‘NFL's rampant boobery' exposed in Leibovich's new book

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“You know your eyebrows keep going up,” my wife said to me the other night. “Whatever you’re reading, it must be pretty good.”

It was. 

The book was “Big Game, The NFL in Dangerous Times” by Mark Leibovich of the New York Times. Set for release by Penguin Books on September 4, when it hits, eyebrows won’t be the only things impacted. 

A chief national correspondent for The Times, Leibovich’s beat is politics. But his method translates because what he does is embed, observe and relay the absurdity. 

As a result, what we have here are 349 unflinching pages detailing the NFL’s rampant boobery written by a guy who, in 2013, wrote a similar takedown of Washington with his book, “This Town.”

That book was described by The Economist as perhaps being “the most pitiless examination of America’s permanent political class that has ever been conducted.”

Swap “professional football and the people that run it” for “permanent political class” and the same phrase applies here. 

An indication of the pitilessness? In giving full disclosure of his Patriots fandom, this is how the Boston-born, Newton-bred Leibovich, described the complications:

 “Allegiance to the Pats can be tricky. We lead the league in crosses to bear. Our owner can be a whiny star-f***** and sniveling in victory. Everyone who follows pro football outside of New England is sick of us (excluding Donald Trump, Jon Bon Jovi, and maybe a few others). Big portions of the Patriots fan base have become entitled assholes. And yes, I might be one of them. Yet I am loyal to the Pats pretty much unconditionally, give or take the odd cheating rap or occasional Aaron Hernandez.”

Robert Kraft isn’t going to like this book. But it’s hard to argue against Leibovich’s description when Kraft, just this past Tuesday, chose to land his helicopter on the pad next to the Patriots practice field and strolled out to watch a workout. With Jon Bon Jovi by his side. 

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Leibovich highlights the neediness and sensitivity of the Patriots owner and delivers an avalanche of juicy nuggets related to Kraft’s complicated relationships with Roger Goodell, Donald Trump and Jerry Jones. 

After a Leibovich story appeared in the Times just before Super Bowl 51, quoting Trump as saying Kraft “choked just like [Mitt] Romney choked” in not suing the NFL during Deflategate, Kraft approached Leibovich. 

“Did Trump really say that I choked?” Kraft wanted to know. Yes, I told him, though it was a throwaway line from about eighteen months earlier. But Kraft did seem wounded. “Did he really compare me to Romney?” Yes, I said again, but it was in the context of DeflateGate – and besides sir, your team is about to play in another Super Bowl, why are you worried about this? Kraft, who wore an aqua blue suit with pocket squares, shook his head. Even at pinnacle moments, it is always essential to be loved and respected at the most powerful levels. “It was a shock at read that,” Kraft said.

It was also a shock to read Leibovich’s recounting of Falcons owner Arthur Blank -- a close friend of Kraft -- undressing Kraft when the Patriots owner was explaining why it was important to keep the ear of the president even if Trump makes life difficult. 

“I said, ‘You f*****, you’ve given him a lot of money,’ “ Blank told Kraft. “You have influence and spend time with him,’ “ Blank persisted. “ ‘ Robert, there are things he’s saying and doing that are not great for this country. And the smartest people in the world today, you know they’re viewing him as a four-year mistake.’ ” 

In Kraft’s case, Leibovich at least makes clear that -- while the guy has his foibles -- he’s got a complicated job with a lot of masters and a lot of servants. Because those masters and servants are sometimes one and the same -- Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, Goodell -- Kraft has to strike a delicate balance. But he’s essentially a decent human. 

There are fewer redeemable qualities ascribed to Goodell, who gets it worse than Kraft. 

Leibovich highlights Goodell’s sweaty-palmed hold on the NFL’s controls through the Ray Rice imbroglio, Deflategate, the relocation of the Rams, Chargers and Raiders, the CTE crisis, the rise of Trump, social justice protests during the national anthem and the day-to-day care and feeding of 31 billionaires and their minions. 

Describing Goodell moving through a hotel lobby at the 2016 annual meeting, Leibovich writes, “The son of the late Republican senator of New York Charles Goodell, the commissioner’s politician genes are evident. He is a most prodigious slapper of backs, knower of names, gladder of hands and a toucher of bases. He moved among his constituents in a former jock’s ballet of bro hugs and two-handed handgrips and shoulder squeezes punctuated with backslaps. He received guests, laughing easily, maybe for real or maybe not.”

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The NFL machine and all that surrounds it -- including the media (ESPN’s Adam Schefter comes in for intermittent mockery) -- gets lanced throughout. 

The white whale of this book, though, is Brady. 

Leibovich began his reporting in 2014 with a narrow focus: Getting close to Brady and finding the real guy behind the cleft-chinned, smiling cyborg quarterback. Leibovich’s pursuit of the elemental Brady underpins the book and tracks him from pre-Deflategate 2014 through this tumultuous offseason. 

Leibovich wears his fanboy credentials on his sleeve, breathlessly relating receiving (gasp!) an e-mail from Brady that kicks off their relationship. Brady’s greeting is the name of the chapter: “TOM BRADY HERE.”

Leibovich doesn’t skirt Brady’s eccentricities either. He notes the evangelical weirdness inherent in the TB12 Method and spends time with Brady’s body coach/business partner/confidante Alex Guerrero, noting Guerrero’s past in which he twice ran afoul of the FTC. 

But the timing of Leibovich’s reporting was ideal when it comes to portraying Brady as a luxury yacht on the NFL’s storm-tossed seas. During Deflategate, he’s just collateral damage in Goodell’s effort to satisfy owners who want a pound of Patriots flesh. For Kraft, he’s a cash cow, a bauble and a pseudo-offspring. For Belichick, he’s a widget that may need replacing. 

The book concludes with Brady in April answering some final questions from Leibovich before the book went to print. Brady e-mailed an audio file to Leibovich with his answers. 

His answer to whether he’d be the Patriots quarterback in 2018? Here’s how Leibovich related it. 

“It’s April and I don’t intend to retire,” he said. “And I certainly don’t intend to get traded.” He added that “they can do whatever they want.” It was pretty clear that things were not great between “they” and Brady right then; my sense is -- informed by talking to some people close to him -- that it wouldn’t kill Brady if the Patriots were to release him into free agency, allowing him to control his next move. But that wasn’t going to happen, so here we were and the game continued.

That was the final page I had folded over. There were 30 others that I chose not to quote from here and at least 30 others I didn’t fold over where my eyebrows were also up. 

It probably took a reporter like Leibovich to write a historic book like this. 

A top-flight journalist who’d gorged on a product for decades parachutes into the factory to see exactly how the product is made and who’s making it. The findings are mind-numbing, stomach-turning and stupefying. But the product is still so delicious. 
 

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