This entry has nothing to do with Portland, van-dwelling, or road-tripping.

On my friend Olivia’s blog she recently posted an entry called “stuff boys like”. Beer and sports seemed conspicuously absent from this list, so I asked her about it, and she stated that she didn’t know any guys who liked those things, and, furthermore, thought these things were gross.

That was the catalyst for the following essay. Many of my friends have been surprised to hear what a football-fanatic I’ve become over the past few years. A common reaction is a curling up of the lips in disgust and “Really?!” as if I just admitted I'm into scat porn. It's true that 5 years ago, the only sport I watched was the annual broadcast of the New York City Marathon and I sneered at football and fans of it. But when I moved to Rhode Island, I started hanging out with football-watchers, and game-by-game, I got hooked.

So I wrote the following essay to describe the elements of football that I find interesting, as well as some of its qualities which I object to.


Let's begin with something I've often heard: “I HATE THE NFL; ITS A BUNCH OF FAT MILLIONAIRES RUNNING AROUND IN THE MUD!"

You 'hate' it for that reason? What? Did you hear what you just said? How could that not be appealing? Where else in the world do you get to watch one millionaire force another millionaire to eat turf? Where else do you get to see a millionaire sit sobbing on a wooden bench wiping the tears with broken fingers while having some kid walk up periodically and squirt gatorade into his mouth? Where else do you see a 400-pound millionaire legally chase down a 140-pound millionaire (I’m referring to when a tackle goes after a kicker, by the way)? Nowhere.

Player payrolls are indeed a turn-off and I think the scale of wealth - in the NFL, or in modern civilization in general - is completely out-of-whack and unjust. But, if you accept the extravagances of football on the level of absurdity, it’s very enjoyable. Society is brimming with the ridiculous and the NFL is just one of its biggest and most conspicuous cases of it. Just consider the NFL on par with the stuff of a satirical novel like "Starship Troopers"- except it’s really happening! In fact, if these guys were making regular salaries, I wouldn’t enjoy it at all; that would just be sick.

THE ANNOUNCERS: The sentences that comes out of those guys mouths... holy shit. It's a show unto itself. But I think in order to appreciate it, you have to be removed from the game and look at it objectively. The whole joke is to take what they say out of context. In fact, for awhile, this was the only way I could enjoy football - by making fun of the crazy sentences uttered by John Madden and his cronies. Classic lines include: “And there’s another Bear on the field!” and also, from this last Superbowl, “He’s one of those guys who always gets penetration!"

THE ATHLETICISM: Football is the fusion of many other sports. Running, jumping, wrestling, throwing, catching, marksmanship, strategy, and leadership. Players in the NFL are at the peak of human fitness - even the “fat” dudes can make incredible jumps and run like The Flash. In each game, no matter how lame the game may be, you’re likely to see some brilliant leaping-catches and bullseye-throws --- all shown in glorious slow-motion, of course. It should make you appreciate the nutty marvelous potential of the human body.

THE MAYHEM: Football is one of the only sports that encourages instances of total mayhem. The best example of this is the fumble. If a ball is dropped but is still alive, the field becomes a real circus. It’s total chaos. If the weather is rainy or snowy, it’s even better. Sometimes a ball will be fumbled 3 or 4 times within the same play; it just keeps flying out of their hands like a bar of soap. The announcers go crazy, the fans piss their pants, and the coaches have aneurysms. Often quarterbacks or kickers who aren’t supposed to get involved in the rough-stuff will be forced into the fray because the ball bounces their way. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day the waterboy surfaced in the aftermath of one of these pile-ups.

And yes, in the above graphic, I juxtaposed Bosch to the NFL.

THE MYTHOLOGY: I’ve been reading a lot of Joseph Campbell’s writings on mythology lately and one thing that seems missing from his essays is an analysis of modern sports in the context of mythology; maybe that’s because Campbell spent the bulk of his career working from the middle of the quad at Sarah Lawrence!

If you follow football, you'll realize early-on that it's not just about winning and losing. Each season has a cast of heroes, villains, dark horses, underdogs, and so on. There are tragedies, comedies, mysteries, science-fiction (thanks to the crazy drone cameras floating around the field!), and even some romance (players are always running around dating celebrities and it often spills over onto the field). Football can be absorbed and enjoyed as modern mytholgy just like comic-books and modern fiction can.

Much of this has to do with how the sportswriters interpret the teams. For example, Tom Brady is always portrayed as noble and unselfish, but who really knows? You have to suspend your disbelief and just get caught up in the myth-making, even if its clearly fiction.

For example, the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team”. They’re supposed to be on par with Superman or GI Joe: brave, noble, and 'the best'. That’s why when they are totally dysfunctional, as they were last season, it can be really entertaining. Imagine watching John Wayne have a hissy-fit while shooting himself in the foot and falling down the stairs of the salloon - that was the train-wreck that was the 2008 Dallas Cowboys.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have a team like the Baltimore Ravens which is universally vilified and portrayed as barbaric. You WANT the Ravens to seem dysfunctional otherwise you’d say they were losing their edge. Is this just because Ray Lewis plays for them and their mascot is an animal synonymous with death? Maybe.

Everyone loves to hear the myth about the back-up player who relieves the injured starter and wins the game; Tom Brady became famous that way. And everyone knows that the Philadelphia fans are some of the cruelest, most abusive spectators in the history of sports, while the crowds at Green Bay are known for have a nearly religious-attachment to each game (I’m sure they’re asshole hecklers, too). The fans for the Oakland Raiders come dressed as skeletons and monsters and form a “black hole” in the stands meant to intimidate the opposing team and invigorate their own. There are the scary linebackers who fulfill the role of the Minotaur at the end of the maze and, in turn, you have the brainy Daedelius-esq coach who enables the player to beat the Minotaur.

The best storyline last year was in the Superbowl, where aging, troubled Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner (above) pulled his shit together for one last hurrah. In 1993, they almost gave Clint Eastwood an Oscar for playing that very same character in “Unforgiven” - so why not enjoy it in the NFL, too? Warner lost, but he went down with his guns blazing, which was the perfect ending.

THE PERSONALITIES: OK, this falls into the “Why I hate the NFL” category. The players and coaches usually do NOT seem like likeable guys to me. Either they take the game so seriously you feel embarrassed for them, or they’re so egotistical and playful that you get mad at them for squandering their gifts. Of course, there’s a whole middle-ground of dudes who just show up and play without being melodramatic, but the networks never show them; why would they when Terrell Owens is just a few yards away throwing a temper tantrum?

THE TENSION: There are only about 12 meaningful games in a season before the play-offs. A team can only fuck up so many times before the whole season is considered a catastrophe and the management starts firing people and planning for next year. That means that every game has a special tension. Compare that, to, say, baseball, where those pot-bellied, polyester-wearing, tobacco-chewing douchebags play, what, 900 games per year? (to baseball fans: relax, in a year or 2 I'll probably be writing an essay about why I like MLB...)

THE FUCKUPS: Making a mistake in front of millions of fans is the risk these players take when they step onto the field. They’re under a level of pressure and scrutiny most of us will never know. It’s inevitable that within each season, there will be a handful of egregious, unbearably-humiliating bloopers. I don’t mean a simple dropped catch. I mean when a player runs the wrong way on the field or a kicker misses the ball. I’m not too proud to say that I really enjoy these cringe-inducing incidents.

THE STRATEGY: Don’t ask me to explain football. I can’t. I might try: “Well, there are two teams, and one ball, and... most of the mascots are cartoon animals!” that’s about as far as I’d get. The NFL rulebook must look like the Encyclopedia Britannica. Every time I watch a game, I’m constantly going “What the hell?” in response to some weird play, penalty, or decision. At first, this made me feel disoriented, but now I’ve come to appreciate the depth of knowledge. I like the fact that it’s so fucking complicated; that makes the jobs of the players and coaches that much harder.

Coaches must forgo eating, sleeping, and sex for 6 days out of the week in order to prepare for Sunday... I imagine them sitting up round-the-clock staring bleary-eyed at videos of opposing teams and drawing plays out on chalkboards. And still, more often than not, come game-day, they see their gameplan get totally dismantled by a smarter coach. That’s tragic! And it makes for good entertainment! You often hear how football is like a chess-game. I don’t know how to play chess, so I can’t vouch for that metaphor... but I do know how to play Battleship, and I can tell you that the NFL is a lot more complicated than that...

THE VIOLENCE: When I was a kid, there was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting on the carpet and bashing 2 action figures together for hours on end. I grew out of action figures and matured into playing video-games which were more often than not about 2 guys bashing into each other. Now I’m an adult and I watch that happen in football (of course, I still collect action figures and still play video games...).

Some people object to the violence in football as if it represents some kind of barbarism and, as a civilized people, we shouldn’t bother with that. What? Sure, it’s technically barbaric, but it’s the most controlled, ritualized barbarism imaginable. It’s only barbaric when compared to how soft, quiet, and safe many of our lives have become; it’s like Candy Land when compared to the true war and cruelty that still goes on around the world and that will persist no matter how “civilized” we get.

And this is when I get to the “beer” part of the essay because when I drink beer and watch football, I often find myself getting philosophical and dwelling on how violent the NFL is, and how it fits into society as a whole. I don’t like all violent entertainment. Anything involving unwilling or exploited participants does not interest me. For example, those fuckheads who paid homeless guys to fight and videotaped it: No!!! I’m still scarred from the day my older brother rented “Faces of Death” and I snuck-watched it through the living room window and saw those dudes torturing a monkey: No!!! I also had nightmares after seeing that power-lifter’s elbow pop the wrong way during the Olympics. Again, no!!!!!!

But a bunch of super-athletes in high-tech pads, earning paychecks that range from decent to spectacular, fully informed and fully consenting to the risks of the game, taking to the field and trying to outwit, outrun, outthrow, and outstrong-arm each other - Yes!!!!

Note that there is an element of violence in the NFL which I can’t stand and that’s the freakazoid injuries which happen a few times each season. The photograph of Tom Brady’s knee getting bent the wrong way is burned into my mind, and I still get shivers thinking about how Roy Williams horse-collared Musa Smith and broke his fibia so severely his whole shin looked wobbly! AAGH! That stuff is gross, man! I don’t object to it --- it’s a risk of the game that all those guys take for a chance at fame, glory, and wealth. I just think it’s disgusting, and I don’t want to see it! (it should be noted that the NFL banned maneuevers, such as the horse-collar tackle, which tend to result in those vomit-inducing injuries).

The other dark side to the NFL which has been getting much-deserved attention is the long-term effects of concussions. First of all, let’s all remember what a concussion is: it’s your brain banging against your skull. Now, you can imagine how for these players, who have been diving headfirst into linebackers since 6th grade peewee football, all the way up to age 40, their brains have done a lot of slurping around! Many of these guys go into retirement and, tragically, by age 50 or 55 they’re demonstrating neurological problems normally reserved for people of age 70 or 75. According to critics, this was “covered up” or swept under the rug by the NFL for many years because, obviously, it’s a pretty sad and sobering destiny for these much-beloved sports personalities, and it sucks some of the magic out of the game. Recently, the NFL has opened up to it, and *seems* to be trying to raise awareness about the long-term repercussions of football-related injuries.

THE FANDOM: When I was living in RI, I cheered the New England Patriots, and was lucky enough to follow their magical season where they went undefeated until the Superbowl. I'll probably always have a special place in my heart for the Patriots since they were my "first" team, but really, I don't care. So long as you're familiar with the mythology of the league you should be able to enjoy any game that's showing on the TV over the bar. This past year, while road-tripping, I watched games in cities up and down the east coast, and the season was no less enjoyable.

I can see why people hate NFL fans or sports fans in general. How can you not be condescending towards a guy walking up the street wearing an ill-fitting Drew Bledsoe jersey? There are always stories in the paper about sports fans behaving badly (or in some cases, criminally). I'm not one of those guys and I try very hard to avoid them. I don't wear a jersey, I don't pelt anybody with anything, and I don't cry when my team loses (or wins, for that matter).

Every time you feel repulsed by those types of fans, remember that there is a minority of dudes like me sitting back and interpretting the game on the level of Greek mythology! Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

Kit said...

JM, that was a brilliant essay. Makes me want to get more familiar with the game.
You are a mighty fine writer. I have been enjoying your story and hope you are well and happy.