The Super Bowl began with a compulsively likable kid running onto the field, trailed by 29 other adorable children, and celebrating at midfield like any of us would do if we had 70,000 people screaming for us and more than 100 million watching at home. The kid was the star of the NFL’s ad campaign honoring its 100th season, in a commercial that featured the elusive scamp carrying a football past various NFL legends before finishing, live in front of the world, right there at midfield. It was charming and, for the NFL, the perfect capper on a season-long celebration of its anniversary, ending with the almost taunting benediction “Here’s to the next 100.” For a sport that has spent the last decade frantically dodging existential threats like CTE, the Colin Kaepernick kerfuffle and the president, the slogan — we’ll outlive you all — couldn’t help but feel like a flex.
And why wouldn’t it? On a gorgeous night in Miami Gardens, with the Rock on the pregame mic, dozens of NFL legends in attendance, resale ticket prices that were the most expensive in years (more than $7,000 get-in price), and, of course, J.Lo and Shakira, the NFL reached the absolute height of its powers, culminating in a terrific 31–20 Kansas City win over San Francisco in a matchup of two young, exciting teams with ravenous fan bases. It was a night in which all the NFL’s troubles seemed far in the past, long forgotten, remembered only by the cynical and purposefully cranky. Everything fell perfectly in the league’s direction. It was peak NFL.
All that was wrong with last year’s widely panned Super Bowl was better this year. Last year’s game featured zero passing touchdowns and barely any offense at all, with notorious bad guys New England winning in uninspired fashion; this one had last year’s MVP, Patrick Mahomes, multiple lead changes, some juicy referee controversies, a wild comeback, and a crackerjack ending. Last year’s halftime show featured Maroon 5, in Atlanta no less; this one had Jennifer Lopez and Shakira lighting the place on fire (while somehow also subtweeting the Oscars). Last year’s game featured widespread backlash in the wake of the league’s continued blackballing of Kaepernick; this one featured the CEO of Roc Nation, Jay-Z’s agency that produced the halftime show, saying this about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the paper of record: “Roger is amazing, and we couldn’t be doing this without him.” Even President Trump, who has been tormenting the NFL for several years now, left them alone in his pregame Fox interview. (It helps when you ban kneeling for him.) The league didn’t even have to deal with Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, the dark princes of the league; instead, it had two teams nobody dislikes all that much, one of which just won its first Super Bowl in 50 years. Shoot, even the commercials weren’t half bad.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for Goodell, a man who appeared for all the world to be mincemeat at regular intervals over the last five years. (It turned out that the worst thing that happened to him was a temporary pay cut, all the way down to $34 million. He’s now back up to $40 million.) The league made a record $16 billion in revenue in 2018, the most recent recorded year, and is well on its way to reaching Goodell’s target of $25 billion by 2027. And while the NBA has suffered dramatic television-ratings drops and baseball only crosses over to popular culture when it has a cheating scandal, the NFL earned its best ratings in four years this season. Last year, the entertainment industry was widely boycotting it over the Kaepernick mess; this year, the Super Bowl featured Jay-Z and Beyoncé waving from the luxury suites. Why wouldn’t the league be strutting? And more to the point: Why wouldn’t it feel cocky about another 100 years? Every time the NFL is counted out, it comes back stronger.
Then you go back to that kid. Remember that kid, running on the field, with all those dancing children around him? The kid representing the innocence of play, expressing all the joy and youthful exuberance that sports represents, that exuberance everyone watching is always trying to recapture? Well, he’s not a professional actor. His name is Maxwell “Bunchie” Young. He was Sports Illustrated’s 2017 “Kid of the Year,” and he has been on the sports national radar his entire life, winning a sprint competition at the age of 6. But his favorite sport is football, and he has been playing it just as long as he has been running, scoring 30 touchdowns in a youth league at the age of 9. Young isn’t some plucky youngster getting his first shot to shine on a national stage. He’s a lusted-after commodity; University of Illinois coach Lovie Smith has already offered him a scholarship to play football. He did so when Young was 10 years old.
Ten years old, by the way, is two years younger than the age of 12, which is the age that researchers at Boston University found anyone who played football that young had “a twofold ‘risk of problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive function’ and a threefold risk of ‘clinically elevated depression scores.’” One researcher said, “The brain is going through this incredible time of growth between the years of 10 and 12, and if you subject that developing brain to repetitive head impacts, it may cause problems later in life.”
A child who has been playing tackle football his entire life — who was offered a football scholarship at the age of 10 — was the centerpiece of the league’s marketing at its most massive event, celebrating its 100th birthday, pointing toward 100 more years of football ahead. That kid represented everything glorious and shining about the NFL on its signature night; it built the whole thing around him, and those kids, and what the future holds for them. This past Super Bowl Sunday, everything was perfect and beautiful for the NFL. But there are many, many more Sundays to come.