So here it is. After months of circling the bowl, we seem to have plunged headfirst into Alternative Football—a league that gives us the option of reinforcing our own beliefs and insulating ourselves from the way other people see the world.
The only surprise here? It took about a year and a half for someone to bring this idea to life.
It’s unclear how long WWE owner, billionaire and husband of current presidential administration member Vince McMahon was contemplating some version of the Anthem Stander Football League—or as he’s calling it, the rebooted XFL—but squint hard enough and you’ll be able to picture his Pennywise grin the moment our current president started rallying against Colin Kaepernick to cauterize his poll numbers earlier last season. It got a reaction. It filtered out a definable market.
Like everything else in our world, the new XFL is marketing savvy cloaked as genuine belief, and after seeing how well that worked out in the music, clothing and cable news worlds, there’s no reason not to co-opt America’s favorite sport and turn it into a clean, conservative roadshow for those who like their football a certain way.
Need proof? Aside from his goals to keep the game at two hours flat, have eight teams with 40-man rosters, play in the winter and spring, make it “safer” and integrate fantasy football, it seemed the only concrete thing McMahon knew he wanted from the 2020 venture was what kinds of players they want in the league.
No broadcast partners or concrete distribution plan yet. No planned cities yet.
“We’re going to give the game of football back to the fans,” McMahon said on a conference call Thursday.
Man, does that sound familiar.
“I have no idea whether [the president] will support this and let me just take the opportunity to say that, as far as our league is concerned, it will have nothing to do with politics. Absolutely nothing. And nothing to do with social issues either,” he said. “We’re there to play football. We want really good football and I think that’s what fans want. When they tune in, I don’t think they want to be dealing with political issues.”
“There will be a booklet to make sure all players understand the rules as well as everyone else. We intend for everyone to abide by those rules. As far as the national anthem is concerned, I think this: The national anthem is a time-honored tradition that’s played to this day and many, many years in the past prior to most athletic events in our country and other countries. So whatever the rules are are what everyone will abide by,” he said. “There’s plenty of opportunities and plenty of ways in which players, coaches and members of the media can express yourselves in terms of your own personal views as far as social aspects are concerned—whether or not that’s Twitter or Facebook or whatever, but again we’re here to play football. When we come onto the field, we’re here to play football. That’s everyone’s job.”
Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina asked McMahon specifically if invites would be extended to Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel. His response reduced the entire conference call into one easy-to-digest shot.
“One of the things, when I said the quality of the human being is very important—and just as important as the quality of the player, what I mean by that is, you want someone who does not have any criminality whatsoever associated with them,” he said. “And in the XFL, even if you have a DUI, you will not play in the XFL so that would probably eliminate some, but not all of them. If Tim Tebow wants to play, he could very well play.”
A league full of Tim Tebows (but not Johnny Manziel). Imagine that.
The real disappointment in all of this is that the NFL has needed a reliable, well-funded feeder league for years. All other major sports have one. Call Washington head coach Jay Gruden or Cowboys personnel director Will McClay or NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and ask them if they’d be here without the Arena Football League in its heyday. Ask them how important it was to their development and the development of so many other players who washed out of the league too quickly or never got a chance to begin with.
Maybe, with a two-year head start the XFL can deliver some kind of on-field product that actually aids the NFL in molding players. For athletes who are out of work, it’s —hopefully—a chance to earn a living while they wait for a chance in the big show.
But for now, let’s recognize this reimagined XFL—complete with a red, white and blue logo—for what it is. Let’s not be divided enough to go down this wormhole where people can subtly monetize how you feel. You may have a very real and legitimate gripe against someone kneeling for the national anthem because this country means something particular to you. I’ve talked to enough people at enough tailgates—The MMQB has published so many of your reaction letters on the issue—to recognize that this is more complex than you’re either with us or against us.
At least from where I'm sitting, the new XFL seems to want it that way.