NFL Fantasy Meets EU Brexit

NFL on Regent St.jpg

Will Britain vote before the end of 2017 to stay in the European Union? Or will it leave, launching the much-debated Brexit? As the Lions face the Chiefs this Sunday in London, a perhaps related question is whether London should be awarded a franchise in the National Football League. Many Londoners would love nothing more than for the city to be granted a team, even if that team turns out to be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are considering whether to become the first NFL exiles. If Britain were to leave the EU but join the NFL, maybe the last act of the American revolution will be a reverse takeover of England.

Before explaining the English romance for what they call “American football,” let’s briefly review why Britain is getting cold feet about the EU. Keep in mind that the United Kingdom is an EU member more in spirit than on the ground, as Britain kept the pound as its currency, and has yet to embrace the Maastricht treaty on open borders. About all it conceded to the Union on immigration was a relaxation of the quarantine for cats and dogs.

Britain liked the EU when it meant that Brits could easily buy condos in the south of Spain, or import duty-free claret from Bordeaux. It has had less enthusiasm for providing social services for Polish emigrants or bailing out insolvent Greek banks.

The chances are good that Britain will be the first major power to bolt from the Union. For the moment, those supporting Brexit span the political spectrum, and include left-wing Labour socialists—angry at Europeans for taking away British jobs—and Tory rebels, for whom the EU is yet another melting-pot being dumped on traditional English values.

Nor has the Balkanization of British politics helped the European cause. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose Conservatives enjoy an 8 seat majority in the House of Commons (but have 98 seats more than Labour, with many fringe parties taking up the balance), supports staying in Europe with some “fundamental” modifications to the terms of British membership. But if the price of power for Cameron means ditching the Europeans, he might be the first to whisper “wogs out” at the Tory club bar.

Cameron’s political luck, so far, is that his term in office has coincided with the self-destruction of the Labour party (from 256 seats down to 232) and the near-extinction of the Liberal Democrats, who in the last election went from having 56 seats in the Commons to 8.

In the 2015 election, Labour also found itself bounced out of Scotland, with its supporters going to the Scottish Nationalists. Then it replaced opposition leader Ed Miliband with Jeremy Corbyn, a dyed-in-the-wool, North London, Tony Benn socialist who dreams of nationalizing industry, and possibly — although not probably — reinstituting 1970s coal miner strikes and BritRail cold pork pies.

After their electoral losses, the Labour faithful decided to vilify their last prime minister, Tony Blair, now the most unpopular man in British politics, for abandoning socialism in favor of his New Labour concoction, which was the British equivalent of Bill Clinton’s cozy triangulation with House Republicans in the 1990s.

Labour’s lurch to the far left has put the Tories in position as Britain's leading national political party. But they cannot find much consensus around centrist, pro-European opinions, as Conservatives have the dichotomous challenge of keeping Scotland and maybe Wales in the United Kingdom while watering down the appeal of nativist, skinhead nationalist parties.

The most visible European opposition to EU membership comes from the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), although it only has one seat in the Commons. Scottish Nationalists, who went from 6 to 55 seats, for the moment are pro-EU, and a negative vote on Europe might renew the push within Scotland to leave the United Kingdom.

With the center unable to hold, it is no wonder that London has embraced the National Football League as if it were a wartime support convoy. My younger son and I recently went to Wembley Stadium to watch the New York Jets play the Miami Dolphins, and at the same time see how London views the NFL. We were part of a throng of 83,000 (keep in mind that UKIP’s entire membership is only 47,000), few of whom seemed much concerned about the future of the European charter.

To be sure, the crowd included diehard Jets and Dolphin fans who flew in for the game. Seated in front of us were three older guys (I could have been one of them) wearing Klecko, Namath, and Maynard jerseys, and no one would mistake them for moonlighting Arsenal fans taking in some American “footie.”

Many of those in the stands wore American football jerseys from the closet depths. Wembley Stadium was temporarily transformed into a NFL Halloween parade with the likes of Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Montana, Rice, Gastineau, Luck, Romo, Marino, and Peyton Manning astride the stadium ramps.

I associate British football (okay, soccer) fans with drunken hooliganism, but this sober crowd stood to sing “God Save the Queen,” and it applauded the Dolphin cheerleaders as if they were a road opera company.

Unlike a European soccer game with all the advertisements jammed into halftime, the Jets and Dolphins "match" took almost four hours to complete.

During the long afternoon there were booth reviews, thirty-second time outs, injuries, instant replays, concussion protocols, pauses after each quarter, and the two-minute warning, which felt like three-week business trip (“Hey Queen Elizabeth, this Bud’s for you!”).

So frequent were the official time-outs for beer and car commercials, after a while Wembley had the air of the Universal Studios back lot, and the Jets and Dolphins looked like extras, hired out for a day of filming.

The Jets beat the Dolphins, although for much of the second half they tried to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. (It is, after all, the 45th year of their rebuilding program.) Mercifully for Jets fans, the refs littered the “pitch” with penalty flags, and they nullified a Dolphins drive that started one yard from the Jets’ end zone.

During many time-outs, I wondered why the British might vote out the European Union (and its time-efficient, free-flowing soccer matches), and vote in the NFL, or at least lobby it for a local franchise. In British soccer the clock never stops, not even for injuries, and the game ends in two hours. Neither side has cheerleaders in sequins.

My guess is that that the London romance with the NFL speaks to UK ambivalence about the continuing embrace of the European Union.

American football might be, as my British friend Simon Hoggart said, “random violence interrupted by committee meetings,” but unlike the European Union it has clear winners and losers and ends with a Super Bowl, as opposed to a wobbly common currency, milk subsidies, and Greeks on the dole.

Will London trade EU membership for an NFL franchise? My guess is that it will. During the ill-fated NFL Europe attempt, London had the Monarchs, who could not keep pace with Düsseldorf’s Rhein Fire, and the league folded. This time, among the team names they should consider are the Queens, Kings, Beefeaters, Towers, Guards, and Tussauds. I can’t quite come to terms with the London Jaguars. It sounds like a car dealership.

Would 83,000 fans have turned up for a Jeremy Corbyn or David Cameron speech on Brexit? I doubt it. Who really knows if Britain wins or loses by being in the European Union? It's one of those political issues that is impossible to decipher, except on an emotional level.

Or, as Joe Namath, the legendary New York Jets quarterback and counterculture figure, said of an earlier dilemma, “I don’t know if I prefer Astroturf to grass. I never smoked Astroturf.”

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author most recently of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of travel essays, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, will be published in 2015. He lives in Switzerland.

Flickr photo by Tony Webster: NFL on Regent Street, London