2008-01-28 • Volume 2 • Issue 4
People and Pigskin
Sadly, the seven month-long ritual known as football season will soon be over. Grills, face paint, foam cheese heads, and novelty jerseys will shortly enter a begrudged hibernation, eagerly anticipating the coming Fall. To say Americans love football is an understatement. We are obsessed with it. Each year, from the first pre-season game in August to Super Bowl Sunday in February, Americans engage in a torrid affair with the sport that grows stronger and more passionate with each passing season.
Why do Americans love football so much? There are several other professional sports we could devote as much time to, but we don’t. For example, most people would agree Major League Baseball (MLB) is a close competitor with the National Football League (NFL); after all, baseball is the so-called “national pastime”. However, a regionally covered NFL regular season game in 2006 drew higher ratings (by nearly 2 points) than Game One of the 2005 World Series, one of the most highly anticipated baseball games of the year. Nowadays, there are televised professional football games five days a week, not to mention college football. ESPN even runs collegiate and professional football coverage during the off-season, something it does for no other sport.
Our country even pays more attention to football than it does to politics. The Wild Card playoff game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers on January 5th drew nearly three times as many viewers as did the Republican primary debate airing the same night. In 2004, the Vice-Presidential debate, the highest rated Vice-Presidential debate since 1992, didn’t come close to the popularity of that year’s Super Bowl, which attracted over 140 million viewers. Granted, the primary on January 5th featured unpopular candidates, and the Vice-Presidential debate from 2004 was just a Vice-Presidential debate, but it drew more viewers than the 2000 Presidential debate. I don’t think any of us are surprised to hear that football is more popular than politics, but where does this zeal for observing the sport come from?
Football must appeal to something uniquely American. It has failed miserably overseas, much like professional soccer has experienced trouble catching on here. Some say we like watching football because it is formatted well for television, perhaps better than any other professional sport in the United States. This argument, however, does not explain why the NFL set overall attendance records four of the six years from 2000-2006. Americans don’t just enjoy football from the comfort of their favorite armchair; we like to see it first hand, which is especially true for college football. Several college football stadiums can hold over 100,000 fans. The only NFL stadium with similar capacity is currently under construction in Arlington, Texas, and will house the Dallas Cowboys. Yet, support for college football is fair; it is an extension of school spirit and, in some cases, inter-university rivalries.
Because professional football teams are not associated with a concrete institution, we cannot attribute America’s obsession for the game to mere regional or municipal pride. True, there are certain teams, like the San Francisco 49ers or the Green Bay Packers, whose impressive legacies provide them with landmark status in the cities they are located in. However, the NFL expands into new markets or owners move their teams from cities in which they are deeply rooted (the Tennessee Titans were once the Houston Oilers), and we love football all the same.
America also doesn’t love football simply because it is violent. If that were the case, our favorite sport would not be football but Ultimate Fighting, an extraordinarily brutal mixed martial art. And, football doesn’t appeal to American because it is simple, because football is very complicated. Just try to explain the intricacies of the game’s rules to an unknowing friend. It is hard to do so without a visual aid. Beyond the regulations of the game, there are complex strategies involved in play calling and different tactical considerations necessitated by the opposing team’s roster.
Despite the hard-to-grasp elements of football, it is still easy for us, as viewers, to understand the most important factor of a game: which team is winning. Obviously, the score illuminates this fact, but it is also very easy to tell how well a team’s offense is succeeding against its opponent’s defense and vice versa. I feel this is one of the most attractive characteristics of football. Although we revere the players and coaches whose knowledge of and skill at the game greatly exceed our own, we are able to share in the joy of their successes and pains of their failures. It is like going to any concert. Most audience members cannot analyze the music being played for them or play it themselves, but they nevertheless enjoy a great performance.
The collective spectating experience comes with any sport, but football takes it a level closer to the fundamental values upon which our nation was founded. See, in every football play, two sets of eleven players must work together to achieve their goals. The success of any play is rarely dependent on a single player’s ability, but, instead, on the united coherence of the teammates on the field. In other words, every time the ball is snapped on a football field, the players are striving to create a more perfect union among themselves.
Although this is true for other televised sports, it comes through the clearest in football because every play is a calculated decision instead of an instinctive reaction like in basketball or soccer. Baseball captures this quality the least because so much of what happens in a game is based on individual decisions. Football is warfare. Coaches are generals and football players are soldiers executing long and short-term strategies at the same time. Even though players like LaDanian Tomlinson or Tom Brady are hailed for their personal talents, their success is exceptionally dependant on the abilities of the players around them. After all, Tomlinson would not gain as many yards if his fullback could not block well and Brady would have trouble completing passes if his wide receivers could not beat their defenders.
Much like the prosperity of our nation, a football team’s season is made or broken by the cooperation of many individuals. Like the thirteen colonies overcame individual interests to unite against their British overlords, professional and collegiate football players forget personal feelings and grievances and work with their teammates because they know they will win without teamwork. Football players who don’t understand this stand out in the media. Terrell Owens, Maurice Clarett, and others are viewed in a negative light in spite of their amazing physical abilities simply because they behave badly. Moreover, players like these can only redeem themselves in the court of football opinion when they modify they attitudes, like Randy Moss has done this year as a member of the New England Patriots.
America loves football because football reflects America. The journey of every player from Pop-Warner, to high school varsity, to college and beyond is a microcosm of the American dream that inspired the colonists to rebel, the pioneers to go west, our great-grand parents to conquer economic depression and our parents to endure a cold war. Football might only be a game, but it symbolizes much more. We all desire victory in our lives, and when it does not come easily to us we can turn on a TV and participate in the victory of an NFL team. If only for three hours, we become inspired by the idea that if we can only make the right block, or run the right route in our lives, the people around us will pull their weight and we will succeed together. This hope brings us back every Saturday or Sunday, and keeps us giddy in the Spring and Summer as we await a new season of American football.
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