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The Dallas Cowboys: A Portrait of American Decadence

By Andrew Petiprin


In August 2023, Forbes reported that the National Football League was valued at $163 billion, which is roughly the Gross Domestic Product of Algeria and just a touch below that of Hungary. In comparison, Major League Baseball and the NBA together equal roughly this same amount, and the English Premier League is estimated at a far distant $18 billion. There are now several regular season football games hosted in Mexico and Europe each year, and there is a lot of speculation about future NFL expansion to include permanent franchises in European cities. The NFL, like most of America’s biggest brands, is a major export, even to countries where the sport is not normally played.

Despite the NFL’s global ambitions, however, pro football is almost entirely American made and maintained. Unlike the top-flight European soccer leagues, which increasingly feature team owners hailing from the Middle East and the United States, the NFL has traditionally forbidden foreign investment and control. Today, only one franchise, the Jacksonville Jaguars, is even owned by someone born outside the United States – the Pakistani-American, Shahid Khan.

Contrast with examples from the English Premier League: Manchester City is owned by a sheikh from the UAE, Sheffield United is owned by a Saudi Arabian prince, Aston Villa is owned by an Egyptian billionaire, and Newcastle United is owned by a Saudi group. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool are all majority owned by Americans. In continental Europe, France’s most famous club, Paris Saint-Germain, is effectively owned by the Qatari state.

The most popular and profitable of the NFL’s thirty-two homegrown and home-kept franchises is the Dallas Cowboys, purchased by oil tycoon Jerry Jones in 1989 for a modest $140 million, and now worth $9 billion. Throughout his tenure as owner, Jones has controlled the team as the General Manager as well, and not without controversy. Under his leadership and with the help of his old college buddy Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys quickly became the team of the 90’s, winning Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII, as well as Super Bowl XXX in 1996 under Barry Switzer. Since then, however, the Cowboys have been haunted by past success. Indeed, it is commonly said around Dallas that Jones sold his soul to the devil for those 90’s wins, and he has been trying to re-negotiate the deal ever since.

The current setting for the team’s underachievement is the nation’s once-premier stadium, nicknamed “Jerry World” and “The Death Star,” whose corporate naming rights belong to AT&T, but like most stadiums, it was paid for in part by local taxpayers. Built in 2009 for $1.3 billion, one can expect to hear calls for its replacement sometime before 2040. Three million square feet here today, gone tomorrow.

Despite almost three decades of mediocrity, the Cowboys have remained the subject of constant sports talk show chatter in season and out. At times it would almost seem that the best thing to keep the Cowboys and their flamboyant owner in the limelight is for them to be good, but not that good – to have it all, but to ultimately disappoint. Everyone remains enamored by the veneer and drawn into the drama. Sadly, a big hat always plays much better in America than cattle.

When one steps back and looks at the big picture of all these elements put together, the Dallas Cowboys look like American decadence incarnate.

Now, I am not entirely opposed to bread and circuses. In fact, I have a fondness for arguably the lowest expression of American entertainment, professional wrestling. I have always followed the NFL too; but having grown up in several places and having moved every few years as an adult, I have never had “my team,” at least not for long. I myself am an unfortunate embodiment of American decadence too – your typical bourgeois nowhere man.

I have a fond memory of the Washington Redskins winning Super Bowl XXII in 1988 when I was an eight-year-old kid in Waldorf, Maryland. I remember the Creamsicle-clad Tampa Bay Buccaneers being the laughing stock of the league when I was a teenager in Brandon, Florida and later Orlando.

I also remember cheering for the so-so Steelers with friends in the dorm when I was in college in Pittsburgh in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and I was very happy to see the team return to championship form a few years later. I have been mildly interested in the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, and Tennessee Titans owing to living in or near those teams’ markets. And in 2020, my family and I moved to Cowboy land – the vast expanse of man’s concrete and God’s blue sky known as the DFW Metroplex.

So, how ‘bout them Cowboys, then?

Again, it’s all so obviously decadent – the town as much as the team; but the NFL may also be the only glue for social cohesion we have left in the United States. Neither recent controversies over kneeling during the national anthem nor the overlaying of woke symbolism onto the NFL brand have succeeded in tearing down the basic, apolitical male fascination with football’s unrivaled quality of athletic dramatics. Thus, I had hoped that caring about my local team along with millions of other red-blooded men would offer a sense of rootedness for as long as I stuck around town. It was nice to strike up a conversation in the supermarket with a guy in a CeeDee Lamb jersey or to do some Monday morning quarterbacking with a work colleague. I even began listening obsessively to local sports talk radio to pass the time in traffic on the freeways and toll roads. Good guys, bad guys. Strategy, prediction. Some enthusiasm, lots of complaining. Once again, so decadent! But for months, it felt good.

Until it didn’t.

For the third straight year, the Cowboys rode a 12-5 record into the post-season and crashed, this time more spectacularly than ever. Possessing the number two seed in their conference and boasting a sixteen-game home winning streak, Dallas was blown out at Jerry World by the Green Bay Packers, who are not only perpetual Super Bowl contenders but were the youngest team in the league this year. Moreover, the Packers are the only NFL team publicly owned by fans, none of whom may hold more than 200,000 shares in the team. In these ways, the Packers are essentially the anti-Cowboys.

After the Cowboy’s loss, the talk shows began the hand-wringing to which fans of America’s team have long been accustomed.

The first stage of grief goes like this: Fire the coach! No, give him one more year! Trade the quarterback! No, he’s not the problem! Why won’t Jerry Jones sell the team or die?!

Then the months-long coping begins: What are some clever ways to clear salary cap space to acquire the missing pieces? What can a new defensive coordinator do to make everything different? That rascal, Jerry! Maybe this will finally be the year!

It’s nauseating.

I have drunk too deeply from the dark well of American sports entertainment depravity. I have awoken to a nasty football hangover with a renewed sense of exhaustion about my country. What do we really have to offer? Jerry World for everyone?

I used to say that an exercise in considering football’s decadence was to imagine future archaeologists uncovering the ruins of AT&T stadium and theorizing about which gods were worshipped there and what sort of sacrifices were offered. But I have lately come to realize that the decadence is actually much worse. We will leave behind no ancient coliseums. Instead, we will have destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again many times over by the time our successors find nothing at all where the enormous domed temples of our unprecedented imperial wealth once stood. Our future progeny will be scratching their heads trying to discover what we cared about at all.

Like today’s Cowboys, America has it all, but what is it all for?

I suppose I shall sober up and keep watching to find out, alas.

How ‘bout them Cowboys.


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