The NFL preseason games have begun.
Baltimore has played Tampa Bay and Washington has played Tennessee and so on. I’ve mentioned neither winners nor scores, because they don’t matter, except to the people who bet on exhibition games. I’m sure there are some, because Tom Waits says “everything you can think of is true,” and I believe him. I can think of men with lives so threadbare that earlier this week they woke up their bookmakers to put something on Oakland over Dallas, though even most people in Oakland and Dallas don’t care about the result.
The NFL preseason is not about results.
It is about crossing your fingers and hoping those who matter most can play enough to attain the requisite sharpness for real games without tearing something more important than a chin strap.
It is about the math general managers do as they try to figure out if the inexpensive rookie is ready to replace the veteran about to become very expensive. Because although performance is important, in a sport where players don’t make a lot until they’ve been around for a while, the math is also important.
The NFL preseason also constitutes a great, loud horn warning all the other pro sports to get off the track, because the big train is about to barrel in.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are atop the National League’s Central Division? Who cares? Steelers coming through.
The Miami Marlins are terrible? So what? The Dolphins are on.
In the U.S., football is king. It has not always been thus but it is unquestionably thus now, and the fact that some 4,000 ex-players are suing the NFL for failing to tell the players what the league knew about what happens when you get hit in the head a lot in your workplace hasn’t changed that a bit.
In a new book appropriately titled The King of Sports, Greg Easterbrook of ESPN.com among other places invokes a spectacle called “the battle royal” to describe today’s NFL. Battles royal used to be staged in smoky hotel function rooms, where wealthy citizens would watch and laugh as blindfolded boys swung and kicked at each other until only one was left standing. Easterbrook writes that broadcasts of the NFL have “brought the Battle Royal to prime time.”
You can agree or you can disagree with that characterization of the nation’s favorite game, but you cannot deny that for whatever combination of reasons, the NFL, just now beginning again, has a lock on that distinction.