Like the Roman god Janus for whom this godforsaken month is named, Americans look in two directions on Super Bowl Sunday as they consume 12 million pounds of potato chips while watching 60 minutes of football congealed within six hours of the best advertising money can buy and the worst kitsch pageantry popular culture can produce. Americans look back upon a season of football -- violence punctuated by committee meetings called huddles -- and they look forward to a six-month surcease from football.
But just when you thought you could soon turn on the television without seeing some testosterone-crazed linebacker doing a celebration dance after making a particularly disabling tackle, along comes the XFL. An "extreme" football league, it debuts Saturday night on NBC, which hopes it will build the audience for "Saturday Night Live." The XFL, brainchild of Vince McMahon Jr., who runs the World Wrestling Federation, will attempt something difficult -- the further coarsening of America.
He thinks the NFL is insufficiently violent. Actually, the kinetic energy of football, played by men both huge and quick, jeopardizes the human skeleton and sinews. Thanks to better nutrition and antibiotics, Americans do not look as they did when, on the eve of World War II, the military stipulated that inductees had to weigh a minimum of 105 pounds and had to be at least 5 feet tall (and had to have 12 of their original complement of 32 teeth). Daunte Culpepper, the Minnesota Vikings' quarterback, is 6-foot-4, 266 pounds -- at least 40 pounds lighter than some of the defensive linemen who pursue him. When he and they collide, few people believe, as McMahon does, that the NFL is for sissies.
To correct this imperfection, as he sees it, McMahon's XFL will allow no "fair catches" on punts, so fans can at least hope for an ambulance siren after every punt. There will be no rule like the one by which the NFL tries to protect quarterbacks by stopping a play when the quarterback is clearly "in the grasp" of a tackler, and in danger. McMahon, who has played as many NFL minutes as has Madonna, says this rule turns quarterbacks into "pantywaists."
But the Canadian Football League has no fair catch. The NFL only adopted an "in the grasp" rule in 1979. Will tweaking rules produce large audiences for bush-league football in late winter and into the spring, even with Jesse Ventura doing color commentary on telecasts?
The XFL's product is not really football, any more than the WWF's product is wrestling. Rather, the XFL will offer puerile vulgarity, vicarious danger and derivative manliness for couch potatoes, particularly those in the coveted (by advertisers) category of 12- to-24-year-old males. Hence some of the XFL's sponsors: Burger King, Anheuser-Busch. These males are, as one student of the species says, "guys who change their own oil." Other sponsors are Valvoline, Quaker State and Pennzoil.
Among 12-to-24 males, the WWF's "Monday Night Raw" telecasts on cable last season beat ABC's "Monday Night Football" by 47 percent. The names of the eight XFL teams -- all owned by the league and NBC -- set the tone these males seek: Birmingham Bolts, San Francisco Demons, Orlando Rage, Los Angeles Xtreme, Memphis Maniax, Chicago Enforcers, Las Vegas Outlaws, New York/New Jersey Hitmen.
Previewing the XFL, the magazine Business 2.0 notes that McMahon's WWF extravaganzas have featured faux-wrestlers pretending to wallop each other with flaming two-by-fours wrapped in barbed wire, mock crucifixions, nun wrestling and simulated drug use and masturbation. Now, you 12-to-24 males: Are you ready for some football?
How about -- this is reportedly planned -- cameras in the cheerleaders' locker room? The XFL will encourage players to date cheerleaders, some of whom will be seated with the broadcasters, who will be in the stands. So, McMahon explains, "When the quarterback fumbles or the wideout drops a pass -- and we know who he's dating -- I want our reporters right back in her face on the sidelines demanding to know whether the two of them did the wild thing last night."
A McMahon assistant calls the XFL "reality programming wrapped in a sporting event." Actually, it is redundant proof that, on television, "reality programming" is an oxymoron, and that enough wrapping -- the Super Bowl is coming close to this -- can annihilate the sporting component of an event.
Comedian Robin Williams says cocaine is God's way of telling users that they have too much money. The XFL is God's way of telling America that it has too much leisure time.