“Football is just football,” Mark Leibovich writes in his new book, Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, “angst is for writers.” But Leibovich’s book has already set alarm bells ringing in C-suites around the NFL, with his revelations of buffoonery on the parts of certain owners–Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told him he wouldn’t trade his Hall of Fame jacket for another Super Bowl ring; Patriots owner Robert Kraft told him “Boston is a village compared to New York”–and the league’s hamfisted responses to CTE, domestic violence, and Deflategate. Along the way he very slightly sort of befriends Tom Brady and treats readers to the unrelenting reality of journalism: Always feeling like you’re not really supposed to be somewhere you’ve gone for work.
Washingtonian chatted with the New York Times Magazine’s chief national correspondent about how after This Town, his remarkable anthropological study of political Washington, he cast a similar gaze on the US’s most popular sport.
Washingtonian: Congrats on the book. I wish you at least a week of people talking about it.
Mark Leibovich: Yeah, I’ll take what I can get. I mean, between Trump every day and the Woodward book coming September 11….
How did covering politics for so many years prepare you to write this?
It really just prepared me to deal with a certain amount of ego. Football has, I would say, not the most sophisticated public relations strategy and self-aware people in the world. There’s a lot of overlap between the overwhelmingly male owners and the front office people and, you know, the Senate or the House–it’s a lot of fragile egos, a lot of people who think that they run the world, and they’re both obsessed with public perception. The big difference is that NFL owners don’t have to run for re-election. So they really do kind of carry themselves with an air of permanence and a sort of royal entitlement.
And you got surprisingly close to a lot of those guys.
Yeah, I don’t really know why. I’ve been hearing that for years about politicians: Why does anyone talk to you? I’m always pleasantly surprised. Maybe it helps not to be a sportswriter, sort of an outsider. I think I got a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, and you know everyone from Tom Brady to Roger Goodell to Jerry Jones to any number of people in between were more than happy to–I don’t know if they bared their souls but they let me hang around.
How did pursuing Brady compare with, say, getting to know Goodell?
I was certainly nervous when I first met Brady. I was not the least bit nervous meeting Roger Goodell. I say in the book that I’ve interviewed presidents and vice president and CEO types and celebrities over the years. And by far interviewing Tom Brady was the most nervous I’ve ever been. I had to really work to remember, like, All right, you gotta check the fan hat at some point. Tom, I think, appreciates dealing with people who are not in his everyday orbit, and he actually has a fairly broad array of interests. And I guess I was the guy that he decided to talk to in that year.
I’ve heard reporters say they hate interviewing sports figures, that they often won’t have anything to say.
Yeah, that happens. But it’s not as hard as I would have thought to have gotten what I got. I mean they’re far more transparent and revealing than they think they are. A lot of these owners, especially, think that they’re really, really good politicians, and they are really, really bad politicians. They’re just used to a certain level of deference in the football media. But I was not at all encumbered with with just the outsize deference that a lot of people normally have for for them.
That comes through a lot in the book, like when people try to take stuff off the record retroactively.
Yeah, that was annoying. There was much more of an expectation like you know, You’ll take care of us on that, right? And it’s clear that they’re used to operating in an environment where they are taken care of. Not just because they have many billions of dollars but because they have large staffs and they have in many cases the local media that will always refer to them as Mr. So-and-So. They’re like little kings. And it’s the job of the league office to cater to them. I didn’t play by those rules, and I was not aware of those unwritten rules. I think it probably served the book pretty well.
Well, yes, and unlike a lot of sports journalists, you’re not in bed with the NFL in some way.
That’s for sure, especially now.
How do you mean?
I mean, look, there’s actually been a lot of interest in the book, which has been great. But, yeah, you won’t be seeing me, I don’t think, on the NFL Network. And it gets a little complicated because a lot of the bigger media outlets are very, very, very big financial partners with the league, so I’m sure there are considerations if not conversations about how prominently some of these big broadcast partners want to want to showcase a book like this. But that’s that’s politics and I can’t really worry about that either.
This is a book that gives away some secret handshakes. Based on what I’ve heard at the league, in a lot of the teams it’s sort of seen as a dangerous book, and that’s great. I’m happy to be dangerous to the NFL. One of the assumptions I’ve operated under in my career is just, like, I think discomfort is good. Being a political reporter in Washington, if you are around for a while, can become a very, very comfortable existence. I think football is inhabited by a lot of people who are very, very comfortable. That includes people at the teams, people in the league, people in the broadcast industry, people in the in the print media. It was, I think, helpful to to be kind of self-consciously not comfortable in this environment.
How would you say the NFL’s PR operation compared to, say, the White House’s, or a long-serving senator’s?
It’s interesting because it’s a perfectly clean analogy in the case of Joe Lockhart, who was Bill Clinton’s press secretary and the head VP of public relations at the league for maybe two of the years that I was covering it. But having said that, there’s only so much the league can control. If you’re going to cover a White House, it is one White House. But the NFL, yes, there’s a Park Avenue headquarters, and that might be the White House, but it’s also basically 32 kingdoms that have equal power and if not more power. The owner of the Indianapolis Colts can do pretty much whatever he wants.
I really enjoyed all of what you wrote about yourself in the book. But it did occur to me that you’ve got the credentials and life experience to be, you know, some effete DC arsehole who got disillusioned by football and watches soccer now. How did that not happen with you?
I don’t know. It’s still early. I mean I’m glad to be done with football, but if there’s a game I’m going to watch it. I still just have whatever that disease is that a lot of Americans have that just loves this game. I think it’s like a really fun game to watch and I think there’s a great reality show around it. I also I just love the NBA these days. And I’ve never gotten the soccer thing. I used to play soccer in high school, but I’ve never I’ve never been like adopted the Premier League as like my next thing. I still am drawn to the game; I think that that’s why football will survive. It’s just a great game. I just think, unfortunately, if it survives, it will do so in spite of the people who run and own it.
That seems seems to be the case even here where so many people are alienated by the local team.
It’s a huge, huge football town, but it’s not as huge as it used to be. Part of it is the Nationals are here. But even beyond that I think the Washington Redskins have some real problems and, yes, like the rest of football they they’re a drug lord and they’re serving junkies, right? But, man, they’ve got to be a tough team to root for. If you happen to have been born with that disease, and luckily I was not, so living here I can just root against them like, I think, a lot of other people.
I was sort of hoping you’d give me a quote about Dan Snyder that would make make everyone want to share this article.
Oh sure. I mean, Dan Snyder is, in a time of such incredible division among Democrats and Republicans in Washington, one rare point of unity. You know even John McCain dies, you can’t get the White House on board. Again, if [Snyder] had to run for re-election, it would be pretty ugly, I’m guessing, right? But he doesn’t. He just has to keep showing up for the meetings and hope that he doesn’t do anything so scandalous that the team’s taken away from him. In fairness, a lot of owners are absolute pariahs in their markets. There are a lot of owners who don’t like to come out in public. But Snyder seems to sort of take that up to 11.
It sounded like you broke a personal rule when you anonymously quoted one of his fellow owners saying “his face is buried in Jerry [Jones]’s colon.”
Was that because of Snyder or because of the quote?
Mostly the quote. Yes, it was a blind quote, it was a little cheap, but it was an NFC owner who said that. And, you know, normally I would refrain from using a quote like that because it’s ad hominem, but I couldn’t resist the image.
Do you have any any any predictions for this coming season?
The only thing I’m sure I’m absolutely sure of is that Trump will pipe up periodically on the anthem thing. I mean, he loves that issue. As far as, like, on the field? I think Super Bowl: Patriots and, let’s say…Rams. The only surefire prediction other than, you know, Trump’s going to weigh in and somehow make it about himself is people will watch, and people will care, and football will continue to be the great spectacle of American life whether we love it or hate it.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.