SPORTS
09/11/2011 12:18 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2011

NFL 2011 Preview: Preseason Awards & Why The National Football League Embodies America

Football combines the two worst things about America: It is violence punctuated by committee meetings. --George F. Will

Maybe conservative columnist George Will was right about football representing the worst things about America. After all, the game is unrelentingly violent and the verbiage is myopically militaristic. Participants risk their long-term health and earning potential each time they take the field. Management, meanwhile, has little loyalty toward these workers who are taking their lives in their helmets each Sunday. Of course, members of said work force seem to be continually getting themselves into high-profile trouble. Some are careless with their money, others run with the wrong crowd. These players can also be arrogant and show little respect for authority figures. They might pop off on Twitter about fans in the stands or even (allegedly) commit a crime against a woman in a nightclub restroom. And, it’s not like the cheerleaders, or even the selection and deployment of certain sideline reporters, are instructing these young men, or any young men, in an enlightened view of gender. Similarly, the parking lot bacchanalia of canned domestic beer and high-sodium foods at the periphery of every NFL game is as much a late-era Roman flashback—with nylon-polyester replica jerseys and satin Starter jackets replacing togas—as the gladiatorial contests inside the enormous budgetary boondoggles that serve as football stadiums.

So, maybe Will is right. Maybe football does represent some less than ideal aspects of the American character. But is it such a bad thing if the game holds up a mirror to our society? Compared to most sports, football is unflinchingly honest. Well, except for the 2006 Super Bowl, which was a sham gifted to the Steelers by the referees. But, more than any other sport, football tells us the truth.

For better. For worse. For real. Football is America.

Selling some pastoral pipe dream of an America that no longer—and perhaps never did—exists, baseball may be America’s PAST-time (and perhaps soccer is its future). But football is America’s real-time. Football is now. This game is so captivating and so beloved because it's dangers and flaws are as accessible as it's virtues and thrills. In fact, it's flaws often provide its thrills while the virtues contribute to the danger. It's mixed up. It's never entirely right or wrong. It is us.

Rather than shill some sepia-toned version of who we wish we were, football expresses realities that some might rather ignore. But by doing so, football also makes our strengths all the more apparent. Football has violence and promotes excess but sacrifice and perseverance are among its core values. It is crass and commercial but it stresses brotherhood among its participants and can be a communal source of civic pride among its spectators. Yeah, it can show us our basest Hobbesian state at times but it also expresses our potential and our Horatio Alger drive for success.

The jaw-dropping speed of Chris Johnson and the mauling majesty of Peyton Hillis speak to the depth and breadth of our physical resources and stand in defiance of the physical dangers of the game. The bluster of Rex Ryan and bombast of Chad Ochocino are as a part of who we are as the courage and steadfast positivity of Mark Herzlich and Eric LeGrand. The intellectual complexity of Sean Payton’s offensive schemes speak to our domestic ingenuity while Bill Belichick’s sociopathic, and occasionally rule-breaking, desire to win speaks to our heralded competitive nature. Heck, the contradiction between the born-again religiosity and bone-rattling play of Ray Lewis tells more truth about this country than anything that has happened on a baseball diamond in decades.

The athletic genius of Michael Vick, certainly the most captivating and controversial athlete across the major American sports at the moment, speaks as much to our capacity for transcendance as any avant-garde gallery show in SoHo. And the arc of Vick's career shows both our potential for evil and our capacity for forgiveness. It's true that a handful of the men who play this game commit crimes. But many more do tremendous charitable work. Like folks in any walk of life, some are role models and others are detestable. Most live in the more confusing middle, doing their best but sometimes coming up short. And, thankfully, there is no hiding it. For all the heavy-handedness of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's disciplinary measures, at least he has made it clear that the league does not look the other way. Of course, his lobbying for the 18-game schedule shows that his focus on rules is at least at much about protecting and promoting the business interests of his employer as it is about safeguarding those who play the game.

In 2011, nothing better reflects the most inspiring and troubling aspects of these united but discordant states than football. This is why we love football. Well, that and all the gambling. That certainly helps keep our interest.

With as many as 10 teams that feel they can lift the Lombardi Trophy this season, the upcoming NFL season should only strengthen the game's grip on our national consciousness. And to welcome the NFL back into our lives, HuffPost Sports has compiled a few preseason lists and rankings to get you acclimated. If, or perhaps “when,” you find something that you disagree with or if you think there is a player we missed out on then please keep the conversation going in the comments section.

Most Exciting:
1. Michael Vick
2. DeSean Jackson
3. Jamaal Charles
4. Devin Hester
5. Troy Polamalu

Not Enough Respect:
1. Steven Jackson
2. David Harris
3. Brandon Lloyd
4. Ben Watson
5. Antonio Garay

Stingiest Defenses
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. San Diego Chargers
3. New York Jets
4. Philadelphia Eagles
5. Green Bay Packers

Explosive Offenses
1. Philadelphia Eagles
2. Green Bay Packers
3. New Orleans Saints
4. Atlanta Falcons
5. San Diego Chargers

Breakout Players
1. LeGarrette Blount
2. Matt Stafford
3. Sam Bradford
4. Shonn Greene
5. Dez Bryant

Masterminds
1. Mike McCarthy
2. Sean Payton
3. Rex Ryan
4. Mike Smith
5. Bill Belichick

Coaches On Hot Seat
1. Jack Del Rio
2. Gary Kubiak
3. Tom Coughlin
4. Tony Sparano
5. Marvin Lewis

High-Impact Acquisitions
1. Nnamdi Asomugha
2. Kevin Kolb
3. Albert Haynesworth
4. Jonathon Joseph
5. Braylon Edwards

"Commissioner Goodell is on Line 1"
1. James Harrison
2. Ndamukong Suh
3. Cortland Finnegan
4. Ed Reed
5. Chad Ochocinco

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