High-speed rail, industrial on-shoring, cheap healthcare, a spring professional football league: What is it in the American character that prohibits us from having these things? Most religions have an eschatology, a vision of the delayed end times in which the nonarrival of paradise is seen as divine condemnation of humankind’s failures. Within a perfected America, we would all be riding maglevs made in Buffalo or Youngstown to packed-out stadiums every March, with no concern that the day’s extravagance will cause a bankrupting heart attack. But that is a nation, and a world, of which we remain unworthy.

A partial step toward Utopia came on April 16, when the latest iteration of the United States Football League took the field in Birmingham, Alabama. The eight-team league seeks to correct the supposed mistakes of its many predecessors by playing all of the games of its first season in one place, so as to cut down on travel and TV production costs.

Like the Iraq invasion and CNN+, spring football is one of those things that makes sense on paper: Americans can’t get enough of the gridiron. Give them more football, and they’ll watch it, like stupid dogs that can’t stop themselves from eating to death, right? Five decades of experience suggest a puzzling clash between this commonsense theory and the decisions of real people out in the real world. The original, mid-1980s USFL boasted high-flying offense and future Hall of Famers Steve Young and Reggie White among its alumni, but it folded after three seasons, thanks in part to a takeover attempt by team owner Donald Trump. The first and second XFLs were Vince McMahon-sized follies, in contrast to the much more subtle and serious World Football League of the mid-1970s and the Alliance of American Football in 2019. They all failed after one or two seasons.

The NFL is perhaps America’s most successful entertainment product, and no one has figured out how to ride its coattails into the warmer months. Market-related explanations only take you so far. Football fans don’t want to watch no-names compete for teams they don’t care about during the time of year reserved for baseball, college basketball, the NBA playoffs, and perhaps even going outside. But there is also a metaphysics lurking beneath the business school case study trappings of the spring football conundrum.

The NFL is the final bastion of a dying American monoculture. The television ratings and overall interest level for every other sport, including college football, are either worryingly soft or actively contracting. Nonsports network television programming enjoys a fraction of even its recent former audience. Music is more generationally siloed than it’s maybe ever been, thanks to TikTok’s Borg-like takeover of the creative ecosystem and the death of linear radio. God has high-key fallen off, as the TikTokers might put it — church attendees are now in the minority for the first time in American history. Movie theaters are a single failed Spider-Man sequel away from extinction. The most recognizable Americans are various insane billionaires: Michael Jordan was a living God in his time, but the likes of Elon Musk now outshine the LeBron Jameses of the world. Meanwhile, the cities and the countryside live in fear and hatred of one another. Both are, in their own unique ways and for their own distinct reasons, increasingly paranoid and heavily armed.

It is easy to be cynical about the endurance of the NFL as maybe the only thing holding back the total collapse of American civic association and fellow-feeling, the NFL being a hyper-violent public war game or maybe a ritual domestication of male aggression, all enacted for the economic benefit of the team owners, 32 of the worst people on Earth. It is also easy to lapse into dopey optimism, to cue up the NFL Films musical score that plays inside the brain of every fan, and see each autumn Sunday as a brilliant nationwide celebration of home and community, filtered through a spectacle that is uniquely ours and also extremely cool to watch. It seems safer and more accurate to say that the NFL is an imperfect vessel for the things that it holds, stuff ranging from billions in taxpayer dollars to the entire edifice of network television, which couldn’t survive without the NFL, to the identity and folk memory of dozens of metro areas. Still, it is the vessel that the people, in their ineffable wisdom, have chosen in these times.

To transmigrate even some tiny fraction of an NFL’s worth of psycho-social tsuris onto a brand-new league has proven impossible. The new USFL, which toils in obscurity on various premium cable channels that no one watches, doesn’t seem like it’ll be the exception. The NFL has a dark magic that can’t be replicated — or resisted, for that matter. It has brushed off culture war pressures from Left and Right. Neither the Kaepernicks nor the anti-Kaepernicks have damaged it. And if it is a damning indictment of the American condition that a football league is perhaps the final thing we have that binds us all together, then the NFL’s supremacy, and the failure of others to draft off its success, at least shows some latent desire for a common national life. There are unlikely strands of genuine connection, based on futile activities such as rooting for the Detroit Lions or rooting against Dan Snyder, that have stubbornly survived an entropic and largely meaningless culture.

In a better America and a better world, we’d get eight or nine months of meaningful regular season professional football a year, rather than just four. In the world we actually live in, the specialness of the NFL season is a last-ditch corner blitz against national-scale psychic anarchy. And we seem to know it. The public has knocked everything from God to Thomas Jefferson to Paw Patrol off its pedestal. It should be a source of hope, as well as a certain unease, that dethroning the NFL is something we’re all too terrified to do.

Armin Rosen is a New York-based reporter-at-large for Tablet.