Good, Honest Football: Re-Watching the XFL
It's difficult to peruse the laundry list of things the NFL has done wrong recently without coming to the conclusion that we are witnessing the league's nadir. Their treatment of retired and ailing players, the mounting evidence of their willful ignorance towards the effects of concussions, their begrudging and scattershot reactions to cases of domestic violence—these things aren't merely blips, but rather representative of a pattern of behavior.
Amazingly, there was a time when the NFL was perceived to be so staid and honorable that NBC Universal and WWE magnate Vince McMahon paired up to invest some $100 million in a rowdy, "bad-boy" rival. The XFL was the game of football drenched in a healthy heaping of pro-wrestling's attitude and, naturally, it didn't make it beyond its inaugural 2001 season.
Some of the games are still available on YouTube, and the footage is something else. The quality of play is on par with an above-average high school game, yet overblown production values make it look like a football set piece in a Michael Bay movie. It's the sports world's Idiocracy, except that it actually happened.
But while the XFL tried to be an "extreme" version of the NFL, it looks, in recollection, like the actual NFL with its pompous solemnities and platitudes removed. Could the arrogant and thoughtless id poking from beneath the skull of the modern day NFL be mistaken for this short-lived experiment? I watched as many XFL games as I could in order to find out.
So let's travel back, shall we, to what promised to be the future of football.
The Opening Game
The XFL premiered on February 3, 2001—the first Saturday after the Super Bowl—and it was an honest-to-goodness event. While they talked a big game about going head-to-head with the NFL, all Vince McMahon and co. really wanted to do was be an offseason complement to the biggest sports league in America. Other football leagues had tried before, but the XFL was different—the XFL was IN YOUR FACE, and they certainly didn't waste any time trying to prove that.
The very first broadcast pitted the Las Vegas Outlaws against the New York/New Jersey Hitmen. It opened with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson delivering a pre-recorded speech that was displayed on the Sam Boyd Stadium jumbotron.
A brief transcript of this cold open:
"The Rock says he’s all psyched about the XFL. Oh wait a minute, The Rock isn’t psyched, he’s pumped about the XFL. No no no no no, The Rock isn’t pumped, The Rock is geeked about the XFL. That’s right, The Rock is geeked. Oh wait a minute, The Rock was geeked last week, so The Rock can’t be geeked now. The Rock is more than that, The Rock says he’s cranked about the XFL. As a matter of fact, The Rock is just like everybody else in America: We’re all psyched, geeked, pumped, and cranked..."
It goes on like that for a while.
Vince McMahon stomps out (in person, unlike The Rock) to invite everyone to enjoy "our brand of football." He growls, "This is the XFL!" and then fireworks go off and my goodness did this rile that Vegas crowd up. If there's one thing professional wrestling promoters know how to do, it's whip a live audience into a frenzy.
The home team is greeted to raucous cheers when they take the field, but when the New York/New Jersey Hitmen come running out, the boos reign down something fierce.
God, I hate those New York/New Jersey Hitmen more than anything even though this is literally the first time I've ever heard of them.
Before the season started, promotional efforts for the XFL teased exciting rule changes* that (they said) would drastically change the way the game of football was played. One of these changes was seen right off the bat—the league eschewed a coin flip at the start of all games in favor of a "scramble" for the ball. Dick Butkus, the XFL's "Director of Competition," hosted this exciting event:
In the XFL, you gotta earn it! Even at risk to your health and your career, as was the case with Orlando Rage safety Hassan Shamsid-Deen, who painfully separated his shoulder during the scramble before the Rage's first game (which was being played at the same time as the ceremonial opening game in Las Vegas).
While the XFL was able to lure some talented players who had already played or would eventually play in the NFL to its ranks, it wasn't enough to make for an entertaining product. Teams didn't have preseason games, which put the athletes at a huge disadvantage and set them up for failure. In addition, the players and refs seemed unprepared for the rule changes.
[*The rule changes really weren't all that different from the NFL. They allowed for "bump and run" coverage, which hurt the passing game so much the league abandoned it after a few games. There was a much-advertised "NO FAIR CATCH" rule, which was supposed to deliver BIG CRUNCHING HITS. The rule came attached with a 5-yard halo, or "danger zone," to ensure that, you know, the returners didn't die.]
Despite all this, Vegas bookmakers managed to calculate odds for these games which were nonchalantly read aloud during broadcasts. This was shocking not because it was so very un-NFL (what McMahon wanted you to think), but because of the worries that a football league run by the World Wrestling Federation would be rigged (what McMahon didn't want you to think).
For the opener, oddsmakers had the New York/New Jersey Hitmen as five and a half point favorites. The game finished 19-0 in favor of Las Vegas and no points were scored in the second half. After watching a slew of XFL games 13 years removed, it is quite obvious that the games were in no way fixed, although they could've benefited from some tampering for entertainment's sake.
Because most of that first game was unwatchable, the broadcast switched to the Orlando Rage's game against the Chicago Enforcers, hosted by wrestling announcers Jim Ross and Jerry "The King" Lawler:
"You're here for the football, J.R., I'm here for the cheerleaders—WHOA! Check 'em out!" -- Jerry Lawler
The play would improve somewhat as the season wore on, but not nearly enough to lure an audience as viewers dropped off at a furious rate. In fact, the best game in XFL history wound up hurting the league. The week two showdown between the Chicago Enforcers and L.A. Xtreme went to double overtime, which delayed the start of an episode of Saturday Night Live starring Jennifer Lopez. Lorne Michaels was furious, and the XFL had to institute rules to ensure games wouldn't run past 11pm (when they'd be cut off, no matter what).
The first thing you notice about an XFL game is that it looks more like Madden for Xbox than it does Monday Night Football. The league pioneered the use of skycam (they called it "X Cam")—a camera attached to wires that hovers over the field. It's a pretty standard replay view nowadays for NFL broadcasts, but the XFL relied on it for a large percentage of in-game angles during the opener (its use was reduced as the season wore on). When introducing X Cam, the announcer gleefully called it "intrusive," which seems to be what the XFL was going for with their coverage.
Throughout the games, armored cameramen ran onto the field immediately after (and sometimes during) plays to get jarring up-close visuals. When the broadcast pulled away from these shots and into X Cam's view, these cameramen, dressed in black, looked like stagehands caught striking a set when the house lights were still on.
XFL players and coaches were heavily mic'd up and the league hoped to catch some delicious trash talk after every big hit or broken-up pass, (taunting penalties were non-existent).
Despite all the technology at their disposal, the XFL didn't use the single most important advancement in football broadcasting of the past 30 years: the digital yellow first down line. Watching football without it is beyond frustrating.
Before the opener, commentators Matt Vasgersian (who was relieved of his duties after the game for reasons we'll get to later) and Jesse "The Body" Ventura (who was the acting Governor of Minnesota at the time) extolled why the XFL just meant more than the alternative.
"Let me talk about the players for a moment and the sacrifices they’ve had to make to play the game that they love," Ventura said. "Many of them left jobs, left loved ones, and they put it all on the line because practice started in November. They got paid not one nickel to go through these practices to arrive here tonight. They put it all on the line." (Emphasis mine, but really also Ventura's because he was screaming.) Not paying these players to practice is exploitative and cruel, yet the XFL actually had the gall to hold it up as an example of why its league was so great.
The XFL was intensely proud that they didn't pay their players a lot of money. Hence this graphic, which appeared on screen before any other graphics explaining the rule changes that affected actual gameplay:
This flat pay scale may grab the attention of any Marxist theorists out there, while NFL team owners will look at it and salivate over their dream CBA. Everyone else will just laugh at the kickers' salary. (Kickers' jobs were reduced in the XFL as PATs were against the rules).
Despite being valued as interchangeable commodities who were no more important than the positions they played, XFL players were encouraged to be big personalities, something the NFL bends over backwards to avoid (with the exception of a few camera-friendly stars deemed worthy of appearing in commercials).
Before their first series on offense or defense, the home team stood on-field, helmets removed, and introduced themselves one-by-one, their voices amplified by the stadium's PA system. Outlaws QB and former University of Miami Hurricane Ryan Clement was the first XFL player to have this honor, and he used the opportunity to holler, "BCS is a sham" into the microphone (this was objectively wonderful).
During his intro, running back Rod Smart provided what would become the most famous moment in XFL history:
If you bring up the XFL to someone in conversation, there is a 100% chance that "He Hate Me" will be the first thing they mention. I have no idea why the nickname resonated so much, but Smart (who eventually made it to the NFL and played in the Super Bowl for the Carolina Panthers) managed to create a pan-cultural phenomenon out of thin air. Re-watching the introduction, Vasgersian and Ventura seem to catch on that this was a defining moment, although they reflexively make fun of Smart in response.
This all brings to light an interesting dichotomy within the XFL that can be seen in the modern day NFL. While the players are revered as stars, their disposability is also celebrated. "Next man up" is/was a common refrain in both leagues, and the XFL effortlessly moves from look how little we pay these brutes to their love of the game is inspiring. This was never more evident than when someone got hurt.
Football is an insanely violent sport. This news is not new, although the long-term effects of said violence—specifically, concussions—are only just becoming public knowledge despite the fact that they had been known by the NFL for decades.
What the XFL knew about all this is anyone's guess, but seeing how they responded to a suspected concussion during their much ballyhooed first game leads me to believe that the broadcast team hadn't been well-drilled in the science of concussions, the specter of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or the mechanics of basic human empathy.
In the third quarter, Hitmen QB Charles Puleri is tackled after attempting a throw and stays crumpled on the ground. He eventually hobbles off as a disgusted Jesse Ventura laments his poor play. We eventually cut live to Puleri's mic'd up concussion test, complete with running commentary from Ventura. In retrospect, this was as ridiculous as a 1950s cigarette ad where a doctor recommends his favorite brand.
“I can feel my cheekbones ringing," a visibly dazed Puleri says while following the trainer's finger. Ventura deadpans, “I think he’s hypnotizing him, Matt...I think he needs to do something to get a completion."
"Naw, his bell's ringing," Vasgersian responds. The trainer tries to get Puleri to follow his finger to the periphery, and Ventura chuckles, "Looks like a sobriety test, don't it?" Puleri looks away from the trainer and says, shakily, "I'm having a tough time paying attention."
They show the replay of the hit he had sustained before coming out and Ventura moans, "He didn't get hit that hard! He didn't even take one to the head!" Keep in mind Puleri had been getting hit all night.
Earlier in the game, both commentators talked about how Puleri was a tough guy from the Bronx—“Not a New York glamour athlete." By the third quarter, their opinion had changed.
The Hitmen at least had the sense to pull him from the game, but shortly after the commercial break, sideline reporter Mike Adamle sits next to Puleri on the bench for an interview.
Adamle: You got your bell rung a few times, has that hampered some of the signal-calling ability?
Puleri: Uh, no. It's just that when things go wrong, it's pretty hard to turn them around.
The interview ends, and Jesse Ventura bellows, "You can read it all over his face, he's quittin' already."
That they forced someone who was perhaps concussed to do an on-camera interview about his "rung bell" is beyond insane. The XFL had promised unprecedented access, and this is what that looked like.
The on-field camera crews provided unnerving close-ups of injured players. Because they were mic'd up, you could hear their screams, too:
NFL broadcasts are masterclasses of glossing over injuries. When a player goes down, they play the solemn piano tinkle of the network's football theme, which has been remixed for injuries, and then go to commercial. Upon their return, the player has been whisked away, out of sight and out of mind until a sideline reporter pops up with the news that he is "not expected to return."
The XFL either didn't have the ability to do this or they figured overt coverage of injuries made the league seem "tougher." Either way, it resulted in images like this, taken from the week two game between Chicago and L.A. after offensive lineman Octavious Bishop went down with a serious leg injury:
[Bishop retired after the incident. He is currently getting his PhD in Neuropsychology at the University of Texas and is working on concussion research with regard to athletes.]
The XFL considered injuries to be a part of the fan experience. You could argue that this is more honorable than how the NFL handles them in that they give viewers an uncompromising look at the risks these athletes take while magnifying the consequences of what it means to support such a violent sport. You could argue that, until you are treated to this "fan experience" first hand, in the form of a mid-game interview from the stands with a Las Vegas Outlaws supporter shortly after Charles Puleri's injury.
"Do you think more men will be carried off the field?" the interviewer excitedly asks.
"I don't really care," responds the fan. "It's extreme football*, it's all about being extreme. That's all it is, it's all about being extreme. If you're not extreme, don't play, don't try to play." The camera lingers on him some more, forcing him to continue. "That's all it boils down to: If you're not extreme, don't play."
[*Due to a trademark snafu, the 'X' in XFL didn't actually stand for "eXtreme." It evidently didn't stand for anything, which could be perceived as an apt metaphor for the league itself if one felt the need to drag literary subtleties into all this.]
In the XFL, the fan had the final say and the fan was King. And what do the fans want more than anything? According to the powers that ran the league, the fans wanted...
Even before the season began, the XFL gleefully declared its cheerleaders as important a feature as any other in the league.
Vince McMahon repeatedly mentioned how the XFL would let the cheerleaders' personalities shine. "We said right out front that we were going to have cheerleaders," he told Bob Costas during a contentious interview, "Nice looking ladies that you were going to get to know—unlike the NFL."
In a way, this was true. The NFL thrusts its cheerleaders into the spotlight while tucking them away and ignoring them at the same time (while also underpaying them and controlling them...). The XFL promised to treat these women as real flesh-and-blood human beings.
This mostly amounted to brief skits starring the cheerleaders that aired before commercials. These ranged from clunky yet well-meaning ("Hi, I'm Paula. By day I'm a law student, but at night [removes glasses, unfurls hair] I'm an XFL cheerleader") to embarrassing ("Quarterback Ryan Clement knows how to score...").
When they weren't performing in these vignettes, they were dancing, and an entire masters thesis on sexual repression and female representations in American sports could be written about the Outlaws cheerleaders' first dance during the season opener, which was set to a song with these lyrics:
“I like girls…I like girls, I like girls, I like giiiiiiiiirls/ I really really really, really really really, REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY like girls.”
In a display of real-time objectification that would pre-date Twitter by over a decade, fans were given placards with numbers printed on them so they could act as "cheerleader judges":
This brand of leering wasn't limited to the stands—it was apparently company policy, as this 2001 Wall Street Journal piece explains:
It was the moment Matt Vasgersian had been dreading. Early in the first broadcast of the new XFL football league, a camera zoomed in on a troop of gyrating, barely clothed cheerleaders. The young play-by-play announcer's bosses at NBC and the World Wrestling Federation had coached him in what to say on just such an occasion. One suggestion: "Now that's a cheerleader!" But when Mr. Vasgersian stayed silent for 15 seconds—an eternity in TV time—a voice barked into his earpiece: "Say something!" Finally, he laughed and said, "I feel uncomfortable. ... Man alive. ... All righty then. ... Those suits are something else." For failing to display sufficient enthusiasm during a dull, poorly played contest and glitch-filled broadcast, Mr. Vasgersian was demoted the following week in favor of a WWF announcer.
You can see that event transpire in real-time here.
As the season wore on and ratings fell, the XFL leaned more and more on the cheerleaders to sell its product. This culminated in a much-promoted, mind-bogglingly sexist week six ratings grab that promised to send a cameraman into the cheerleaders' locker room:
By then, the league was as good as dead and its ratings were beyond saving. Still, they had a championship game to play.
The Million Dollar Game
You didn't have to wait beyond the very first sentence of the XFL's "Million Dollar Game's" cold opening to know that the country had lost all interest in the league. "Some would have you believe tonight's XFL championship game is meaningless," the gravely, faux NFL Films narrator says. He then talks about a few harrowing story lines in which select players had overcome adversity. It's a script the NFL knows and performs to perfection and, by week 12, the XFL had reverted to mimicking it after months of trying to rudely body their way into the world of professional football.
Played in a sparsely filled Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, the XFL's Million Dollar game featured the L.A. Xtreme (quarterbacked by XFL MVP and future Pittsburgh Steeler Tommy Maddox) and the San Francisco Demons. The game looks almost nothing like that bombastic opener in Vegas. The armored cameramen barely run on the field to capture the action up close, the cheerleaders are seen only for a few brief dance numbers, and Vince McMahon doesn't even make an appearance.
Despite declaring it the "Million Dollar Game" (the winning team would split a one million dollar purse), the league was broke and those in control knew there wouldn't be another XFL game. So what does an extreme football league look like when it has nothing to live for and nothing to prove? It looks exactly like a mediocre NFL game. The Xtreme beat the Demons 38-6 and split the million dollars amongst themselves. They would each pocket around $26,000, assuming they gave Jose Cortez, the kicker and championship game MVP, an equal share.
The experiment failed and the XFL subsequently folded before the next NFL season even began. The latter's experiment is ongoing.
[Thanks to YouTube user XFL 2001 for all the great footage]