Let me say this first: I love football. I don’t love that I love football, when considering the mounting issues concerning both the mental and physical health of its players and those associated with them; it’s an industry ripe with reasons NOT to watch it.
Yet its many scandals have yet to prove detrimental to its popularity. Personally, I grew up on the sport, obsess over its on-the-field facets, enjoy bonding with my family over each week’s results and will live and die with the win-loss record of the Chicago Bears. (Go Bears!)
Like it or not, the NFL has reached such immense popularity it’s actually overshadowing what most people picture when they think of television: scripted programming. (I choose to live in a reality where reality TV does not exist.) In a recent report at Variety, author David S. Cohen labeled the league as quite possibly “the most powerful entity in the history of American television.” He’s not wrong. With the Super Bowl regularly scoring the highest ratings each year and every major network showcasing the sport (now twice a week, on advertisers’ most coveted nights of the week), the NFL is a behemoth of the medium all TV fans have to get used to — and fast.
Why? Thursday Night Football is upon us. What was once relegated to the lower levels of cable networks at the NFL Network is now being broadcast for free on CBS every Thursday for the next seven weeks. So how’s a non-sports fan supposed to enjoy the three hours of football scheduled to air where they’d normally be laughing at Sheldon and Ashton Kutcher? Let me walk you through a Week 1 guide:
Thursday Night Football isn’t about football this week.
The Ray Rice scandal has taken over more than just sports conversation. It’s a part of every news site in one form or another — and for good reason. Much like the NFL’s presence has dominated television, as one of our country’s most publicized and most popular businesses the league also has an impact on the day-to-day lives of Americans. How the organization responds to its scandals sets an example for millions of fans on how problems should be dealt with, and so far it’s bungled this latest issue thoroughly.
At its core, NFL games are live events telecast to the world. Tonight’s game is the first to be played by the Baltimore Ravens since video surfaced of Rice — the team’s former starting running back — knocking his wife unconscious. How will fans react? Most likely, there will be signs, banners and verbal outcry from the citizens of Baltimore, where the game will be held. How will the announcers address the issue? After all, they’re employed by CBS and thus very much invested in maintaining a positive image for the NFL. But will they only comment on the video in relation to what’s happening on the field? Rice’s absence will certainly affect the Ravens’ offense. Last week, the team only two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance struggled to score 16 points.
Announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms (as well as the CBS Sports crew) will carry an extra burden Thursday night, as it’s their job to report on the events of the game, both on the field and in the stadium. We’ll be watching as a collective consciousness to see how they do, and judge independently if they’re a cog in the NFL machine or an insightful party of observant journalists.
But who are we rooting for?
For non-fans of the Ravens and Steelers, this seems like an easy call: Root for the team who never had a player who punched his wife in the face (meaning the Steelers). But not so fast. The quarterback for Pittsburgh is none other than Ben Rothlisberger, a man investigated for sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student four years ago at a nightclub in Georgia. Though he was never formally charged with a crime, Rothlisberger was suspended four games by the NFL for his role in the incident, making him guilty of something illicit in the eyes of a nation. Ever since, it’s been hard to put a clean face on the two-time Super Bowl champion (he’s lost many of his endorsement deals), and it’s equally hard to root for his team. So I’ll be pulling for the team who got rid of their misogynist (the purple team).
What else is interesting about the game?
While high quality ads are usually a reliable piece of entertainment for viewers reluctantly watching sportsing (is it “sports” or “sporting”?), it’s a little early in September for any great movie trailers to be expected (though there could be a lengthy Baltimore tie-in to “No Good Deeds” thanks to its star, Idris Elba, who used to be on the Baltimore-set HBO show “The Wire”) and the options for TV show ads are, well, less than stellar on CBS. We’ll probably be greeted by the smiling faces of recent Emmy winner Jim Parsons promoting “The Big Bang Theory” on its new night (Mondays), just in case a few disappointed fans tune in for Sheldon only to be met by Simms. Outside of that, we might get an ad for the upcoming iPhone 6 and 6-plus, which will be fun the first time and exponentially less so on the 23rd viewing.
Suggested in-game activities:
Okay, so you’re stuck with the game itself for a good chunk of the three-hour telecast. First, make yourself some great food. Finger foods, snacks or anything that can take a while to eat is perfect for football because NFL games last forrrrrrrrr-ever. (Also, as all TV fans already know, food just tastes better when you’re watching people who aren’t allowed to eat what you’re so joyously devouring.) Grab a bag of your favorite (somewhat healthy) chips or a bin of trail mix (with extra M&Ms) and settle down in front of your TV for a long night of gorging.
To help with the gorging, may we also humbly recommend a responsible drinking game? Using your favorite adult beverage, go ahead and take a sip whenever Jim Nantz emphasizes a dramatic play with defiantly muted dialogue. Take another if you spot a crowd member who just so happens to be a smoking hot female fan. Finish your drink if the cameraman loses track of the football. Finally, pull out the shot glasses if inclement weather turns the game into a Three Stooges-esque comedy show.
What else is on TV?
For the first two hours of the game, there’s virtually nothing else on unless you want to watch ABC’s “The Quest” (which even we at Indiewire aren’t sure what to say about) or Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in “The Proposal” on FX for the 47th time. At 10pm, you could try USA’s “Satisfaction,” which looks like the Lifetime version of a USA show, but there’s largely nothing on for anyone craving intelligent original programming. Consider it just one more reason to bear witness to whatever happens in Baltimore Thursday night.