It feels appropriate that Colin Kaepernick should find a way to haunt Madden 19. Kaepernick is the one player that the NFL most wants to disappear; but even after being blackballed out of the league, his ghost still haunts one of the league's chief marketing tools.
Yesterday, a mini-controversy erupted when it was discovered that Kaepernick's name had been censored from the lyrics of a song in Madden 19's soundtrack. EA, having learned the benefits of immediate damage control, quickly came out and called it an internal misunderstanding over rights issues. The Kaepernick reference will be restored to the soundtrack, though Kaepernick himself will remain conspiciously absent from the available player pool.
I mention this incident because it's one of the handful instances in which the reality of the NFL has been allowed to intrude into its video game. In the real world, our president is haranguing the league over Twitter about players kneeling for the nation anthem; players are retiring early to avoid the debilitating effects of CTE; quarterbacks are groping Uber drivers; players are mad about vague constantly shifting and vague rule changes, and a work stoppage is almost definitely on the horizon. It makes Madden feel a little like the scene from Naked Gun that has since become a meme: "Nothing to see here!"
That's because Madden has always functioned as the league's fantasy world—the purest expression of how the NFL wants people to see it. In Madden, players will get injured, but they will never suffer from concussions (indeed, you can turn injuries off entirely). Players are football robots who never hold out from training camp, get arrested, or have sex parties on Lake Minnetonka.
One of my favorite Madden development anecdotes comes from when EA tried to introduce accurate attendance several years back. The new algorithm resulted in the Jacksonville Jaguars, who were awful at the time, always having an empty stadium. The Jaguars owner was enraged and the feature was quickly dropped.
More than almost any other sports sim, the NFL is extremely strict about the portrayal of the sport. Consider this comment by a Madden producer. "If a player's head snapped back too sharply, we had to change the animation to make it more... proper," the producer told Sports Illustrated back in 2014. "We couldn't have animations that looked overly violent or caused injury to player."
As with most licensed NFL ventures, the league seems to see Madden strictly as an arm of the marketing department. I've seen speculation over the years that the NFL likes EA having exclusive rights to the license, because it gives the NFL more control over the final product. I believe it.
All of this is to be expected. What licensed sports game would ever have a scenario where an athlete gets arrested? But over the course of reviewing Madden 19, there were moments where I felt the NFL's distortion of reality more acutely than usual.
One of the main conflicts in Longshot: Homecoming revolves around the Mathis Bullfrogs potentially merging with another school and disappearing. This is pitched as a legitimate community crisis, and everyone bands together to try and raise money to save the team. I wrote in my review, "Football is Family is the mantra of this year's tale. It's the same phrase used by the NFL for its ad campaign, making it feel more than a little like a sepia-toned extension of the league's marketing arm (granted, that's what Madden ultimately is: marketing). It paints an idealized picture of small town Texas, one where high school football forms the basis for the entire community, where all that's needed to revitalize the school is a really big football stadium. It's Friday Night Lights without the often brutal social commentary, which Madden was never equipped to handle in the first place."
I found myself struggling with Longshot: Homecoming's main themes because, even as a fan, I'm often appalled at how much priority is given to sports in our culture. Over the course of the story, I found myself asking, "How much are the teachers at Mathis being paid? Could the money for their shiny new stadium be put toward, I don't know, advanced placement courses?" A good portion of Friday Nights Lights is devoted to the problems that come from the worship of football; Permian High School's struggle with poor academics, and the toxic culture that sees 18-year-old kids get worshipped as gods one moment and abandoned as burnout townies the next.
Because Madden is what it is, it must necessarily put football on a pedestal. It was easier to swallow with the first Longshot, which was about a tacky reality show and the pursuit of the dream of playing in the NFL. It's not so much with the sequel. It almost makes me miss Spike Lee's deeply silly and yet more honest Livin' Da Dream.
It's easy to say that Madden should be escapism at its purest. It's a sim where you can enjoy what's great about the sport: the tactics, the incredible athleticism, the biggest moments on the biggest stage. I was in an online Madden league for many years, and we would make up silly nicknames and develop crazy storylines told over the course of multiple email chains. It's a neverending gameday where you don't necessarily have to worry about all the ills befalling the sport.
I'm almost fine with that. But then I log in to Madden Ultimate Team and see that Ryan Shazier is this year's MUT Master. Shazier, you'll recall, was nearly paralyzed after he lowered his head for a hit and compressed his spine. Like everyone else, I'm rooting for him to make a full recovery, but I can't help squirming every time the NFL brings him out, presenting him as a wounded warrior who only wants to return to the battlefield. He is a living reminder of the terrifying consequences the NFL can have for the human body.
Unlike most people, I don't think the NFL is going away anytime soon. It will evolve, and it may suffer from declining revenue as fans embrace other entertainment options, but the hooks it has in the American psyche are too great to ignore. For every suburban parent who vows to avoid football, 10 more parents in the rural south will want to toughen up their kids with a little bit of wholesome violence.
If anything, I just want the NFL to own up to what it is: violent entertainment. It shouldn't downplay the head trauma. It shouldn't institute terrible, half-baked rules that are meant to make it seem as if the NFL is Doing Something. It shouldn't be presented as the very fabric of small town life. And it shouldn't blacklist QBs who are respectfully protesting police violence.
The NFL should say, "Football is a violent sport and our athletes know the risk." Then the league should offer them lifetime pensions and free healthcare, because the NFL can afford it
Until that finally happens, Madden (and any other NFL connected venture) will be just another way in which the league tries to spin away reality. But as we saw yesterday, even Madden can't always keep that reality from encroaching into its football safe space. And the more the NFL denies it, the worse it's going to get.