Opinion | What MAGA World Gets Wrong About the N.F.L. and Taylor

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More than 100 million people are expected to watch this Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers, most likely making it the year’s most watched television broadcast — again. The National Football League is an American cultural behemoth: Ninety-three of 2023’s 100 most-watched television broadcasts were N.F.L. games.

Among those who will be watching the game is National Review senior editor Charles C.W. Cooke. A native of England, Cooke has become an avid football fan (specifically, of the Jacksonville Jaguars) and has written about his growing understanding of America’s one true national sport. He has also written about some on the Right’s aversion to the N.F.L., particularly as some concoct convoluted conspiracy theories involving singer Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, the Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, while others denounce professional sports as a whole.

As Cooke wrote in National Review, “Online, one can say that Taylor Swift is a ‘Deep State psyop’ and prompt a million Lost Boys to clap their hands in glee. At a bar, a baseball game, a kids’ Christmas concert, or a church, such declarations would yield embarrassed confusion, the sound of feet slowly shuffling away, and a hasty investigation into the availability of straitjackets.”

I spoke to Mr. Cooke about falling in love with football, what the sport means to Americans, why some on the Right are fine with being “toxic” to most Americans, and why he thinks the 49ers will win the Super Bowl. This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.

Jane Coaston: So let’s just start here. You grew up in the U.K. and you’ve become a massive Jacksonville Jaguars fan. What do you love about football? What’s it been like being a fan of a team that had a big comeback last year, and a big collapse this year?

Charles C.W. Cooke: Well, the first thing to say about that is it’s unusual in any sports that I’ve followed before. Now, obviously, you’ve had this dynasty in the Patriots, and we seem to be watching one as well with the Chiefs, but in English soccer or European soccer, you don’t tend to see the ups and downs in quite the way that you do in the N.F.L. So just in general, watching the N.F.L. has been fascinating for that. The Jaguars in particular have been heartbreaking.

It’s just so much more intense. I mean, baseball, you have 162 games a season, and in Premier League Soccer, you have 38 games, a season plus cup competitions, plus the European tournament. But when you’re playing 17 games and maybe a few playoff games, each one is imbued with this incredible importance. You don’t just say, oh well, next week. And you have to wait a week. And there’s only 17 of them. And every play matters. It’s like heightened sports fandom.

It’s also quite difficult to watch a football game if you only follow the ball. Whereas in baseball or soccer, you can broadly follow the ball and maybe there are a few rules you have to learn, but the game is self-evident even to children. With football, there’s so much going on — and at least it took me quite a long time as somebody who didn’t grow up here to get it. But once you get it, then it’s quite hard to watch other sports because they’re less complex and they’re also less exciting. And I also think, if I’m perfectly honest, I think the sheer drama and violence of it is appealing. I mean, it’s gladiators, right? George Will used this as a pejorative. He says it’s committee meetings followed by violence. But that’s sort of actually a good description of it because there’s a huge amount of complexity and then it all explodes in a couple of seconds.

Coaston: Right? It’s like a chess match. But if chess were violent. As someone who moved here, how much do you think football is a part of American culture, and why do you think that is in comparison to baseball, for example?

Cooke: It’s the biggest thing in America. It’s bigger than any other sport. It’s probably bigger than any other cultural phenomenon. It’s certainly bigger than movies or music. And the cliché is it’s the one thing Americans still do together is watch the Super Bowl. But it’s a cliché for a reason. I would take a market analogy here: I think that it’s bigger than baseball, hockey and basketball because it’s better. It’s quite difficult to enjoy other sports as much when you’ve seen football and Americans respond to that in kind.

Coaston: The politics around the N.F.L. specifically have gotten pretty weird online since the 2010s. Some people tried to get people to boycott the N.F.L. because of Black Lives Matter. Now we’re a few months into very intense online right-wing reactions to Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce that ranges from people saying football distracts from Jesus to saying the 49ers have to win the Super Bowl to prevent World War III. But let’s start with the boycott aspect. Was that even possible in the United States? What were people thinking?

Cooke: I think that what you are seeing is right-wing puritanism or right-wing totalitarianism. And by totalitarianism, I don’t mean authoritarianism so much as the subordination of everything to politics, which has historically been a great tendency on the left. This idea that sports are a distraction from politics that has crept in on the right is quite East German. It suggests that politics is all that anyone should care about and insofar as they care about anything else be that sports or art, it should be contained within politics. And again, that’s a tendency that I historically saw among radical, slightly weird progressives who would see all art either revolutionary or non-revolutionary, maybe certain feminists as well. And it’s odd and alienating and destined to fail because most Americans are not politics-addicted weirdos, and they understand that politics exists to engender civil society, not to replace it.

The problem is that it just separates you from the middle of the country. And if your aim is to win elections, which these people seem to want to do, that’s just not the way to go about it. One of the great things about football is just that when you go to a game, everyone is the same. We’re all rooting for the same thing. And I have no idea what those people think about politics, and I don’t want to know because the point of being there is that we’re Jaguars fans. This weird tendency on the right, this hyper politicization that has crept in that doesn’t like anything that isn’t partisan politics — it’s just going to put people off.

Coaston: Do you think they want to win? And if they do, what is it: Elections? Prestige? Cultural acclaim?

Cooke: Well, that’s a great question and that’s more of a political question than a sports question. On the one hand, yes, I think a lot of those people want to win, and they’re just perhaps a bit odd. But then I also think that there are people who like the victim status that comes with losing. And also, this is one of the things the internet’s done is create a world in which you can be absolutely toxic to the vast majority of Americans, but have enough fans or subscribers or donors to make you quite rich. So there are certain people — and this is by no means limited to the right — there are certain people within American politics who really are a liability for their side, broadly construed, but who have made tons of money because they’ve managed to convince 10,000 people, a hundred thousand people, a million people to follow them.

Coaston: How do you think conspiracy theory culture, which is not new, but how do you think it ties into this idea that Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce are having a fake relationship to endorse Biden on the field? It just seems conspiratorial, but it’s the kind of conspiratorial that 15 years ago would be coming from just some guy on the street, and now it’s coming from people who are, like, someone who ran for president or people who are actual influencers with a fair amount of followers. What happened? Do conspiracies breed more conspiracies?

Cooke: So America’s always been absolutely chock-full of conspiracy theories. Going back to the founding, yes, the very traditional American pastime. This one baffles me because there is nothing that is more predictable than a female pop star dating a male football star. This isn’t odd.

Coaston: Something that’s funny is I just keep thinking, was Tony Romo dating Jessica Simpson a conspiracy theory? It’s interesting how this has happened before. The quarterback of the Broncos, Russell Wilson, is married to a popular R&B singer. This isn’t new, but this is new.

Cooke: Yeah, this is new. You said the conspiracies beget more conspiracies. And I do think you’re on to something there in that there has been now for quite a long time, a need to justify Donald Trump’s claims. Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, but he said he won it. I suspect quite a lot of the people who like Donald Trump think deep down that he’s going to lose in 2024. And so some of them are looking for reasons as to why that might be. Now, it is true that there is media bias, and there is a great deal of progressive authority wielded outside of the electoral process. I would love to see conservatives enjoy the same influence in the media and academia and corporate America and so on as progressives do. But that doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump lost the election and is just broadly disliked by Americans.

And I do see in some of these conspiracy theories as pre-emptive excuse making: “Well, he would’ve won the election if the Pentagon hadn’t recruited Taylor Swift as an asset.” And then, I mean, it’s so silly. “It made her famous.” She’s the most famous person in the world.

Coaston: So speaking of the Super Bowl, who do you think will win: Chiefs or Niners?

Cooke: I think the Niners are going to win. I keep betting against the Chiefs and getting it wrong, but I have watched quite a lot of Chiefs games this year. I went to the Jags-Chiefs game, and just out of pure interest there, because they’re in the A.F.C., I watched maybe five or six Chiefs games. I’ve seen them in the playoffs. I do think they’re a step slower than they were. And the sheer depth of that 49ers team, I think they’re going to prevail. It’s not just Christian McCaffrey, they just seem to have strength everywhere. And another gear.

Coaston: I’ve been thinking about how Erick Erickson argued that a lot of the noise around Kelce and Swift from MAGA influencers was basically an act to produce attention and clout. But what is that performance trying to tell us is? What are they trying to say?

Cooke: My test is always, if you said that in a bar, how would people respond? This is why I think some of the intersectional types don’t know how they sound. If they said that at a bar and they would be met with blank stare — just imagine pointing to the screen in the A.F.C. championship game when they cut to Taylor Swift and saying, oh, you see her, she’s a Pentagon psyop. Could you imagine the looks that you would get from someone?

But look, the incentives do line up for people to do it. There’s enough people out there who buy this stuff. I don’t know if they mean it or not, but the way I put it in my piece was, either way, they’re wrong. If they really think that this is happening, then they’re crazy. If they think that this is the sort of thing that people want to hear, then they’re wrong. And if they know full well that it’s crazy and wrong and counterproductive, and they’re doing it anyway because they understand that there are enough lost people out there who will shovel money their way for saying it, and they’re evil, however you look at it, this is bad.

Coaston: I have seen people not just arguing against the N.F.L., but against watching sports. There’s a little bit of that on the extreme right, the racists whose implication is, “why are you watching Black people play sports? This is all to distract you from something.” But it is interesting about people demanding people become more disconnected from real life.

Cooke: There may be a racist side to it. The one I see isn’t racist so much as it’s puritanical. The idea being that this is bread and circus and it’s a distraction from what you should really care about, which is either religion or knocking on doors and telling people to vote for your preferred candidate. There’s a sort of Spartan element to it where football is regarded as frivolous, which I think is preposterous. I actually think the opposite is true. I think it’s one of the least frivolous pastimes. It’s also ironic because one of the great things about sports is that they exercise instincts in human beings toward violence and tribalism that are much better off being exorcised by sports than by politics.

Jane Coaston is a contributing Opinion writer. Previously, she was the host of Opinion’s podcast “The Argument”; she was also the senior politics reporter at Vox, with a focus on conservatism and the G.O.P.

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