The XFL kicks off this weekend, and the NFL establishment is looking forward to it with the enthusiasm of a patient awaiting a barium enema. The XFL folks, of course, regard that as a compliment.
The new football league, a creation of wrestling mogul Vince McMahan, seeks to take professional football, among other places, to its logical extreme. (The “X” is for the phonetic spelling, if not the rating.) It’s Gladiator on the gridirona game made not for the Pepsi Generation but tailored for testosterone-addled teens and twentysomethings. Boys who are an insurer’s nightmare represent the XFL’s demographic dream. The teams have hypermacho names like the New York/New Jersey Hitmen, the Orlando Rage, and the Memphis Maniax. There are no fair-catches. Extra-point kicks are too wussified to be allowable (you have to go for it like a man). No pantywaist “quarterback-in-the-grasp” rule, either. It’s Rollerball all over again.
The cheerleaders, who also earn an emphatic X, make the “Baywatch Babes” look ridiculously overdressed. They’re paid not only to yell for the boys but to date them. Game telecastsand we are not making this upwill feature interviews with the Showgirls that will pry into their pregame rituals with the players.
All of this, however, represents a difference without a distinction. We hate to break it to you, Vince, but after last Sunday you may need to rethink this whole thing. If you planned to embody football’s barbarians at the gate, you better check out the Vandals already inside, representin’ for civilization. If you intended to stake out new ground with smash-mouth play and smack-talk, you’re trespassing on ground that’s already claimed.
Go back and check the Super Bowl tape, Vince. It’s all recorded. Ray Lewis. The Baltimore Ravens. Brian Billick. And, of course, Britney. Unless you’re prepared to get way, way more out there, Vincesuch as ritual killing of any refs overruled by replay camerasthe NFL has done stole your thunder.
Really, it’s hard to see how the NFL feels threatened by the XFL. Not after a Super Sunday that, for blood and circuses, might’ve earned two enthusiastic thumbs up from Caligula back in the day.
It took nearly a decade for the NFL and the old American Football League to merge. But, in spirit, the NFL and the XFL are already n’sync. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue can look upon McMahan and proclaim, “We have met the enema, and it is us.”
Don’t believe it? Consider the Ravens on the field. Stone Cold Steve Austin in all his wicked glory was not arraigned like one of these guys.
We’re speaking, of course, of Monsieur Lewis, hailed as the Super Bowl’s MVP exactly one year after being arrested for murder. The WWF has the Undertaker; the NFL has the player whose buddies sent two men to the undertaker.
The XFL intends to distinguish itself with trash talk and posturing. The NFL’s new champions not only can taunt more relentlessly than anyone, they pepper their smack with salty language that even McMahan’s “family-oriented” wrestling league would never broadcast.
The XFL promises “outrageous” cheerleaders who make their gyrating NFL counterparts in Dallas and Oakland look Amish. But, for pure gonzo entertainment, they still have a ways to go to top Sunday’s celebrity-laden halftime gig, which offered the weirdest lineup since Michael Jackson performed alone.
Quick, name any other venue where you could see Aerosmith share a stage with ♦NSync, Mary J. Blige, Nelly, and the surgically augmented but sartorially shortchanged Britney thrown in for spice. Find someone who could’ve predicted America’s most mainstream program would feature “Walk This Way” delivered as a feelgood, diversity-celebrating “We Are the World” number. Not even the most wacked XFL organizer would have dreamed up this combination of spandex-suited performerswhich, at times, looked like a bizarre collaboration between the Legion of Superheroes and the Justice League of Americasinging lyrics so wildly inappropriate.
But it was the winning team that most of all gave Super Bowl XXXV its XFL ambience. In the spirit of the game, let’s just say it in your face: The Super Bowl champions, as a group, play like punks. They seem to embrace the thug-life ideal so thoroughly that perhaps they should replace the Raven decal on their helmets with a mug shot of Tupac. And if it seems unseemly for such sentiments to appear in a newspaper in the Tennessee Titans’ hometown, let me paraphrase Bro. Billick and suggest that you deal with it.
Not even the old Oakland Raiders with George “Assassin” Atkinson and Lester “the Molester” Hayes reveled in their street-gang image like the Ravens do. After almost every tackle on Sunday, Baltimore’s defensive and special teams players stood over the ball-carrier and issued taunts, or shoved another of the Giants and issued taunts, or strutted away from the pile and issued taunts.
During the pregame introductions, you could hear one Raven shout to everyone, “Come get some of this ♦%@!,” emphatically adding the suggestion that his listeners, to put this delicately, had an Oedipal complex. Perhaps he was only taking his cue from Billick, whose “[Bleep] you!” aimed at the Tennessee bench could be understood by every 8-year-old watching on national TV.
And though the Ravens didn’t take home any severed ears or shrunken heads as trophies on Sunday, they twice were fined during the playoffs for dirty hits on opposing QBs. If the NFL were serious about curbing such behavior, they’d impose one-game suspensions instead of $10,000 lunch-money fines.
But the NFL is not serious. Nor do they seem overly troubled by the disquieting image of Ray Lewisa man who pled guilty last summer to involvement in a double murderas its prime exemplar of the football arts. Even Bill Clinton couldn’t compartmentalize public from private behavior that completely.
You don’t have to believe that Lewis helped kill anyone and bought his way out of trouble, though millions certainly do. But the most charitable, benefit-of-the-doubt-giving thing you can say is that he enabled the murderer(s) to flee the scene, then lied to police.
It would have helped had Lewis offered something, anything, last week in the way of regret or remorse, even while maintaining his innocence. Instead, abetted by Billick, he portrayed himself as the victim, as cold as a blade of steel. Maybe Lewis doesn’t belong in prison. But only a cowardly lack of standards kept him in the NFL.
Don’t think the Ravens are flukes. They deserved the title. Under different circumstances, it would be easier to sit in awe of their defense, which can legitimately claim to be the best of all time. Their talk isn’t hype: They make offenses quit. Lewis may be better than Butkus, Taylor, and Singletary.
And, to be sure, the Ravens didn’t invent taunting or dirty play or putting thugs in a uniform. But they’ve taken them all to new levels. A lot of fans, and not just in Nashville, will be eagerly waiting for Lewis and the gang to get taken out next season.
Meanwhile, we can offer some consolation and advice to the taunting, smacking, mugging XFL. Maybe you can no longer call yourselves pioneers. But at least you have some spectacular role models.