Friday, September 11, 2009

Why the NFL Sucks, Part Deux

After writing the first part of my NFL preview, it occurred to me that I didn't make one thing clear enough: I consider myself a football fan. The sport may be complicated, but there's some appeal in all that complexity--for one thing, you can always learn more about football, and the more you learn, the more you can appreciate the sudden, violent action that 22 players take in the five to ten seconds between the snap and the end of the play. And when a play really works--especially when there's misdirection involved, when the offense manages to get the defense to move one way and take the ball another--there's a real beauty not just in the athletic grace and power of the players, but in the precision and coordination of 11 men working in perfect harmony. Plus, watching football gives you an excuse to drink for five or six hours on Sunday.

That said, being a football fan is something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, whoever that is.

If you're an NFL fan, just for starters, your team probably hasn't won a Super Bowl in the past 10 years. The Browns and Lions have never even played in one. My Seattle Seahawks have gone to exactly one Super Bowl, and when they got there they promptly collapsed thanks to some bad luck and bad officiating. Besides that year (and last year, when injuries destroyed the team), the Seahawks have been a largely mediocre-to-good team, getting to the playoffs a lot without much chance to go farther than the second round. In that respect, they're a lot like most NFL teams--football pundits say the league has "parity," meaning a lot of teams that don't do better than 10-6 or worse than 6-10. Thanks to short player careers, random injuries to key players, and a draft that lets bad teams reload, a lot of teams can be competitive from year-to-year without having a shot at a championship. Unless you like the Patriots, Colts, or Steelers, being an NFL fan is like being a poor kid at Christmastime--always hoping for a big present under the tree, but usually settling for some Tinker Toys and a pair of Payless shoes.

But you can also root for individual players, right? Why tie yourself to a team when there are so many model citizens whose 80-dollar jersey you can drape around yourself?

So who's your man? The model-impregnating quarterback whose team was caught cheating? The linebacker who choked out his trashy, reality-show-having girlfriend? The guy who got caught running a dog-fighting ring or the rookie who refused to play for the team that drafted him because the millions they were going to pay him weren't enough? Or how about those guys who went on a cruise so debauched that the crew turned the boat around in horror? Maybe you like the washed-up quarterback who keeps changing his mind about retirement, or the receiver who shot himself accidentally with an illegal gun, or the running back who sold coke, or the guy who killed someone when he drove drunk. No one said NFL players had to be choir boys, but it's hard to root for people who spend the offseason recreating scenes from Training Day.

But hey, I can get past the felonious nature of NFL players. It's 2009, after all--we don't expect our athletes to be role models. But what I can't get past, what nearly ruins the sport for me, is the way NFL people talk about the sport.

Repeat after me: football is a game, like parcheesi. It's entertainment, like Transformers 2 or watching your friend trip out on mushrooms. But to the coaches, ex-players and "analysts" who talk to the cameras on ESPN, football is like World War II, only more complex and more serious. Press conferences with losing coaches are conducted in deathly seriousness, as if the coach was announcing that California was now underwater. Teams treat information about injuries like the USSR is spying on them. When Bill Belichek was caught cheating, everyone treated him like he was a cross between Richard Nixon and Pol Pot, when what he did could be compared to taking a peek at another player's cards during a spirited game of crazy eights.

In a rare display of common sense and decency, the NFL has moved away from using war metaphors to describe their amusing diversionary game, but the league isn't taking itself any less seriously. One of the NFL's most entertaining players, Chad Ocho Cinco nee Johnson, is also one of its most fined. Apparently, league officials want their wide receivers to quietly walk away from their touchdowns and humbly thank the commissioner for allowing them to play, rather than, y'know, entertaining fans who want to be entertained. The suits who control the game seem to believe that people watch the NFL because of how intense and serious it is, when in reality all the fans want is to watch some exciting games and gamble heavily on them. (Gambling is the elephant in the NFL's room--if it wasn't so fun to bet on, there's no way it would be as popular as it is now, but this is hardly ever mentioned by the NFL or the media.)

The NFL is the sporting equivalent of America: glamorous but run by stuffed suits and corporate money, inhabited mostly by criminals, frequently violent but intolerant of rule-breakers, inherently inequal (there are 69 Hall of Famers who are backs or receivers, but only 37 linemen in the Hall), and incomprehensible to those who are on the outside. Oh well--what else are you going to do on Sundays? Go to church?

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