This Thanksgiving, football isn’t an argument. It’s THE argument

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Updated: November 21, 2017

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Dec. 4 issue. Subscribe today!

Here comes Uncle Ed. Your mother has invited him again, even after what happened last year. “He’s my brother,” she’s explained, and so now you have to remind your spouse, your partner, your boyfriend or your girlfriend of the rules. You’ve already spelled out, in one word, your policy on Uncle Ed and social media: “Don’t.” Now you have to talk about Uncle Ed and Thanksgiving. “Don’t take the bait. And don’t let down your guard until the football game, because if you make it to the football game, you know you’re safe.”

It’s not that you’ve never argued while watching football with Uncle Ed. It’s that you can argue in a way you can’t over dinner, because the arguments that start at the dinner table seem always to have the potential of careening out of control, while the arguments that start while you’re watching the Cowboys are exercises in containment, if not contentment. Was Dez Bryant able to make a “football move” before the ball squirted from his hands? You can go back and forth the rest of the afternoon without finding an answer but also without finding any enmity between you, even when Uncle Ed says, as he always does, “I remember when that was a catch.” And that has been the function of NFL football on Thanksgiving Day: It teaches you how to do something so many people have forgotten how to do on the other 364 days of the year, which is to agree to disagree.

Of course, the National Football League would have Americans think that it is as much a part of the holiday as turkey and all the trimmings. The league began playing games on Thanksgiving Day almost as soon as it was created, and the Detroit Lions started the “tradition” of playing football while the smell of cooking still pervades fortunate homes a full 83 years ago. It has been the genius of the NFL to insinuate itself in the rituals of American life in order to suggest that it is integral to the American way of life. But there’s a secret about the seemingly symbiotic relationship between professional football and Thanksgiving, which is that people don’t watch football on Thanksgiving because football means Thanksgiving. They watch it because it doesn’t.

They watch it because it provides a break from Thanksgiving — a respite from toil and a refuge from the familiarity and friction of spending all day with family. They watch it because they can watch it without having to talk. It is an irony of ironies that on a providential holiday that emerged from a president’s pen in the bloodiest year of a savage war over the issue of chattel slavery, the most warlike and militarized sport in existence has always offered the promise of neutrality — America’s Switzerland.

Until now.

Almost from the beginning, the NFL has seemed to fear not that the game put players at risk but rather that fans would one day perceive that the game was putting players at risk for no cause greater than their own entertainment. With single-minded ingenuity, it has done everything it possibly could to make professional football mean something more than what happens inside the arena, from stretching flags over the entirety of its playing fields to putting Blue Angels in the sky. The league has felt so vulnerable in the wake of protests during the national anthem because it has done its best to own the anthem in the same way that it owns Thanksgiving.

But Colin Kaepernick and the players who have followed his example have given the NFL what it has always wanted, not to mention its fans something on which they all can agree, whatever their politics. No, you and your uncle Ed probably don’t agree on the propriety, purpose or power of players taking a knee, but you do agree that it means something. You do agree that there are principles at stake more important to the republic than the scholarly intricacies of what constitutes a catch.

Not so long ago, Uncle Ed had to call his bookie and you had to join a fantasy league in order to get your blood up, but now the NFL is about as stirring as you can stand, standing on its own. Indeed, with Ed already on his way down from Ohio, you find yourself hoping that this Thanksgiving you and the rest of the family can make it to the safe space of the game, and not just as a measure of domestic comfort. It used to be that football was just the programming after the parade. It used to be that football represented a proxy argument for all the arguments left on the table, a way to keep things agreeably small. For better or for worse, it’s large now, not just an acceptable way for Americans to argue but rather the American argument itself, the real thing. For you simply to sit in front of the television set with someone from across the ideological divide, and for him to sit with you, means something it never did before, an argument and an agreement both, and a presumption of common ground.

And so for the first time you will be eager to stand up from your traditional place in the seating chart, stretch, burp, help, allow yourself the unction of an after-dinner drink and say, meaning every last word, “Come on, Uncle Ed, there’s a really big game on TV — it’s time we go watch it.”

Article source: http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/21501194/football-sidelines-thanksgiving-table-conversation-year-main-course