As the NFL returns to our living rooms this week, so does a comforting staple of TV coverage: those frequent cutaway shots to the imperial box of the team owner, who is visible in that same cutaway shot on the TV behind him, within which that very cutaway shot is framed again, and so on, Jerry Jones growing ever smaller, a Russian nesting doll receding into infinity.
The effect of these shots is never to reduce the owner but to enlarge him. See the great man behind his pane of Plexiglas, spending his Sunday afternoon in French cuffs, only let's call them Freedom Cuffs, because this is America's sport, and these owners have achieved the highest rank of American stardom.
After all, the fantasy in fantasy football isn't to play for an NFL team but to own one. The victorious fantasy owner gets the trophy just as real owners are the first ones to hold the prize at the Super Bowl, their reflection distorted in the curved silver of the Lombardi Trophy.
In truth that's the whole nation reflecting back at them. From the oppression of Native Americans (Dan Snyder) to the industrial age (the Ford family) to our dizzying digital present (Paul Allen), NFL owners represent a thumbnail chronology of American history.
They're the closest we have to American royalty. Once a year, on the day before Good Friday, the Queen of England—or another royal deputized by the monarch—passes out coins to the elderly, much as the owner of the Colts handed out hundred-dollar bills to fans at training camp this summer. Jim Irsay is not technically a British peer, but he's a quintessentially American version of one, right down to his last name—pig Latin for Sir.
Every era has its cartoon rich guys, but most of them are actual cartoons—Daddy Warbucks, Scrooge McDuck, C. Montgomery Burns. Today's icons of outrageous fortune are the magnates who own the teams that own our hearts. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan wears the very same mustache as Mr. Monopoly, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti the same gelled-back hair as Gordon Gekko. The nominal successor to Thurston B. Howell III (castaway on Gilligan's Island) is Jets owner Robert W. Johnson IV (onetime deedholder to Revis Island).
We imagine these owners doing cartoonishly rich-guy things, like stuffing C-notes into the shirt pockets of ma√Ætre d's, or lighting their cigars with them (C-notes, that is, though ma√Ætre d's also ignite nicely). Like Augusta National, theirs is a rich man's club that most rich men can't buy into, which is why Donald Trump can own everything but the Bills, a team also coveted by Jon Bon Jovi. Once upon a time in America, people aspired to party like a rock star. Now, rock stars aspire to party like a football owner.
To that end, Jerry Jones keeps two Cowboys-logoed party buses at the ready. His son Stephen was photographed on one of them this summer cruising the Sunset Strip, the Champs Élysées of rock 'n' roll tour-bus decadence, so that it's now becoming difficult to tell Zygi Wilf from Ziggy Stardust, Robert Kraft from Robert Plant.
Owners are now reportedly asking pop stars like Katy Perry and Coldplay to pay for the privilege of playing the Super Bowl halftime show. Indeed, the owners' own concert rider for Super Bowl week would make Van Halen choke on their brown M&Ms. A leaked list of demands made for prospective host cities includes a complementary police escort to just about anywhere an NFL owner wants to go, a condition that's commensurate with a presidential visit. Or would be, if presidents had the power to move the White House on a whim to San Antonio or Los Angeles or wherever the grass is greener.
And so the season, and these owners, are returning just in time. The suite life's on deck for these billionaire vessels of our aspirations, outrage and envy. We can project just about anything we want onto NFL owners—one of them is named Arthur Blank, for heaven's sake. He's a walking Mad Lib, just waiting for us to complete him. Though maybe—just maybe—we're waiting for him to complete us.
NFL owners are the closest we have to American royalty. Jim Irsay is not a British peer, but he's an American version of one, right down to his last name—pig Latin for Sir.
Who's your favorite NFL owner?
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DAMIAN STROHMEYER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED