When John Madden died on Tuesday at the age of 85, it was inevitable that many of us would reflect not only on the life of the great coach and broadcaster, but on football itself. His long career, both on the sidelines and in the booth, evokes images that are synonymous with the game, at least as it once was: Here are the big shoulder pads, the impossibly bulky, hold-inviting jerseys, the now-illegal hits to which millions of living rooms thrilled simultaneously. Here is Jack Tatum diving into the latrine for a fifty-dollar bill he had just tossed in himself. Here are Stabler and Biletnikoff and Villapiano, to say nothing of Blanda, who had been drafted by Chicago when my maternal grandfather was an infant. Here are Landry and Noll. Here are Shula’s undefeated Dolphins. Here, long after Madden’s retirement from coaching, are McMahon and Aikman and Favre and their Super Bowls and half-forgotten Pro Bowlers with 1:1 touchdown to interception ratios. Here are split backs and the I formation. Here is a young Belichick with his finger in the dirt inventing the base dime defense. Here are the blocky score bugs, reminiscent of the election coverage our parents once watched on network television, and the primitive first down markers. Here are those discarded logos: the faintly 17th-century Buccaneer with a plumed hat and a dagger in his teeth, the Columbia blue derrick of the Houston Oilers, the Lion whose curiously arranged front paws were mistaken by two generations of American children for a nose and an eye. And amid all of this an ordinary voice, a voice one might just as easily hear from the next seat in the bar or the sofa, uttering a monosyllable.
For fans, including younger ones who recall many of these things dimly or not at all, such wide-ranging associations are understandable. Some attempt to give expression to them seems appropriate, and not only because more personal tributes from those who knew Madden are already numerous.
There is a unique sense in which the history of the game can be traced through Madden’s life and career. In 1957, when he was still playing college ball at Cal Poly, Alabama would announce the hiring of one Paul William Bryant following a painful 2-7-1 campaign. That year the Detroit Lions would defeat the Cleveland Browns in the pre-merger NFL Championship, 59-14. The now hopelessly antiquated wishbone triple option was years away from its inception, and it would be a long while before “split ends” would be referred to generally as “wide receivers.” The college and professional ranks alike were full of two and even three-way players, quarterbacks who tried their hands at linebacker and kicked field goals into the bargain. Ties were common. Though many games were low scoring, the largest-ever margins of victory belong to this era, as do many of its records, including Norm Van Brocklin’s for passing yards in a single game (554), set when Madden himself was a teenager. This was football’s Wild West and, simultaneously, its Eden, a glorious new creation that would never fall because it had never been innocent, breathlessly awaiting the Adam who would give names “to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.”
This would be Madden himself as much as it was anyone. His story, like that of the game he loved, is one of continuous evolution, of the progress, by no means inevitable, of a disreputable pastime into what has long been America’s most popular sport. Before the 1980s, the era of Madden’s rise to broadcasting fame, professional football had been a somewhat embarrassing adjuvant to the college game. The latter was still the domain of fresh-faced boys, antiquated Joe College stereotypes, played mainly in small towns in the South and the Midwest and celebrated with civic pomp before its heroes settled into their long careers in law or accounting or as used-car salesmen.
Pro football was, by contrast, an urban affair, a grim fixture of the steel towns and manufacturing cities of the North, whose players and fans alike might have been extras in The Deer Hunter. The Butkuses and Csonkas and Ditkas are long gone. So are the Night Train Lanes and Eddie Macons who would in some cases play their final games before the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Beer is no longer drunk in locker rooms (at least not before kickoff) and smoking has vanished from the sidelines. The cash payments exchanged by Madden’s Raiders for taking opposing players off the field are not only illegal—they are the object of priggish horror, not least from his successors in broadcasting. The once lovably ramshackle nature of many of the former AFL teams, such as the old Boston Patriots, is almost impossible to appreciate now except in historical terms. So, too, is the old AFL’s once-astonishing openness to black players, who now make up about 70 percent of the league.
For all of these reasons, I was disappointed by the Madden program broadcast on Fox on Christmas Day. At nearly every stage of his career it either elides or distorts crucial elements of the game’s history, from the rules changes that made his beloved hard-hitting defenses a thing of the past to the ever-shifting nature of offensive strategy. It also gives viewers no sense of the anarchic spirit of his 1970s Raiders teams. (As the legendary Raiders defensive lineman Pat Toomay once put it: “You have to go to the Greeks to get the appropriate conception. The Greeks . . . understood ‘heroes’ as being capable of anything, from patricide to incest, because of the energy they had to embody to do the admirable things they did.”). We hear more about a series of faceless retired television producers than we do about Al Davis. Roger Goodell is given more words than any living former Raider.
Perhaps all of this was inevitable, given the NFL’s involvement. But I would have liked to see something more in the way of reflection, either from Madden himself or from those around him, on the manner in which the game changed during his lifetime. (How did he go from celebrating hits like these to arguing that they should be banned, for example?) It is hardly an exaggeration to say that football barely resembles what it was, not just during Madden’s coaching career, but even in 2008, his last year as a broadcaster. This is true not simply because of the misleadingly vaunted emphasis on vertical passing—the only active player among the top 100 all time in yards per completion is Jameis Winston—but in ways that have nothing little or nothing to do with what happens on the field.
When Madden became head coach of the Raiders in 1969, at the age of 32, the newly formed NFL was a league of wastrels and felons, people who frequently gave the impression that they were otherwise unemployable; now the archetypal player mouths along with focus-grouped political slogans and requests trades on the basis of his potential Instagram earnings. The tough-guy ethos of the past has been replaced by a cloying childishness that takes the form of inviting players to wear cleats with garish color schemes meant to promote league-approved nonprofit organizations. (Imagine asking Lawrence Taylor in 1984 what cause he would like to promote on his shoes or what feel-good motto would appear on his helmet.)
Meanwhile, officially designated injuries have proliferated, not because the game is less safe but because risk-averse coaches and training staff have decided that the level of acceptable harm to what are frequently eight- or even nine-figure salary investments is very low. The Cal Ripken-like feats of endurance performed by Favre and, more recently, Philip Rivers with their 321 and 252 consecutive starts respectively at quarterback will almost certainly never be seen again. A blow to the head across the top of the pile is not a goal-line stand, but a first down for the other team and a possible ejection for the offending player. When Hank Williams Jr. lamented in 1982 that there were “too many lawyers in football,” he could scarcely have imagined the reality we inhabit today, when the vast majority of plays are subject to both on-field litigation and judicial review at the league’s headquarters.
Here I should confess, in case it is unclear, that many of the changes I am half-lamenting were set in motion long before even my earliest pro football memories, which are of Barry Sanders and John Elway. My own generation knows Madden chiefly for the video game franchise that is his namesake. His actual role in the bestselling series was more significant than is sometimes acknowledged; from the first, he insisted that he would only lend his name and likeness to a game that, whatever other technological limitations might be in place, featured 22 players on screen engaged in something that at least somewhat resembled the real thing.
Thanks to these sophisticated simulations, pro football for some of us is not a passive experience on television but something we are able to follow with what would once have been an astonishing degree of expertise for anyone who had not played beyond high school or even Pop Warner. It is, I think, largely because of the video game that fans my age tend to know more about offensive personnel groupings and coverage schemes than our grandfathers who have been watching football since the days when the Lions were a powerhouse.
All of this is to the good. But it also seems fair to point out the detrimental effects of making football synonymous with digital simulacra. More than anything else, it was Madden (the video game, not the man) that made possible the manner in which the NFL is appreciated by many fans today, which is to say, simultaneously as a numbers racket in the form of online fantasy football and as a series of YouTube highlights. Once video games had reduced players to a combination of decontextualized heroics and computer-assigned statistical attributes, it was probably inevitable that people would stop watching complete games. As things stand, I know dozens of young men who do not see more than a handful of actual games each season but devote thousands of hours to fine-tuning their fantasy lineups and (of course) to online Madden competition.
What they lose, among much else, is the game’s human drama, its narrative element, the unfathomable joys and inevitable disappointments of fandom, the dejection of close losses and the incomparable thrill of upset victories which will register for them as little more than inconvenient statistical outliers. It was these things that made me first love the game as a child and which Madden as a broadcaster captured so effectively. Are these privations, for which he was partially if indirectly responsible, a triumph for the game, as opposed to the league, the owners, the television networks, the endlessly expanding universe of online analysts and commentators, and now the online sportsbooks? I somehow doubt it.
If in the course of this essay I have said comparatively little about Madden himself, it is only because it is easy to imagine that he was more attuned to the fundamental changes the game underwent in his lifetime than anyone else. What he ultimately thought of them, alas, we may never know.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.