Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Americans Care About Football So Much

I was contemplating on FB what I should write about today. I had fiction in mind, but a friend suggested I write about "the American obsession with football." Well, as it happens, I have written about football a couple of times on this blog, so to save myself some work, here are a couple posts on the topic:
Having covered those angles of American football, I still haven't addressed "the American obsession with football." Very well. As requested, this is for my buddy Cynthia (another former cheerleader, go figure)!

Part I - My Own Experience with Football

It's important that I share some of this first, so bear with me. I haven't always been a football fan, nor have I been a fan of one particular team. This is not unusual for a kid who grew up as a non-athlete. Onward!

I learned the basics of football from my mom, who before she became a single parent, was a football widow on Sundays and learned the game if only to understand what her husband was yelling at the TV about on Sunday afternoons. Father Dan told her to "Pick a team and start following them." This was the late 1960s, and the Green Bay Packers were hot during those years. They had a quarterback named Bart Starr (sound familiar?). Anyhow, the fact that the Packers were and are also the Chicago Bears' chief rivals in the National Football Conference (NFC) North just added to the contrarian amusement somehow. And yes, I got named, in part, for a QB, though he's Brian Bartlett Starr and I'm Bartholomew Daniel Leahy. Go figure. So anyway, Mom stuck with football and I picked it up--as a Packers fan in Chicagoland. Wore a couple Packer jackets and everything. Could just be that I didn't like the blue and orange colors the Bears wore.

Anyhow, I was more or less a Packers fan until I went off to college, at which point I encountered the "I'm too smart/hip for football" crowd. I'm sure you've met someone like this. They proudly talk about their love of soccer ("football" in the rest of the world). They condescend to "beer-swilling, tail-gating Neanderthals who scream at the tops of their lungs for a school they most likely didn't attend." And yeah, I probably bought into some of that. I attended zero football games in high school and maybe one game during my first run through college. Some of those guys knocked me into lockers, so no, I wasn't a huge fan.

Fast forward a little bit, and I moved to Florida, where there were college football rivalries of unprecedented (in my experience) ferocity: Florida-Florida State, Florida State-Miami. I didn't take the college scene seriously because I'd grown up with the National Football League (NFL), which is to say pro football. The Bears sucked for most of my childhood except for an anomalous and glorious Super Bowl season in my junior year of high school. I did watch some pro games on TV with Father Dan, but the Bears were still not great, I wasn't much of a Packers fan, and all three of the Florida pro teams were pretty awful as well.

I really didn't start caring about football again until I moved to a city where I didn't like the team or most of its rivals (Washington, DC, which played the NY Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys). So to set myself apart from the locals, I became a born-again Bears fan. That was ten years ago, and I've managed to hang in there. It got a little lonely in DC, so it became a special treat to get a little bit of "home" when the Bears played the Redskins or showed up on one of the games at the sports bar.

In 2006, I moved further south again and found myself in the heart of the NCAA Southeast Conference (SEC), Alabama. I kid you not: the first question I was asked on my first day at Marshall Space Flight Center was, "Alabama or Auburn?" This was from the line cook at the MSFC cafeteria, and quite frankly all I wanted was some breakfast. His question caught me so off-guard, I sputtered, "Uh, Notre Dame?"  (Thank Father Dan for that response--he went to Notre Dame High School in Chicago, and the Fighting Irish were about the only college team I recall getting enthused about in my youth.)

The cook looked at me with disgust and asked, "Where are you from, California?"

"That's just my way of saying I don't have a dog in that fight." The guy nodded, and proceeded with taking my breakfast order.

But that neutrality was almost heresy, and it was unlikely to last. After five years, a friend said, "Dude, you've gotta declare, one way or the other." So I thought about it. The University of Alabama Crimson Tide has won 15 national championships at the college level. They are the New York Yankees of the NCAA, and "Roll Tide!" just might be the state motto of Alabama. However...there is one fly in the ointment for the Tide, 'Bama's in-state rival, the Auburn University Tigers. These two teams have played each other since 1893, nearly the beginning of the sport, and they have played each other in a hard-fought contest called the Iron Bowl every year since 1948. Some tickets cost more than Super Bowl tickets and the crowds in Tuscaloosa or Auburn are something to behold. The rivalry is fierce and at times crosses over into "real life," with unfortunate consequences, the poisoning of a beloved tree at Auburn University by a Tide fan being one of many little "incidents" that occur between impassioned fans outside the stadium, where the true contest belongs.

And it is with that background in mind that I think I'm now ready to tee up the real purpose of this essay...

The American Obsession with Football

The SEC is the most dominant conference in college football. It's not even close anymore. You have to go back to 2005 to find a non-SEC champion. Success breeds success, as the saying goes, and so the long history of SEC victories attracts the best players, as do a variety of other reasons, from the uncontrollable but more comfortable climate to the controllable but not always legal "incentives" universities put up to get players on their teams. The highest-paid state employees among all but one of the SEC are football coaches--the outlier, Florida, favors basketball--all of whom are paid more than the governor.

So why all the fuss over what is, admittedly, "just a game" of high-contact sport between two eleven-person teams? Let me take a crack at this:

Some people get into movies, travel, theatre, trashy novels--whatever. These are hobbies that take the individual out of their ordinary lives and circumstances and put them in the midst of a
dramatic contest with an unknown outcome. The stakes are simple: victory or defeat. The time line is known, more or less. The average pro or college game runs three hours when time-outs, commercial breaks, and halftime shows are factored in. But one way or another, there is a definite outcome, victory is declared, and then life can resume with the satisfaction of a drama played out to its definitive completion.

One or two of my friends actually get upset--or outraged--when they see "otherwise intelligent people" screaming at their television sets during a football game. "They can't hear you! You can't affect the outcome!" All true. But why do we cheer when evil is defeated in movies? Why buy merchandise connected to a movie (Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, etc.)? Unless you're personally acquainted with the writer(s), your ability to influence the outcome of those dramas is unlikely. But we're emotional creatures. We enjoy reading, hearing, or watching tales of other people triumphing over a foe or adversity. For brief moments, we can identify with those individuals and feel what they feel (or not--good grief, I'd be in the hospital for months of a random SEC linebacker tackled me on the street!).

Some of us enjoy watching contests of strength or speed. People are competitive. Football is a mixture of competitions (much as George Carlin once called hockey three activities happening at once: skating, playing with a puck, and beating the s#!% out of someone). You have contests of strength on the line of scrimmage, contests of speed between receivers and defenders, and you have contests of accuracy as quarterbacks try to throw an oddly shaped piece of inflated leather toward another player down field as half a dozen large dudes try to get to him first. You have other tests of accuracy among the kickers, as they try to nail a ball through the uprights or move a ball ten yards with an on-side kick so his teammates can pick it up. Each of these contests requires a specific set of skills, and even if we don't like the outcome of a particular play or game, we can admire the grace or skill with which the contest was played.

Football is also a great sport for statistics (see my post on Fantasy Football). Who's the fastest? Who has the most tackles? Who's the best player to put into X position when you have Y minutes to play and Z yards to go? Fantasy Football is a way for people to get the vicarious enjoyment of being a football coach and picking the right players.

As I noted earlier, success breeds success. And success, in our society, brings money. Scientists, liberal arts majors, and other college programs might look upon "the jocks" with dismay, but if their school's football team is winning, more alumni will show up to the games; they will donate more money to the college/university; and the university as a whole will have more money to build bigger and better programs--not just sports. I have met folks who will base their decision on whether to pick a job out of state on whether there is a successful sports franchise nearby--college or pro--that they can cheer for if they move there. It goes back to that enjoyment and escapism factor. And if a city/university has people moving in because their sports team is doing well, that inspires them to do all sorts of crazy things--not just build stadiums, but build more roads or schools to support the new residents.

In the end, football provides opportunities for escapism, competition, and money--three things at which Americans manage to excel or which they crave a great deal. Is it any wonder that many of us love football? So let us enjoy our weekends through this crazy, fun, and competitive second-hand past-time. I plan to turn on a game as soon as I'm done typing this.

(Oh, and if you're dying to know...contrarian that I am, I root for the Crimson Tide most days of the season--until it's Iron Bowl day. Then, of course, I root for the Auburn Tigers--WAR EAGLE! However, it might soothe my Alabama fan friends to note that I was named for a Tide QB.)

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