassle of replacing. She took one of those rapid tests with Roethlisberger accuracy: pretty terrible, but with the reputation for being legit. She was negative. So I assumed I was negative.
Then my wife realized she could not smell the onions she was chopping, and we got tested at a facility that did not used to be a gas station.
I was mostly recovered from COVID by the time I realized I had COVID. I didn't know how to feel once I felt better. Relieved that my family experienced a mild case. Relieved to be a person who takes the pandemic seriously in a region that takes it seriously; I couldn't have leapt into the mosh pit at Coughapalooza if I had wanted to, and I stopped visiting the local tavern on Sundays weeks ago. Sheepish for having contracted the illness in the first place. Ashamed at some of the less-than-altruistic thoughts which crossed my mind as I waited out our family quarantine.
COVID was the most dangerous contagion America could face in 2020, because it's an illness that's not about you. It demands that we think two steps down the chain and make a sacrifice for someone else, not of $20 in a collection plate or a GoFundMe, but of time, activity, opportunities, little creature comforts and lower-case-f freedoms. It requires an exchange of a little bit of privilege for the health/safety/lives of others. And it arrived just when a segment of our population chose to be proudly, vehemently, irrationally opposed to just that sort of sacrifice.
There are now 20 million Americans like the many of my friends and family who contracted this illness, got well, and got on with life. Many of us probably schlepped through a few days not knowing we were contagious. Each decision to wear a mask, avoid a crowd, stand six feet away, skip an indoor visit, and turn down a travel opportunity kept an already staggering death toll from becoming even worse.
The best thing I did in 2020 was not harm anyone else. I am sure most of you can say the same. As for those who cannot, that's between them and their consciences.
J.J. Watt delivered the NFL's Gettysburg Address after Sunday's Texans loss to the Bengals.
It's time for me to hammer this memoir I have spent two weeks writing into something Walkthrough-like; I have no interest in writing a Jets-Patriots preview, and you have no interest in reading one. COVID still pokes me in the ribs now and then, long after the significant symptoms have passed, but my energy/appetite/enthusiasm are mostly back.
The NFL can be criticized for a thousand different things, but it handled the pandemic and the turmoil of 2020 very well. Some colleagues shouted "bubble" every time a team had three positive cases and scoffed at the league's Black Lives Matter lip service. I wished my family's school had the resources to test and trace as thoroughly as the NFL did and that every politician, preacher, and parent in America would, at bare minimum, offer the same lip service. The NFL was mostly transparent and surprisingly adaptable, and it worked alongside the NFLPA, which is not the lapdog it's perceived to be. (Remember the preseason? Nope. Didn't happen, because the union insisted.)
Watt's speech was a brief homily about dedication, perseverance, privilege, and the simple-but-overlooked true meaning of professional football: to provide entertainment and inspiration. The business of the NFL in 2020 was staying in business, which it did, giving us "Tompa Bay" when sports talk shows needed a week of content and Patrick Mahomes touchdowns when we needed an escape from reality. Our business was to muddle through, even when the whole country looked like the current Texans organization.
It's a blessing to have a job, a family, and good health, and to live in the world of streaming services and GrubHub, when quarantine means takeout food and Schitt's Creek. We're lucky to live in a world where so many of us can work from home. We're fortunate to have avoided much more critical food shortages, more volatile social unrest, an even greater economic collapse. We're fortunate that a few dedicated individuals worked hard to give hundreds of thousands of formerly disenfranchised people the chance to vote. We're fortunate in a way that 2020 was so speed-plotted that one week's catastrophe had to wrap up quickly so the next one could begin. We're fortunate that there are now vaccines.
We are all the Texans at the end of 2020, battling through leaderless ugliness a while longer because we owe it to ourselves to remain dedicated, strong, proud, undefeated by a year of defeats.
Someday, 2020 will be just a sad, strange jumble of memories, and we'll be able to complain about a bad day at the beach again. Until then, I wish you peace, good health, and all the joy that heaven will allow, and a Happy New Year.