The NFL has been derided as the "No Fun League" since at least 1985, when Billy "White Shoes" Johnson was penalized twice for his signature touchdown dance. But in another sense, 1985 is when NFL fun reached a new level that's still growing, sparked by the Chicago Bears, William "Refrigerator" Perry and the Super Bowl Shuffle.
Whether you credit them or blame them, "Da Bears" helped make Super Bowl Media Day the spectacle it has become.
They were crossover stars in sports' biggest crossover event, making Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and Perry icons in pop culture as well as NFL circles. Ditka starred on "Saturday Night Live," Payton appeared on the cover of Time and Perry graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Meanwhile, McMahon was showing his behind — mooning a media helicopter at practice — and defying the rules on headbands.
It was only a matter of time before ESPN decided Media Day would make for great programming (or least kill some time). MTV, Entertainment Tonight, Nickelodeon and a bunch of other networks followed suit, all trying to get their own piece of America's undeclared national holiday.
The NFL, always willing to tighten its stranglehold as the country's No. 1 passion, has welcomed all comers. Two thousand credentials were issued for Tuesday's Media Day at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium. The bigger surprise — since the league never saw a dollar it didn't crave — is that tickets were sold for the first time. More than 7,000 fans thought it was a worthwhile expenditure of time and money (one hour each for the New England Patriots and New York Giants, separated by a one-hour intermission, for $25).
These confabs rarely deliver any real news outside of who took honors for the craziest outfit, dumbest question and silliest prop. The players have been schooled to make their answers as innocuous as possible, free from anything that's remotely inflammatory, controversial or worthy of the bulletin board.
For instance, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was asked if he wanted a Super Bowl rematch as much as the Patriots fan. "There has been a great rivalry between Boston and New York for a long time," he said, according to an NFL transcript. "When I got to the team, it was always Red Sox-Yankees. We've had some pretty meaningful games against the Giants over the past few years, so I don't think anyone is disappointed that it's the Giants."
(Yawn. That's nothing like the bravado he exhibited Sunday at a pep rally, when he told 25,000 Patriots fans that he hoped "we have a lot more people at our party next weekend." To those who said the New York media made too much of the comment, I have a simple question: What party? Unless there are plans for a bash even if they lose, Brady was referencing their victory celebration. Had he said "a party" instead of "our party," he would've avoided the dustup).
Media Day isn't about football as much as the league's season-ending event, which everyone attests is more than just a game. Many veteran sports journalists don't care for the proceedings, forced to go elbow-to-elbow with "reporters" who never cover the NFL.
"Will you have the power of the divine beast, the dragon, on Sunday?" one character asked Brady.
"Whatever the hell that means, I hope so," Brady said.
Someone else wanted to know what advice Brady gets from his supermodel wife, Gisele.
"Throw the ball quickly," he said. "She doesn't like it when I get hit very often."
It's all harmless and some of it is funny. In an era that's saturated with coverage via cable and cyberspace, there's no shortage of outlets that will dissect, say, the Giants' receivers vs. the Patriots' secondary, or the Patriots' offensive line vs. the Giants' pass rush. After Tuesday's circus, the questions return to normal in the run-up to Sunday.
So while Media Day has minimal value to hardcore football fans and journalists, it's another entry point for the casual fans who make the NFL such a juggernaut. The day is a nod to the fact that the nation's top 10 all-time most-watched TV programs (based on number of viewers) are Super Bowls, as are eight of the 15 most-watched TV programs based on audience rating.
The league might be a little overzealous in handling on-field celebrations, socks of varying lengths and shoes of varying colors.
But when it comes to the Tuesday before the Super Bowl, the NFL allows us to put some fun in football.
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