Thursday, February 11, 2016

Football. Why do We Care?

Well folks, Super Bowl mania is finally starting to die down here in the Mile High City. In case you missed it, my beloved Denver Broncos won!

I've gotta say, even for a life-long Broncos fan like me, all of the hoopla has been a tad bit overwhelming. I mean, when the game ended, people started shooting off fireworks all over the city, just about every house and/or car is displaying a Broncos flag, And everywhere you go, people are decked out in infinite varieties of orange and blue. There are Broncos snow sculptures...

... and dogs dressed up in Broncos outfits...

 ... and Broncos displays at the grocery store...

Even the ski resorts got in on the action...

Yesterday there was a big victory parade and rally, and estimates are that a million people showed up! For a split second I thought about going myself, but thankfully sanity prevailed and I watched the spectacle on television instead.

Of course, with all of the celebrations, the wall to wall television coverage, and general football craziness, some folks have been raising the inevitable question: With so many important things going on in the world today, why is everybody so excited about a stupid football game?

And I've gotta admit, it is a valid question.

But rather than just brush it off with the usual "people are shallow jerks" sort of response, perhaps it's worthwhile to take a deeper look and really ponder that question. What is it about football that is so compelling to so many people?

Well, here's my take.

I think that football is a form of entertainment that has an appeal on many different levels. On the surface it might look like a bunch of guys in some sort of a street brawl, but underneath the crunching shoulder pads, the leaping catches, the muscle-twitching foot races, and the bruising tackles, football is an incredibly intricate, complex and cerebral game of strategy. It's almost like a chess match played with living pieces.

There are complicated schemes that require players to move with choreographed precision. The coaches have to draw up a game plan designed explicitly to exploit the unique weaknesses of each opponent that they face, and they have to be able to switch the whole plan on a dime if the opposing team figures out their strategy.

And the players aren't simply mindless pawns that a coach is moving around on the playing field, it's more like a game of poker, where you are actively trying to bluff, misdirect and otherwise confuse your opponents. Of course, the players also have to posses an amazing level of physical ability, which in and of itself is fun to watch.

And even beyond the action on the field, and the calling of the plays, there's also a whole other strategic game behind the scenes where the owners and general managers have to choose which combination of players they can afford under the salary cap.

In a sense, it's almost like a Shakespearean play where there are elements designed to appeal to the aristocracy, the groundlings, and everyone in between.

But aside from the multi-layered appeal, football is also a sport that not only allows for a certain level of diversity among it's players, it pretty much demands it.

Here's what I mean. When you look at a soccer team, or a basketball team, what you'll see is a collection of players who all have a very similar body type and set of skills.

Of course there are nuanced differences between the positions, but nothing as radical as the different body types and skill sets that you need to build a football team.

I mean, in football not only do you need the wide receiver who can run like the wind down the field and jump like a gazelle to catch the passes...

... you also need the giant hulking offensive linemen to protect the quarterback.

You need the short muscular running back who can make quick moves to throw off the tacklers...

... but you also need the precision place kicker to make the field goals...

And that's just scratching the surface of the different skills you need to build a good football team. And here's the thing. All of those guys have very different, but equally important jobs to do, and each one is critical to the team's success.

So it's a real team sport in every sense, and I think there's something very compelling about that whole narrative. There's a big obstacle to overcome, and the only way to do it is by working together.

Just thinking back on my high school classmates, it's really clear to me that this sort of required diversity plays a big role in the broad appeal of football. I mean, football has a place for the typical high school athlete, but it also has a place for the lumbering fat kid who failed every gym class he ever attended. It has a place for the towering tall kid who can see over defenses, but also has a place for the short kid who can slip under the tackles but couldn't dunk a basketball if his life depended on it.

At my high school reunion last summer, it was heartening for me to see a guy - who I mostly remembered from grade school as the awkward "big kid" - hanging out and joking with the school jocks. Apparently the body type that is ridicule-worthy in grade school, makes for one heckuva left tackle as one gets older. I have no doubt that football changed the entire trajectory of that kid's life.

But beyond the players, football even found a way to include the band geeks...

... the singers...

... and of course, the pretty-girl cheerleaders.

But perhaps most important of all, football is the only sport that I can think of where the fans watching the game are not just casual observers who are there to provide moral support for the team, they actually have a non-trivial impact on the outcome of the game.

This is because when the quarterback is standing behind center barking out the signals, he's not just talking gibberish or making noise, he's communicating with the rest of the team. He's reading the defense, telling the players which guys to block, and may even be changing the entire play.

So for an offense to be successful, they need to be able to hear each other. This is where the fans come in. If the crowd is quiet when their team has the ball, but makes deafening noise when it's the opponent's turn, it gives the home team an incredible advantage.

They call this phenomenon the "12th man" because the effect is almost like having an extra player on the field.

So in a sense, football is a sport where the fans actually get to participate, not just watch.

When you add all that up, I think it's easy to see how football offers a pretty big tent, were a vast number of people can feel like they have a personal stake in the outcome of the games.

And here's where I'm gonna wax poetic and get all mushy and philosophical on you...

We live in a society that is incredibly divided in very damaging ways. Our society pits us against each other in an infinite series of us's and them's based on race, and religion, and income, and politics, and the list goes on.

But somehow football has found a way to transcend many of those divisions and unite people who would generally not want to associate with each other. Perhaps when we replace the real divisions - like liberal vs. conservative - with an arbitrary one - like Broncos fan vs. Panthers fan - it somehow allows us to re-draw our social boundaries, and look at a person who we would normally see as one of them, and instead see them as one of us.

Now I'm not saying that it's some sort of panacea, because obviously there are racial and cultural tensions surrounding football just like there are everywhere else in this society. But if something as silly as a game of football can allow us, even for a few hours, to reach across that divide and see the humanity in people that we might otherwise find it easy to vilify... well, it gives me hope.

And maybe when seen in that light, it becomes a little easier to understand why it is that we care about football.


  1. Below is a stream of consciousness of thought. I hope some of it makes sense. All of this is from someone who not particularly a football fan.

    You make some very interesting points many of which apply to other sports. I"m not sure that everyone thinks about the diversity, but that is an interesting way to look at football.

    I think one of the reasons for the appeal comes from the pace of the game. With all of the starts and stops, it's easy to direct attention to something else, and still catch all of the action.

    Mostly, I think the appeal of football (and other popular sports) is being part of something with a collective crowd. The excitement that comes from a crowd when there is a good play or a winning game. Of course, this doesn't happen all of the time, so there's partial reinforcement--the most effective kind.

    Also, you can be part of the crowd experience without having to get too personal. You can do it in person or in the comfort of your living room all alone. A plus for many.

    Of course, the crowd experience happens with other things also, but the other sports aren't on TV as much. Obviously, people are watching in sufficient numbers to get the advertising or it wouldn't be on as much. But I think there's been a bit of marketing to get the audience. Without this influence, I'm not sure as many people would be watching.

    And I think there's something very basic about the "violence" of the whole thing that attracts people. Since the beginning of time there have been spectator sports of one kind or another where people "fight" each other or something else that have been popular. Since they have always been around, there must be something innate about enjoying them. I don't get it, but you can't deny the facts.

    And lastly, there's no need to defend what you may enjoy that someone else doesn't understand. If you're having fun (and it doesn't hurt anyone else), just enjoy. We all need some distractions in our life.

    1. Ha! Can you tell that my step-mother HATES football, and that we argue about it throughout the entire season? Sorry if I sounded defensive. :-)

      You make some excellent points. The NFL is obviously big business - I mean, I sorta look on it as part of the entertainment industry.

      But I think they have made some good decisions that help to keep lots of people interested. The fact that the teams only play once a week makes it possible for people to follow them more closely than most can follow other types of sports, and the off the air TV coverage is huge too.

      I think you make a good point about the violence too. I know that some people hate that aspect of the sport, and I do agree that there is genuine concern for player health and safety, but I do think that there is something about the human condition that demands a certain outlet, and I think football fills that role for many. It is one of the few places in our society where it's acceptable to jump up and down and scream "hit him, get him, tackle him" at the top of your lungs.

      And if guys are gonna pound on each other and fight to be "top dog" I'd much rather they do it within the context of a refereed game with rules wearing full pads and helmets.

      And I am giggling about the starts and stops comment. I do think it makes the game easier to follow, but for me, I'm not generally off doing something else between plays, I'm fretting about which players they're gonna send in and what play they're gonna call.

      I did once hear a story, that could quite possibly be apocryphal, that the city of Denver had to increase the size of some of the sewer pipes after the Broncos became so popular because everybody was running to the bathroom at the same time during the commercial breaks and the system couldn't handle so many simultaneous flushes! :-)

  2. I love your perspective, and I, too, love watching the Denver Broncos for many of the same reasons. When Coldplay's Chris Martin was singing about love and everyone in the stadium was dancing and holding up colors, I thought: "Unity." I think we all long for it, even while we are each unique individuals with different opinions and values and interests. Football brings whole cities together, and for a time we forget about our differences and experience unity. It feels good!

    1. I totally agree. I mean, perhaps it is all a bit contrived, it is entertainment after all, but I do think there's value in giving people a way to experience that sort of unity, and maybe it can serve as a model for other more important things too.

  3. My 12-year-old was rooting for the Broncos--not sure why, when most of his friends are Panther fans--so he was pretty happy when they won. I thought you'd be proud of him. :)

    Being a former band geek, the only part of the game I find interesting is halftime. But I can get a lot of knitting done while the males in the house are watching the game ...

    1. Awww... your son had it right! You know, I heard somewhere that the Broncos have become the most popular team in the nation in recent years, not sure if that's the Peyton Manning effect or what. But we certainly had the sentimental "win one for the Gipper" story line this year - not only with Peyton, but also with the Broncos owner, Pat Bowlen, who is battling Alzheimer's.

      The Bowlen family hasn't released much info about his condition since he stepped away from day to day operations a few years ago, but I did read something yesterday saying that he still has some lucid moments, and actually is aware that the Broncos won the Superbowl. That makes the whole thing even sweeter.

  4. I think we all watch football so we can see America's favorite quarterback, Peyton Manning, give America's favorite pizza dude, Papa John, a nice kiss on the cheek.

    But really, I only noticed how all inclusive, middle-of-the-road and non-offensive the Super Bowl tries to be when I went through a rundown of all of the Super Bowl halftime shows over the years. There's a lot of Al Hirt, marching bands, and Up With People in there. A LOT of Up With People. The Super Bowl is downright corny.

    1. Ha! In all honesty, I never watch the halftime shows or the ads - for me it's all about the game itself. Seriously, I've missed every wardrobe malfunction and whatnot - and I don't listen to the TV announcers either - I always turn down the sound and then listen to the radio announcers calling the play by play because they actually talk about the game rather than all of the other stuff. I'm such a football geek!

  5. Speaking as a non-football geek -- For those of us who aren't really into the game itself, I think there's a lot of camaraderie to watching a game like the Superbowl. You're watching the game, your neighbor is watching, the guy at the market is watching, etc. It's a way to be part of a group all participating together, even if you're watching from different locations and even if you don't all share the same level of passion for the sport. It gives you something in common with the guy down the street.

    The other thing is that watching a game is a great way to distract yourself from your own little world of problems. My own problems exhaust me after a while and I need an escape. If for just an hour or two, I can forget what's going on in my own life, I can come back to it refreshed and ready to handle it.

    1. That's a great point. It was great fun watching the game and hearing the cheers up and down the block whenever the Broncos would make a big play. And it is soooo much more fun to worry about Peyton Manning's foot than it is to deal with the real stuff (not that his foot problems aren't real - just not something that impacts my personal life in a meaningful way.)

  6. For years I was the only female that watched the game so I was constantly having to defend why I watched. For me it's a few things. I like suspense. A good suspenseful book or horror movie, something that gets the adrenaline flowing.

    But there's another side to it for me. I was always weak. I could never run, jump or even whistle (all things unique to my type of MD) so watching what these guys can do with their bodies is a big part of it. I see a guy leap over another or leap in the air and have enough control to twist get his feet down, avoid a tackle and I'm in awe that the human body can do those things.

    I used to listen to the announcers on the radio but now that I watch the games from the computer, which is a few minutes behind the actual game it makes it too confusing.

    BTW, did you know that for tax purposes football players are considered entertainers to the IRS?

    1. I totally agree about the suspense. There's something about watching the drama unfold in real time that is just captivating. And I too am in total awe when I look at the things that those guys can do.

      I know this will sound totally crazy, but for me there is something inspiring about watching athletes breathe hard. It has taken me years to learn how to do that. When I was a kid, I could never finish the required races in gym class... I just couldn't do it. It wasn't until years later that a friend watching me try to run figured out that I was holding my breath!

      On the one hand it's hilariously comical, but there's another side to it too. I spent the majority of my childhood in a massive battle with myself, trying to control my emotions - and I think that controlling my breathing was one of the ways that I accomplished that. I literally could not take the kinds of deep, uncontrolled breaths that you have to in order to run, because if I did I would have either burst into tears or perhaps stuck an ice pick through someone's temple!

      Of course, by the time I was in high school my defenses had worn down to the point that even a fit of laughter would make me burst out crying for no discernible reason. So something about watching people who are able to let themselves "go there" and breathe with "wild abandon" is just inspiring to me.

      Anyhow... the radio thing is complicated because even if you are watching the game over the air, the TV signal generally arrives a few seconds later than the radio signal does. But a few years ago somebody came out with a special radio that allows you to delay the signal by up to 16 seconds so you can get the sound lined up perfectly with the television. They're rather expensive (like around $70) and I was too cheap to buy one for myself, but CatMan didn't think I could live without it so he got me one as a gift. I have to admit that I totally love it!

  7. It's great to hear such a genuine love of the sport, and it's one I share, Eco Cat Lady. Football keeps me connected to my city, my friends, and family back east. It's the reason I can call every week without it being weird. It's something easy I can talk about with other guys: like every other interest in life, it's just an excuse to connect with people.

    1. Astute observation. It is all just another excuse to connect. :-)

  8. I've never gotten into football, but you make some very valid points. And I love the dressed up dogs. If I was into football, I would totally dress Emma and Duke up in football outfits. :-)


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