On February 3, 2000, Americans witnessed a media event that had, until not long before, seemed wholly unlikely. That day, Vince McMahon, he of World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) fame, was sitting in front of the cameras to talk about professional football.
What ever happened to football? He asked the cameras, rhetorically. He went on to complain of how football had “lost its way”; how it had gotten “soft” by doing things like discouraging serious injuries or penalizing excessive force, penalizing taunting, and the like. Where was his “smash-mouth” football? What happened to the good ol’ mean American sport? What had our beloved, unique game become?
Vince McMahon, it bears noting, knew nothing about football (and likely still doesn’t). He knew nothing about forming a league or the underlying business of such an undertaking, of the herculean feat he was setting before himself. He knew nothing about scouting talent, forming teams, hiring coaches…nothing about setting up a draft, maintaining competition, finding stadiums and filling seats with paying rear ends. He likely had no real concept of any of it, even the commercial realities of selling beer and popcorn.
No, Vince McMahon had never been even distantly involved in sports (real sports) business or marketing before. Indeed, the sum total of his experience with professional football consisted of overpaying for beer and screaming at his television.
But now, mind you, Vince McMahon wasn’t just anyone. He was rich and white, he was a self-made man, he was successful, and dammit, he was an American. He wasn’t about to let some namby-pambies in fancy suits tell him that he couldn’t start his own league, and he certainly wasn’t going to let a complete ignorance of every aspect of the sport stop him.
And so began one of the greatest mistakes in professional sports history.
McMahon came to the presser that day in February with nothing; no coaches, no players, no stadiums, no teams, no plans, nothing. He had only one thing to offer: words. Yet this was a man who was good with those; after all, you don’t make millions selling a pretend sport to paying adult audiences by being unable to sell yourself. So he did that. He sat in front of America with a five-card poker hand, ten-high, and bluffed everyone. He bluffed sports media (initially, anyway). He bluffed NBC. He bluffed sponsors and cities and stadium managers and all the poor boobs who thought his “XFL” would give their careers new life.
As for McMahon, he wasn’t worried at all.
He didn’t have anything figured out, no, but he had money. He’d watched it on television. He’d read about it.
Heck, how hard could it be?
On February 3, 2001, the XFL played its first game, and at long last American football fans began to see that they’d been had. They had been promised a return to glory, to the days of rough-and-tumble, blood and guts football. Instead, they were given a field of NFL washouts and retread veterans, garish uniforms and silly displays, on-field beefs and jerseys printed with nicknames, scantily-clad cheerleaders and team mascots that glorified crime. They had been promised a return to masculinity in football. Instead, they were presented with misogynist, testosterone-charged buffoonery.
In all fairness to McMahon and his goons, they did indeed deliver on a few of their promises. There were, in fact, fewer rules, especially with regards to excessive force. Yet in many ways, the league’s lack of rules did not “make football great again”, so much as prove that such rules were necessary. Player injuries were frequent. Fights broke out, and when they failed to, booth commentator Jesse Ventura was sent down to pick them. Commentators were told to frequently objectify the cheerleaders and comment on their bodies. If they failed to, focusing instead on the sport, they were fired.
In all fairness, amidst all this silliness and spectacle, the XFL did in fact manage to contribute to the evolution of professional football. The league employed copious numbers of cameras and microphones, including skycams (used for the first time in pro football), to provide a fully-immersive viewing experience. Players chose nicknames for their jerseys and wore microphones in the huddle, and sideline reporters spent their time interviewing the players, not the coaches. All of this gave fans at home a deeply intimate experience with the sport. The experience brought the players down to earth, made them human, and allowed fans to form strong bonds with them. Or at least, it might have eventually…
Hard as it is to believe, the XFL experiment was cut mercifully short. After one year of free-falling viewership, the league ceased operation. In the end, the league’s only enduring legacy lay in the lasting impact it had on the NFL. Soon after, the NFL adapted the immersive “cameras everywhere” approach. Quarterbacks and select other players were mic’d up, allowing fans at home to hear the play calls before the snap. These things, and the inspiring comeback of quarterback Tommy Maddox, were all that remained of the outlandish failure that was the XFL.
It is fitting, really, that the XFL has come up over this past week, given the nature of its genesis, its rise, its failure to produce, and its eventual fall. The XFL was conceived of as a means to take Americans back to an idealized simpler time. For many, the promise Vince McMahon gave football fans no doubt conjured up images of muddy fields and single-bar facemasks, of Dick Butkus and Jack Lambert, of Bob Griese and Roger Staubach. Yet they failed to take into account how complex the sport, and indeed the business, of football had become. Perhaps more importantly, they failed to consider, even for a moment, the poor temperament and woeful qualifications of the man they’d trusted with this task.
Looking at Vince McMahon…a carnival barker, a blowhard, a classless, feckless clown…it’s easy to see how things turned out so poorly. It only makes sense, in retrospect, that a man so selfish and tasteless would offer something wholesome and nostalgic, and instead deliver something sophomoric and offensive. Really, everyone should have known better. Instead, though, millions (millions!) of Americans tuned in, whether out of morbid curiosity or honest expectation, and were disappointed.
Indeed, given the tawdry spectacle we are poised to witness today, there is only one positive from the whole of the XFL experience we can glean, with regards to the sensibilities of the American public.
When they saw how bad it was, when they realized how they’d been lied to, how they’d been had, they turned it off, and refused to support something so ridiculous.
They realized that, as much as things may seem brighter and simpler in retrospect, the past is the past for a reason. We can never go back, no matter how badly we may want to.