Baffoe: Amid Protests, Actual Fun Emerges In The NFL

By Tim Baffoe–

(CBS) Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” isn’t a good movie, although it’s a very watchable movie. It’s about sports, which often seems to make up for what a film lacks or, in this case, over-does. Too much Stone weirdness of existentialism and supernatural. Too ugly of uniform choices — seriously, what the hell were these?

Yes, the Pacino speech is a thing, but the film is still a whole lotta Good Bad Pacino.

The film came out about 14 months before we were graced with the Guy Fieri of football leagues, the XFL, and parts of it feel like a fever dream preparing us for a league that make Donald Trump’s handling of attempted sports leagues seem bright. But there’s fun inside “Any Given Sunday” amid the uncomfortable moodiness that palls the film. Most notably are the touchdown celebrations. Even more most notably, the grenade one we all remember.

It was patently ridiculous at the time, Stone pushing it to 11 to make his commentary on some bit of Americana more surreal than authentic. Sure, we’d seen fun touchdown celebrations in the NFL before, mostly by individuals, but Willie Beamen’s grenade toss was too good, too choreographed. It was Stone blatantly giving you the theater of football that would cause your dad’s beer can to crinkle in his fist should it happen in real life. Which, of course, made it great, fictitious as it was.

We see the fiction become reality 18 years later in an NFL that sees itself in a strange crossroads. The dominant story of this season in real football has been players demonstrating during the national anthem against police violence and social injustice. It has divided fans, NFL personnel and teammates alike. It’s all had a conversational domino effect leading to, among other things, the President of the United States yell-tweeting about it, vocal minority segments of viewership wrongly claiming they’re affecting ratings, national sports talkers being reprimanded for thoughts about the controversy and official Nazi pizza.

These politics reflected in sports are important, but they’re anything but fun. Compound that with the generally lackluster play, and most of the NFL experience this year has been taxing instead of entertaining. Yet there has been a light that has managed to find its way through the black hole of 2017’s NFL that’s been hardly about any good actual football.

In May, the league announced it was going to relax some of the draconian player celebration rules. For a long time, it seemed as though league brass hated the pro wrestling aspect of its viewability. Sure, the Xs and Os are the meat of what we watch, but we really relish the sizzle, and for a while league offices believed the meal would be gobbled up as much microwaved instead. Randy Moss and Joe Horn had made it too spicy, too much about the self and not the shield, even though the public loved it (or loved convincing itself it was bothered by it). So the league instituted penalties for fun. The game felt more plastic for a while.

Whether the rules change for this season was a conscious attempt to fight the ratings loss, only league insiders who won’t say know. But damn if cutting the players some much-needed slack hasn’t paid off in the fun department.

“Guys want to celebrate, they want to make it fun,” Washington tight end Vernon Davis said in the spring. “That’s what this game is — it’s all about having fun. Go out there, you don’t want to be uptight. You want to have fun and do things within the realm of your team and be in compliance, but at the same time, you want to have fun. I think that’s one thing we have to work on as players. We have to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can do to make sure that we can keep it this way so that they won’t come back and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take it away from you guys again.’ If we just work together and do things the right way, then we can keep it.”

It doesn’t seem that the league is in any hurry to take the celebrations away. It’s almost as though it has finally realized that harmless fun that gets covered positively on all the highlight programs and spreads rapidly across social media is really good for the #brand. The NFL’s website is even giving away “Middies,” awards at midseason for the best player celebrations this year so far. And there are many candidates for league best, and each week we think we’ve seen the top, only to have it beat a week later.

We’ve had the Detroit Lions doing Double Dutch.

Odell Beckham Jr. gave the ball CPR.

There was the shooting of a free throw into the hooped arms of a teammate and bonus “Roundball Rock.”

The Philadelphia Eagles were really loving baseball.

There was Duck Duck Goose (I’m not calling it Gray Duck).

OH MY GOODNESS BUTT SPIKE.

And your leader in the clubhouse, Potato Sack Race.

Not everyone is a fan, of course. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a stiff who somehow hasn’t won a playoff game in 15 seasons and still has a job, expressed criticism with the change in May.

“I’m not for that at all,” said Lewis, who’s on the NFL Competition Committee. “We had a good standard, and the whole standard has always been, you want to teach people how to play the game the correct way and go about it the correct way, and that’s not a very good example for young people.

“The rules were changed for a reason, and I thought we had a good outcome. Again, this is a team game, and … I don’t understand why we want to give in to individual celebrations.”

At least the fun policing of a giant fart noise in a windbreaker doesn’t matter in this version of a complicated NFL. The game needs this like baseball needs bat flips and expressive home run trots and screaming pitchers after big strikeouts. Maybe the NFL with everything else going on needs it more so.

Because that stuff is really fun to all who don’t hate themselves enough to want that kind of joy sucked out of sports.

So, in that regard, “Any Given Sunday” actually wasn’t overdoing it.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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