Listening to the N.F.L.: A plots and B plots in the best podcasts for the playoffs

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Credit: Photograph by Cindy Ord / SiriusXM / Getty

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“The Mike Francesa Podcast,” delivered with radio-like regularity, makes for delicious listening to anyone who heard the host in his broadcast days.

Capitalism, as a couple of caustic observers once noted, makes everything solid melt into uncertain air, even collapsing the seasons one into the next. Under the stress of the economics of television advertising, the summer game of baseball now has its best games played on shivery autumn evenings, while the winter game of hockey has its biggest games played in summery June (and often in southern cities). American football, meanwhile, our autumnal sport, designed to dance on the falling leaves of Ivy League campuses (how many people know that Yale still holds the record for most national college championships?) now has its biggest games beginning in the coldest month of the year—in a season in which the game can live but for which it was never designed. And here we are now in that off, or off-kilter, season, with the thrilling slate of N.F.L. playoff games being fought, many in the hyper-cold of Buffalo and Kansas City, and even Baltimore. No matter—the games are good. Whatever else there may be to hate about the N.F.L., from inadequate concussion protocols to the ongoing good-dolphin, bad-dolphin debate about the redesign of Miami’s uniform, it puts on a fine competitive show, and there has hardly been a game that, as shivering spectacle, is worth missing.

With the decline of print sports writing, however—and the apparent death of Sports Illustrated last week seals a sadness that many of us have felt coming for a long time—the football lover who seeks out the kind of commentary and comedy that Roy Blount, Jr., and Bud Shrake once provided now has nothing to turn his attention to but . . . the astonishing panoply of pro-football podcasts! We are, perhaps, at, or even past, Peak Podcast, but this fan listens to an improbable array of them, often as a cure for insomnia. That may not sound like praise, but it is: for the true insomniac, it is not boredom but intelligent distraction that gives sleep a chance. Football podcasts provide, as podcasts will, a useful mix of objective information and individual idiosyncrasy, and a year’s worth of listening makes some commonalities evident. One of these is something that seems almost definitive of the podcast genre: that the B plot is always more interesting than the A plot. In the case of football podcasts, the A plot is essentially about who one should bet on to win a bet; the B plot involves the implicit familial, or even Freudian, relationship between two hosts, or between a chief host and an interlocutor, as they arrive at the wagers. We arrive for the picks and stay for the people.

The first to note is—who else?—New York’s very own Mike Francesa, the abdicated pope of drive-time radio, who, after years of deprecating podcasts, has left WFAN to launch “The Mike Francesa Podcast” (under the aegis of an online sports-gambling platform). The podcast, delivered with radio-like regularity, makes for delicious listening to anyone who heard Mike in his broadcast days. Here are all of his signature moves: the unhinged anger directed at some hapless coach or athlete; the instant amnesia about the earlier anger when last week’s villain suddenly does something Mike likes; the absolute certainty about everything combined with the absolute absence of analytic acuity; and the best remaining Archie Bunker-vintage New York accent. Gone is his poor, screeching co-host, Mad Dog; gone even are the callers, Don from Long Island and Vinny from Staten Island. No, it’s pure Mike, uninterrupted and talking only to himself, like a character in a Beckett monologue.

For all Mike’s gift for getting it wrong and then forgetting he ever even tried to get it—it was Mike who sapiently explained to his listeners that any team picking Patrick Mahomes would likely live to regret it—he remains an unparalleled listen, and not only because a drinking game might be invented around his invocation of this or that “colossahal disastuh.” He speaks with the voice of the old New York sports establishment, with all its all-male booze-and-barstool culture. (Note that his reappearance has even reignited an old-school tabloid feud, with his old nemesis Phil Mushnick of the New York Post keeping track of Mike’s, uh, irregularly achieved predictions. “mike francesa hits embarrassing trifecta of woefully wrong betting picks” was the headline on a column not long ago.) Mike retains the old establishment’s deference to history. When he talks about what Mickey Mantle did in 1957, or for that matter shares his obsession with J.F.K., it is with real reverence, and we feel back in touch with a more spacious time, a time when you “grew up” at Yankee Stadium seeing afternoon games regularly, not for an expensive once-a-year occasion, and might have fretted, as Mike still does, about the lack of “left-handed powah” in the “short porch” in right. It was, if not a better time in New York sports, then at least a more organic one, and Mike is our last living connection to it.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Adam Gopnik, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 1986. During his tenure at the magazine, he has written fiction, humor, book reviews, personal essays, Profiles, and reported pieces from abroad. He was the magazine’s art critic from 1987 to 1995 and the Paris correspondent from 1995 to 2000. From 2000 to 2005, he wrote a journal about New York life. His books, ranging from essay collections about Paris and food to children’s novels, include “Paris to the Moon,” “The King in the Window,” “Through the Children’s Gate: A Home in New York,” “Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life,” “The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food,” “Winter: Five Windows on the Season,” “At the Strangers’ Gate: Arrivals in New York,” “A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism,” and, most recently, “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.” Gopnik has won three National Magazine Awards, for essays and for criticism, and also the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. In March of 2013, Gopnik was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and in 2021 he was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. He lectures widely, and, in 2011, delivered the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s fiftieth-anniversary Massey Lecture. His musical, “Our Table,” opened in 2017, at the Long Wharf Theatre, in New Haven, and his one-man storytelling show, “The Gates,” played at the Public Theatre in New York.

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