Saturday, January 27, 2018

The XFL and the XFLs Promised

This week, America’s Lumpiest CEO Vince McMahon announced he had looked at the XFL, which only exists as a faded joke emblematic of absurd early twenty-first century boondoggle sporting ventures along with Slamball, the second version of American Gladiators, and the various celebrity boxings and human vs. bear hotdog eating competitions, and decided it needed to return. The XFL comes at a time when the NFL’s bulletproof reputation has faded as it has been smothered by a tapestry of incongruous grievances: people horrified by the league's grotesque cover-up of its devastating concussion problem, people bored by nine-hour games mired in replay review that have turned football into the part of a board game where you scrutinize the inside of the box for rules infractions, the people who have threatened boycotts over the NFL because they have conflated symbolic player protests over police brutality with a charge that the sports league that regularly holds Soviet-style tank parades before games is no longer imbued with enough theatrical patriotism, and relentlessly aggrieved Patriots fans.

Vince McMahon hopes to fill this void by reviving the XFL nearly 20 years on, precisely long enough to hope that everyone has forgotten that it was so dumb.
The XFL operated from an organizational philosophy 
that the coolest shit in the world was flames and the 
Boo Berry font

The XFL's original incarnation in 2001 promised a version of football that doubled down on brutality, prurience, and the exciting drama one could expect from the world of professional wrestling where oiled pectoral men screamed at each other and McMahon regularly pretended to die by getting trapped in various exploding limousines.  Off the top of my head, I can still recall the XFL's selling points: an end to the fair catch rule and replacement of the opening kickoff with some sort of violently lawless football scramble; even as ESPN included its "Jack'd Up" segments to celebrate the infliction of brain traumas, the XFL offered viewers the opportunity to see players jacked to heretofore unimagined altitudes.

The XFL emerged as the wheezing death rattle to the 1990s trend of "extreme" advertising, where all products aimed at teenagers and children emanated from the fever dreams of a 57-year-old marketing executive who fell into some sort of cocaine reverie in front of a BMX bike shop in 1992 and spent the rest of the decade screaming at people to put more Xs and Zs in names and throwing terrified subordinates through windows then yelling WHY DOESN'T THIS HAVE A FUCKING SKATEBOARD? For the XFL, this meant making sure all teams had edgy, vaguely violent names that, viewed in 2018, all look exactly like a Korn logo ineptly stenciled onto an Algebra II textbook. 
"The team's name and logo were designed to lead the team's 
fans into calling the team "The Ax", a shortened form of the 
word "maniacs". Regardless, the name and logo were roundly 
criticized by advocates for the rights of the mentally ill,[who?] 
believing they were derived from a derisive term for a person 
suffering from mental illness, "maniac", and/or a depiction of a 
deranged axe-wielding murderer, though no picture of an axe 
was in the logo. Still, many of the fans formed their own cheering 
section at the Liberty Bowl unofficially known as 'The Asylum'"
(I already don't have to tell you this is from Wikipedia)

Part of McMahon's plan involved inserting wrestling personalities into the broadcast.  That is how viewers wound up with football games called by Jesse "The Body" Ventura, a supernatural antenna for the late twentieth century's goofiest shit: professional wrestling, Arnold movies, the XFL, stolen valor accusations, third-party politics.

The XFL made it one season and folded, a disaster for pretty much everyone involved except for Tommy Maddox.  Its gimmicks failed to hold anyone's attention past the opening weeks, and McMahon and NBC were left with a league full of also-ran players that no one wanted to see. Its sole influence comes from some camera angles and the fact that a guy put the words "He Hate Me" on the back of his jersey and briefly became a minor cultural phenomenon solely for that reason.  I would venture to guess that anyone who has lingering warm feelings for the XFL regards it as kitsch, a dumb totem from a spectacularly dumb moment in American culture, something that is inherently funny because it actually existed.

I think that whatever ironic nostalgic for the XFL exists concerns an imagined XFL, the XFL promised.  Not the sad reality of NFL Europe washouts humming dumpoff passes into running backs' ankles, but the idea of a professional sports league run not by the staid necessities of sponsors and television executives and team owners every single one of whom is a ruthless oil investor or the incompetent child of a rich person who spent his or her 20s driving sports cars into bodies of water and who all sit around in suits and force everyone around them to call them "mister," but springing from the deranged imagination of someone involved with professional wrestling.  The XFL, in my head, involves a team called the Sacramento Blood Demons rising into the endzone while the entire linebacking corps wails on electric guitars.

The initial appeal of the XFL to me was not necessarily the violence or the implementation of rules dreamed up by every stoned football fan, but it was the fact that it was connected to wrestling, a theater of the absurd.  The NFL at the time and now remains a stodgy, self-serious league that only allowed joy to be expressed once a week by Brett Favre; professional wrestling features undead zombie men, wrestlers reliably stunned into slack-jawed reverie by their arch-rival's theme song, and two guys from New Zealand whose entire gimmick involved silly walks.  Football, long the purview of grim-voiced television analysts and autocrat coaches who force players to wrestle alligators if they are two seconds late to this 7:00 meeting and by 7:00 I mean 6:57 sharp could use that kind of levity.  The NFL sports draconian celebration penalties.  The NFL once specifically forbade players from doing "incredible hulk."  In 2014, Richard Sherman gave a pro-wrestling-style interview that used Erin Andrews as a makeshift Mean Gene Okerlund and the entire football world lost its mind.

That's not the XFL Vince McMahon offers now.  The new XFL will not have nose tackles giving long monologues about how they are going to pass rush someone through the gates of hell, they will not have quarterbacks who are pretending to be space aliens or angry bureaucrats from the internal revenue service, they will not have a team line up for a kick and then Gustav Holst's Mars the Bringer of War comes over the speakers and the quarterback comes running out of the tunnel with the offense to do a two-point conversion even though we all know that's exciting because it is basically how Kentucky chose to end the Music City Bowl.  McMahon's XFL revival seems to be mainly about appealing to the people who have been losing their minds about players kneeling for the national anthem, full stop, which is the dumbest reason I can imagine for watching a minor-league sporting concern.

The sole entertainment value from the new XFL will be from whatever remainder bin quarterbacks end up starting for the Fort Wayne Reverse Mortgages and the five seconds of laughing at Jimmy Clausen getting sacked by a 45 year-old Julius Peppers will likely be its entire legacy instead of Jimmy Claws Son getting mauled by a 45-year-old Julius Peppers who has entered the stadium on third down in a smoke-filled boat accompanied by the Third Down Pass Rush Specialist brass band.  We will never get the XFL we deserve.

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