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Is America’s Most Popular Sport Under Siege?

In one revealing sequence, Leibovich asks Jones and the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, 77, if they’d rather win another Super Bowl or be enshrined in the N.F.L. Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Kraft, who sports five Super Bowl rings but is not a Hall of Famer, gives the diplomatic answer: another Super Bowl. Jones, a three-time Super Bowl winner who is a Hall of Famer, responds like the honest megalomaniac he is: Hall of Fame.

It’s worth noting that Jones was interviewed on the Cowboys’ regal team bus while drinking Johnnie Walker Blue from a 24-ounce plastic cup “filled — and refilled — to the top.” Leibovich tried but failed to keep pace. His last memory is of Jones heading to a bar for some beers and cigars. “This man’s liver belongs in Canton,” he marvels.

Though a lifelong Patriots fan (like me), Leibovich hasn’t much good to say about Kraft or Coach Bill Belichick — partly, one suspects, because their fawning embrace of Donald Trump makes him queasy. (The more discreet Tom Brady scores some points for having once ignored Trump’s creepy public invitation to pursue his daughter Ivanka.) Fort Belichick is “a paranoid and joyless place,” we are told, run by “a mumbling control freak” and an increasingly distracted owner. Kraft, a widower, is now a regular on the Manhattan/Hamptons social scene. “Boston is a village compared to New York,” he confides to Leibovich — words he’ll probably come to regret. The team trademark — “We Are All Patriots” — is a running joke among the players. “Oh yeah, we’re all Patriots,” one former player remarks, “until Belichick finds someone cheaper.”

Brady, meanwhile, has hired a controversial trainer-turned-guru as a gesture of independence. His family, fearing for his safety, is urging him to retire. At 41, Brady is noncommittal. He has no real hobbies; he exists to play football. “If you want to compete with me,” he tells Leibovich, “you have to give up your life.” Which Brady has done. “It will end badly,” his father, Tom Sr., predicts. “It’s a cold business.”

The 2018 N.F.L. season is shaping up poorly. TV ratings have declined 17 percent in the past few years, the most alarming drop registered among hard-core fans — white, male, 50-ish — dismayed by the protests of black players over police brutality and other race-charged issues. To compound matters, the man stirring the pot most vigorously has been trying for decades to become a team owner, without success. He also happens to be the president of the United States. As payback, perhaps, he’s been among the loudest critics of the new rules to protect players from concussions, complaining that they’ve sissified the game. Now he’s pressuring the league to suspend any “son of a bitch” who kneels during the national anthem, adding, as if the protesters were illegal immigrants, that “maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.” The owners, clearly flummoxed, have been unable to find common ground or to pacify their fellow billionaire tormentor, who recently bragged to Jones that the dispute is a “very winning” issue for him. Opinion polls show he may be right.

Reading “Big Game” — a sparkling narrative — one gets the sense that, “dangerous times” aside, the N.F.L. will survive on the magnetism of the sport it so clumsily represents. Forget the greedy owners, the controversies, the Trumpian eruptions. Think instead of the last two Super Bowls — the historic Patriots comeback followed by the upset of mighty New England by the storybook Philadelphia Eagles, a perennial doormat. Pro football, minus the baggage, can be electrifying and redemptive. It’s September, time for kickoff.

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