Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Church Of The Gridiron

[ed. See also: The Collision Sport on Trial]

American football officially began in the years following the Civil War. A crude blend of soccer and rugby, the sport was brutal, with a fast-and-loose set of rules that gave it the appearance of a gang fight. In 1905, 19 players died, and another 137 were injured; the Chicago Tribune called the season a “death harvest.” President Theodore Roosevelt finally intervened, calling a group of influential sportsmen to the White House in order to help transform the game.

Reforms followed, such as legalizing the forward pass and penalizing unsportsmanlike conduct. The sport became safer, and by midcentury it had entered a golden age of players like quarterback Johnny Unitas and fullback Jim Brown. Games were televised, and in the late sixties the Super Bowl was created.

Today pro football is the unparalleled giant of the sports world. In 2014 forty-five of the fifty top-rated television broadcasts were football games. More Americans follow football than follow Major League Baseball, nba basketball, and nascar racing combined. The National Football League (nfl) earns nearly $10 billion a year in profits, with an expressed goal of $25 billion. During the season, Americans spend more time watching football than going to religious services. Pro football has become the spectacle that unites people in this country more than any other.

“But it has a dark side,” says author Steve Almond.

For four decades Almond was a consummate fan, soaking up all that football offered. Then, in 2014, he did the unthinkable: he stopped. No more games. No more listening to sports talk radio. He would become football fandom’s conscientious objector.

Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto he writes, “Our allegiance to football legitimizes and even fosters within us a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia.” A New York Times bestseller, the book is an eloquent examination of America’s most popular sport — in particular, the aspects many fans tend to ignore: its astounding injury rate, its exaggeration of gender stereotypes, and its inherent violence.

Cook: What role does football play in the U.S. today?

Almond: It’s the largest shared narrative in the country: emotionally, psychologically, and maybe even financially. My sense is that more Americans — male and female, gay and straight, of all races and classes — are deeply invested in football than in any other single activity. For forty years I was a member in good standing of the Church of the Gridiron. The game can be brutal, but it’s also complex and satisfying to watch.

When Ernest Hemingway wanted to understand Spanish culture, he went to see the bullfights. Football is our bullfight: an expression of our cultural values and a profound statement about our national consciousness. It’s important to understand what it does for us and to us, what its pleasures are and its moral costs. But football means so much to so many Americans that we’re terrified of interrogating it. (...)

Football is a powerful refuge. When we watch, we get so absorbed that we forget our troubles. It’s existential relief. You are a part of some exalted event. I didn’t watch the 2014 Super Bowl, but 111 million people tuned in. We are desperate to find something that will connect us. Football is a quick and easy solution.

Yet, at a certain point, you have to step back and ask: Why is this the church I worship in? What is the nature of this religion we have created?

As a fan I did feel a connection to the people around me, especially if my team was winning, but I also felt lost inside. Watching football became a lonely experience, like feeding an addiction. It wasn’t a way for me to engage with my problems. It wasn’t enlarging my empathy or my moral imagination. It wasn’t satisfying a deeper spiritual need.

Having said that, I can’t say to other fans that the holy feeling they have when they walk into their team’s stadium isn’t real. It is. My beef is that those feelings — our devotion to athletic heroism, our sentimental loyalty to the teams we rooted for growing up, and that our dads rooted for — are being mercilessly exploited and turned into an engine of greed. Not only that, but we’re getting so sucked into the fan mind-set that we start to see everything as a competition. Think about it. We have television programs that have turned singing, dancing, cooking, traveling, and even falling in love into competitions. It’s as if the only way a person in our culture can get what he or she wants is for another person to “lose.” This mind-set is ultimately martial. It’s what novelist Cormac McCarthy is referring to when he writes, in Blood Meridian, about warfare as a natural extension of sports. What ultimately matters is whether your team — and therefore you — wins. A lot of people these days feel that way about politics and religion: it’s all about vanquishing the socialist or the heathen or whatever. Football may not be the driving force behind this cultural mind-set, but it’s the purest expression of it. (...)

Cook: Baseball used to be the “national pastime.” What happened?

Almond: Late-model capitalism. We went from an agricultural society to an industrial one. Baseball is a pastoral game. Football is more in tune with the modern American experience. The typical American worker today is trapped in an office with elaborate rules of conduct and a lot of technical jargon. You’ve got “units” of employees working on group projects and multiple levels of management. Jobs are increasingly specialized. That’s how football operates, too. There’s a giant playbook with dozens of contingencies for any given play, strategy sessions, tons of jargon, a hierarchy of coaches — all things office drones recognize from their jobs.

But here’s what makes football so alluring: When a play works, it’s not just that you got the third-quarter earnings report done. It’s Barry Sanders making a magnificent spin move to avoid a tackle and carrying the ball sixty yards to glory. That experience is ecstatic and unlike anything in our everyday lives.

Football is both a reflection of complex, brutal, and oppressive industrialization and, at the same time, a liberation from it; a return to the intuitive childhood pleasures of play.

by David Cook, Sun  Magazine |  Read more:
Image: Marshawn Lynch