Thursday, September 10, 2009
The National Football League, the professional home of the most complicated, most popular, most violent and most 'roided-up sport in the country, is kicking off its season tonight. Gamblers, fantasy sports nuts, fans of tailgating parties and beer, those who like watching concussions on live television—heck, everyone is excited to have us some football, at last. Along with eating disgusting food in artery-destroying quantities and carrying automatic weapons in public, watching the NFL is America's official National Pastime. Sure, some people claim baseball is the National Pastime, but these people believe that it's still 1958. In the last 20 years, no one except for George will and Bob Costas has actually watched a baseball game all the way through, while football has climbed the TV ratings and become entrenched in the American psyche.
And it's really just the American psyche. While basketball and, to a lesser extent, baseball have grown internationally, we can't seem to get any other countries interested in our obsession with the oddly-shaped pigskin ball. Yes, there's a league in Germany (last year the championship game was watched by 16,000 people—far more show up to see David Hasselhoff perform), and there have been a few games played in London to packed houses (the high attendance I attribute to a lot of US expatriates, the English's tolerance for oddities, and sheer morbid curiosity), but in general, the world has responded to American football the same way they would to a sport where the object is to stuff your fist into your mouth as fast as possible. Seen from a distance, football is a sport with overcomplicated and arbitrary rules, too many specialized positions, and a scoring systems that seems to have been designed by numerologists. Worse than that, watching a football game is often straight-up boring.
Even football fans will agree that in between the few moments of explosive action, there's a lot of down time in a modern NFL game. For every minute of actual football, there's at least two minutes of standing around doing nothing in particular. There's the time between downs when the coaches call the plays, the time when the quarterback is calling audibles at the line, the time when the referees are placing the ball at the new line of scrimmage (occasionally bringing the chains out to measure the distance, which takes more time), the time taken up by time outs called by both the coaches and the TV stations, the time taken up by the two-minute warning, the time taken by the winning team kneeling to close out the game or the half, and worst of all, there's the time taken by the coach's challenge.
The concept of the “challenge” might be the worst thing to happen to sports, steroids and the Black Sox scandal included. Challenges create the most boring moments on TV apart from text patterns and the Weather Channel at 4 a.m. For the blissfully uninitiated, here's what you see when a coach decides to formally “challenge” a call made by a referee: first, you watch the refs and coaches talking to each other for a few nail-bitingly exciting moments. Then a ref will go over to a television screen hidden, for what is probably a logical reason, in a black hood. He watches a slow-motion replay of the play in question, and the viewers see the replay too. Then they see it again. And again. Then they see a close up slowed down even further, then they see it from another angle. If you watch enough football, I guarantee you wee see many shots of a cleated foot brushing against a white line on the ground while the announcers discuss the position and disposition of the foot in the tone of lawyers arguing over constitutional law. If there are more than two challenges in a game, the broadcast begins to resemble the OJ trial in both tone and length.
Americans love the challenge. We love it so much we've started exporting it to other sports. Sure, it stalls the action and bores casual fans out of their skulls, but we need to get the call right. We hate the idea of a call being incorrect almost as much as we love arguing over arcane rules. We'll cripple football's appeal and highlight the worst part of the sport (the bizarre rules) because we simply can't accept referees' mistakes as part of the game—we'll even go back in time and change a score because of a blown call (something we won't do in the case of more important things like elections). America's best and worst qualities are fully on display during a football coach's challenge: our love of litigation, our desire to see justice done, our faith that if we slow things down and examine the issues, we'll make the right decision.
There's another side of America that gets put on display by football—our fondness for the modern corporate structure. Most sports have small teams of a dozen or two players, but with separate squads for offense, defense and special teams, NFL teams have 53 players and hordes of coaches, trainers and doctors to make sure the players memorize the playbook and don't get arrested or killed. NFL Head Coaches aren't coaches in the ordinary sense. They're more like CEOs overseeing a vast organization with a number of valuable but ultimately replaceable employees.
And NFL players are definitely viewed as replaceable. Every offseason, veteran players are tossed aside in favor of fourth- and fifth-round draft picks, and there's no team in the NFL that hangs on to players for sentimental reasons. Richard Seymour, who was one of the main reasons the New England Patriots won all of those Super Bowls, just got shipped across the country to Oakland. and Fred Taylor, the Jacksonville Jaguars' all-time leading rusher, just got cut outright.
More than most athletes, NFL players are treated as faceless commodities. A few players—mostly quarterbacks—become the “face” of the league (coincidentally, that face is white more often than not) by appearing in commercials and getting media attention. These players sell jerseys and put asses in the increasingly overpriced seats, while the vast majority of their colleagues remain anonymous, hidden behind pads and helmets every time they're on TV. No one buys their jerseys or gets their autographs, they play for a few years, acquire some broken bones and concussions, and then they die young—the average lifespan for an NFL player is 20 years shorter than the national average, despite all that money they have to buy health care with.
It sounds harsh, but the NFL really doesn't care about its players. If they did, they would have gone to lengths to provide them health care after retirement, or at least require current players to wear the concussion-resistant helmets that just got invented. (At least those helmets are allowed on the field now.) Boring, complex sports are one thing, but a boring, complex sport where the teams are run, consciously, as heartless corporations—that, to quote Vince Lombardi, sucks big fat engorged donkey dicks.