ESPN's 'Toy Story' NFL Broadcast Feels a Teensy Bit Wrong

The NFL started me young. As a toddler, I'm about 90 percent sure I had a Steelers onesie. By the time I was 10 years old, I was spending about every other night in a Madden frenzy, toiling away in franchise mode—instead of actually playing football games—because I was a weird little kid. At 14, I was tight end for my local flag football team (the football equivalent of putting the shittiest, slowest child in right field). Hell, I coasted my way to the championship game at the Steelers's practice facility, where I slapped Jerome Bettis's hand. Fuck yeah.

This morning, I placed a five-leg parlay on tonight's Vikings-Eagles game, finished setting the lineups for my nine—yes, nine—fantasy football leagues, and now, I'm Google Maps-ing a place where I can drink Cabernet and watch my bet go under in the first quarter.

I turn 30 on Saturday.

Whatever's going on up there, I guess it's why I feel a teensy bit weird about ESPN's announcement of a Toy Story-themed football broadcast targeted at children. This week, the network announced a special presentation of October 1's Jaguars-Falcons broadcast, which will—through some sort of animated wizardry—take the form of an animated throwdown in Andy's room. According to ESPN's press release, "Andy’s room will replicate the on-the-field gameplay from Wembley Stadium, where each Falcon and Jaguar player will have animated representation on a traditional looking field, catered to the “Toy Story” setting.

And... just... do me a favor and read the press release's breakdown of the event:

  • Announcers: Drew Carter (play-by-play), Booger McFarland (analyst), and 12-year old Pepper Persley (reporter) will commentate, with all three fully animated and their body movements viewed through motion-capture technology

  • Iconic Toy Story Characters: Joining Woody and Buzz in Andy’s room will be Bo Peep, Bullseye, Bunny, Ducky, Forky, Green Aliens, Jesse, Rex, and Slinky Dog.

  • Special Halftime Show: Duke Caboom will attempt a motorcycle jump

  • Learning the Game: Demonstrations, including ‘how to’ videos, trivia, and more will be used through the telecast to teach the game of football to the audience.

  • Hear from the Players: The real-life Falcons and Jaguar players will also contribute through pre-recorded segments and interviews.

The kid-ification of football is nothing new. For the past couple of years, Nickelodeon has offered its own football-for-babies telecast, but with less animation than ESPN's Paw Patrol situation. It's like watching the grown-ups' broadcast with added antics—commentary Patrick (not Mahomes; Spongebob Patrick), or someone getting slimed IRL.

The Toy Story telecast, somehow, feels different, in a start em' young! way. I love football as much as the next millennial with a Fanduel account, but "demonstrations, including ‘how to’ videos, trivia, and more" feels like the NFL is indoctrinating seven-year-old fans oblivious to the frequent horrors of this game, most recently seen in the near-40-year-old player whose ACL snapped like a rubber band. Is seeing Forky hit a touchdown celly alongside a Pixar-looking Bijan Robinson the way to hook a grade-schooler into a game frequently complicated by race, money, and power? Life as an NFL fan—especially in the age of CTE awareness—has always involved a level of dissociation to enjoy any given Sunday, but tailoring the product for kids feels like another level of turning a blind eye.

I'm not sure. This isn't a takedown of ESPN's attempt to reach a younger audience—I certainly found joy in this great and occasionally terrible American game when I was still eating boogers. I'm just saying that maybe it's best to let a kid watch the Super Bowl with Mom and Dad, then go from there.

Besides, something tells me that the next telecast will stream from Monsters University, and I really don't want to see that.

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