Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The XFL is football for mooks, to the point where it probably should be considered a different sport. Don't call it football; call it mookball.

A "mook," the PBS investigative newsmagazine Frontline recently explained, is adspeak for a particular cultural archetype that appeals to young males. This audience demographic, age 13 to 34, has a lot of discretionary income, which is what makes it so attractive a market. It's notoriously fickle about its preferences, but the mook maintains a constant hold on its attention. The mook likes to party, pass gas, watch sports--especially extreme sports and wrestling--and ogle women; the type is represented by figures ranging from Howard Stern to Kid Rock to Tom Green, the current clown prince of mookdom (having succeeded Pauly Shore). What distinguishes the mook is that he's honest in saying that all he wants to do is party, pass gas, watch extreme sports, and ogle women, and his honesty is revered almost as much as his more cretinous traits. I would argue that more insurgent mooks, such as Eminem, Mancow, and Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head, smash the stereotype like a beer bottle on the edge of a bar and turn the jagged edge on pop culture itself, but that achievement has nothing whatsoever to do with the XFL. It aims to appeal to the mook audience's basic impulses with utter simplicity and no contradictions.

The XFL (the league reminds the media that the name is not an abbreviation but the marketing trademark in its entirety; the X doesn't stand for Xtreme any more than the league itself stands for quality) is marked above all by two characteristics: its high-tech, made-for-television production values and its fondness for scantily clad cheerleaders, both of which endear it to the mook market. World Wrestling Federation impresario Vince McMahon has brought his flair for production--loud heavy metal music, crisp you-are-there camera work, and a little postmodern self-awareness, especially where big-screen stadium televisions are concerned--to football, and combined it with the pumped-up sexuality (in some obvious cases quite literally pumped up) of cheerleaders. This has all gone over big with the target audience, even if general TV ratings have shrunk in the weeks since the league debuted a month ago.

The quality of play is distinctly bush-league. For its inaugural season, which began last month, the XFL is paying almost everyone on its ten teams a base salary of $45,000 (quarterbacks get a little more, kickers a little less), which guarantees it the best of the scrubs left over from the National Football League. Yet they are, to borrow the terminology of Baseball Prospectus, replacement-level players; that is, on the bell curve of big-league players, in which 10 percent might be stars, 80 percent might be pros of almost equal ability, and 10 percent might be struggling to hang on, XFL players could step in for that bottom 10 percent without embarrassing themselves, though they tend to be smaller, slower, and less gifted overall than their NFL counterparts. They play at the level of a major college program, with one noteworthy proviso: the league lacks the star quality that marks a player or two on every major college team, a dozen or so on top-ranked teams. The XFL is a league without stars--or, to put it another way, it's where even the stars would be NFL subs.

Do big-league production values turn bush-league football into big-league football? Hardly, but the United Paramount Network, which previously attracted the mook market with WWF Smackdown!, doesn't care as long as the mooks stay tuned; it's an attitude shared by cable's National Network. Even NBC has grown so desperate to seize a piece of the young-adult-male pie that it's invested in a full third of the league, with McMahon putting up the rest. NBC has thrown the XFL onto Saturday nights, when the broadcast networks have a devil of a time attracting anyone, much less desirable demographics like young men.

What's been interesting about the XFL is the integrity of play. Take away the media sideshow and it really is football, even if it really is mediocre football. It has not pandered to the wrestling crowd with cartoonish violence, and the games are on the up-and-up, endorsed by no less an authority than the Las Vegas gambling book. The league has instituted rule changes intended to emphasize excitement, hard hitting, and tough-guy play (for instance, the infamous ban on fair-catching punts), and it has thumped its chest over playing in the muck and mire of winter, the way football used to be played before the NFL wiped its feet on artificial turf and moved indoors. The fact is, for all the hype and the carny-barker announcers and the cheerleaders, the XFL players do play for the love of the game (as well as the extra $1,000 a player for every victory), and it shows in the intensity of play. But is that enough?

After losing the first three games of their history on the road, last Saturday the Chicago Enforcers made their home debut. The league got the harsh conditions it's been advertising, a day of steady rain that figured to make the field as sloppy as the play. Soldier Field glowed eerily in the mist as I approached, and dark smoke poured from somewhere within; the stadium looked like an image from Apocalypse Now. Some of what the public-address announcer would later call "the real football fans in Chicago" were even tailgating in the surrounding parking lots, their umbrellas glowing and flickering over the grill fires. As some fans went through the gates they slapped hands and yelled, "Yee-ahhh!"--the call of the mook.

For some reason, the players weren't introduced by name for the home opener--not even the starting lineups. (Perhaps that's because the league considers the players the least important element of the show.) The opponents, the New York/New Jersey Hitmen (why not just the Five Families Hitmen?), were dutifully greeted with boos and the chant, "New York sucks!" The biggest pregame cheers went to the TV announcers seated outside in the stands--Jerry "J.R." Ross, his signature cowboy hat protected by a plastic wrap, and Minnesota's governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura, sporting an XFL cap to protect his cigar from the rain, both of whom made their names with the WWF--and, of course, to the cheerleaders, dressed in skintight leather pants and open-breasted leather tops with strategically placed straps to hold the front (sort of) together, and nothing underneath. "I came for the cheerleaders," said a sign held aloft by one fan, who, sadly, probably wasn't even aware of the double meaning. Though the cheerleaders donned heavy down jackets for most of the game to fend off the rain and the 36-degree chill, they took those off whenever the TV cameras were on them, and I imagine that afterward they could have used some Vicks VapoRub applied to their chests--or maybe that's just the mook in me coming out. In any case, it's worth noting that the ten Chicago cheerleaders seemed to be the only women in the entire stadium. Peppered here and there in the stands among the 14,856 fans (a remarkably faithful count, and one diminished by the rain, as there were 24,052 tickets sold) were guys with their shirts off--the mook uniform.

As for the play, there was some decent hitting on the part of both teams. I don't know what it is about Chicago and middle linebackers, but the Enforcers' best player, Aaron Humphrey, is a converted defensive lineman who surged forward into the line of scrimmage on almost every play, delivering a good pop whenever he got the chance. He was closely followed in ability by fellow linebacker Jamie Baisley and by Ray Austin, a hard-hitting safety in the Chicago tradition of Doug Plank--all replacement-level NFL players. The Enforcers' offense, which lacked injured running back John Avery, the league's leading rusher, was woeful. Quarterback Tim Lester got sacked time after time and proved himself incapable of leading a receiver, and early in the second half--with the Hitmen up 3-0--he muffed a pass right about where the New York Giants' Sean Landeta muffed a punt against the Bears near the north goal line in a 1985 playoff game. The limp pass was picked off by a Hitman standing nearby, and NY/NJ scored on the next play from the one-yard line to make the score 10-0. The Hitmen offense wasn't much better than the Enforcers', and the Enforcers' best offensive play was a punt. That's no joke--the XFL makes any punt that travels over 25 yards a live ball, and the Enforcers recovered a 40-yard, third-down quick kick by Lester. It wasn't until desperation time, late in the fourth quarter, when the Enforcers eschewed a fourth-down punt for an ill-fated fake deep in their territory, that New York scored again with a field goal to make the final 13-0. Keep in mind that the Hitmen, like the Enforcers, came into the game 0-3; yet the Enforcers thoroughly outclassed them in establishing Chicago as the last winless XFL team. Why should the XFL be different from any other league with a franchise in Chicago?

The XFL might make it. With everything else--from the TV production to the network contract to the target audience--in place, all it needs is to turn a humble profit before it invests more money and competes with the NFL for the one missing ingredient: star-quality players. But the Enforcers may not. The 0-4 Enforcers are the Bulls of the XFL. I can't think of a reason to recommend this league to a local football fan.

But it may not matter. As I walked to the Roosevelt Road el stop in a crowd of young men, past a couple of guys offering to share a little dope in exchange for a ride to Wicker Park ("My nuggets for your wheels!"), suddenly a group of guys kicking a crushed pop can came scrambling down the sidewalk to the underpass. They were men, not boys, possibly college students, maybe even fresh-out-of-school runners at the Board of Trade by day, yet that crushed can was all they needed for entertainment. Under the overpass, two street musicians were banging out a steady rhythm on a set of plastic paint cans, and one guy stopped to break-dance in front of them, spinning and rolling on the concrete as if he pictured himself the star of some hip-hop TV commercial. It doesn't take much to amuse a mook, and that is the one thing above all else the XFL has going for it.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Guards at the Taj Steppenwolf Theatre
June 13
Performing Arts
June 21

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories