I flipped on the Nickelodeon broadcast in the same spirit that many people drink before a wedding or swallow bags of fungi before a boring summer concert; playoff Mitch Trubisky did not feel interesting enough to me, a sober person, and I needed to see him covered in slime to get me through the next few hours. That is, if Trubisky was even going to make it into the Slime Zone.
There’s a lot we could say about Viacom’s experimental NFL broadcast for kids, which debuted in the 4:40 p.m. ET hour on Sunday amid wild-card weekend and converted the typical football viewing experience into a children’s aesthetic with simpler graphics, a casual broadcast crew explaining the game’s complexities and, yes, digital slime pouring into the end zone when a team crossed the goal line (I think it’s brilliant, strategically, for parents who don’t want to surrender control of their remote on a particularly exciting Sunday to a mob of unruly, Caillou-starved children). To be honest, my plan was an unoriginal Fear and Loathing rip-off where we talked in great detail about the neon green and orange psychadelia adorning the field and how the random insertion of SpongeBob SquarePants characters felt like an intrusive pandemic lockdown fever dream; the moment when all of the haunting childhood cartoons and songs that live in our heads throughout the endless, eventless days finally seep their way into the adult programming we use to escape that reality for a few moments every weekend. A real hellscape, of sorts.
The truth, though, is that the broadcast was a revelation for me at the end of a long season, and it may not be the kind of thing the ruling class of football broadcasting wants to hear. To have the game stripped of all its self-importance and hubris was an absolute delight. I came through the pregame show, which featured a conversation between SpongeBob, Patrick Star and Sandy Cheeks about what football actually is, better off than I would have if I’d spent the last half hour mainlining thoughtless, Football Guy platitudes on the Ford Toyota Built America Stand Flag No Politics Unless It’s My Politics Pregame Show. I had timeout usage cordially explained to me and smiled as the Nickelodeon crew peppered in some cartoon impersonations, Wyle E. Coyote puff smoke and flame emojis over the highlights—a welcome departure from the haughty, bland insider chatter of most broadcast tandems, who often use their platform to fluff up and make excuses for the coaches who give them access throughout the week.
It made me wonder what the hell we have been doing all these years. I left Sunday’s game with no doubt that football would be completely fine if we yanked the business pants off the current operation like Nickelodeon did over the weekend and allowed the things we like about the sport to speak for themselves. If we embraced the goofiness of the entire thing. Of ourselves.
Perhaps this is only a problem for the people who derive a livelihood from the sport, but for so long it has felt like the collective arrogance surrounding the way the game is analyzed, written about and relayed to a national television audience was preparing to swallow the game whole. I have noticed it in myself, the way I sometimes roll my eyes at a casual fan asking about why a player with a ton of dead money left on their deal can’t easily be traded, or why it makes mathematical sense not to punt in a given situation. I have noticed it in the polar opposite way with the legions of people who cling together to criticize players celebrating, opting to sit out due to injury (or fear of COVID-19) and those who feel free to express strong opinions on incorrectly diagnosed rub routes, emboldened by their own particular brand of football analyzer/enabler. Sometimes I feel myself being insufferable, sometimes I feel the person on the other side of the conversation being insufferable. Either way, the exhausting too-serious conversation slogs on. Nickelodeon reminded me: What if we just tuned out the noise, removed all of our attached thoughts and pretenses on what the game should be and enjoy it for what it is?
The truth is that football is a game: a silly war simulation for children invented for times of peace back in the late 1800s. People hurdle one another and sometimes hit each other in the groin with errant passes. Was it ever intended to become what it has, and might it be valuable to take a step back and view it from the eyes of a child every once in a while?
I’m not saying that during the Super Bowl, when a coach is in a moment of prayer or tearful reflection, his face should automatically be turned into a hamburger via a sponsored Instagram filter (at least not every time). But I wonder if anyone else felt the lightness, the palpable friendliness of the entire broadcast and missed something about the reasons we enjoyed watching sports in the first place. It felt a little like the first time we watched a close game with Tony Romo on the call and the way we could hear him leaping on his desk and tousling Jim Nantz’s hair during a moment of wild excitement (at least that’s what it sounds like). The way he didn’t care if he yelped or screamed if something cool happened.
I feel like I was by some coincidence a secondarily targeted demographic; the kind of person who grew up watching Doug and Hey Arnold! until I got a headache and was forced out into the sunlight to play. And I’m glad I stumbled back here, with all the trappings of childhood, to remember how good something in its purest and most innocent form can be.