Backstory: 'Til halftime do us part

Each week millions of American women confront the nation's obsession with televised pro football with colliding emotions. It's a monster in the house. It's also a phenomenon, for sure. For most women, this creates a dilemma: A reasonable attempt should be made to understand it - but where to begin?

I can tell you with confidence that there are multitudes of women in our midst who approach Sunday afternoon, Sunday night, Monday night, and eventually Thursday night (it's getting worse) without intimidation. The monster can be defanged.

In my earlier years I wrote about professional football for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. One of my closet missions was waging thinly masked guerrilla warfare to make the game comprehensible to the newspaper's female readers. This was in the Middle Ages of pro football, the 1960s, when the owners and stage managers were still influenced by common sense. It was a game. It was not today's billion-dollar circus promoted around the clock by television barkers and beer peddlers. Even before the action we are lifted to excruciating decibel levels in the pregame teasers. Revved up by fireworks, we are engulfed by the sights and sounds of colliding bodies mingled with twanging guitars and a booming country-western voice preparing us for the cosmic takeoff: "ARE YOU READY?"

Only an astronaut could be truly prepared after that buildup.

As early as 40 years ago, it was clear that pro football was becoming a rising passion. The trouble, even when it was sanely presented, was that millions of women were beginning to feel left behind. The game had a new gobbledygook language alien to what they remembered from high school. Their husbands in the living room and at the table made indecipherable sounds or tried to translate them: "hut-hut," "man coverage," "trips right."

In the beginning, I discovered, women were fighting it. The strategy was summarized in a letter I received from a woman in central Minnesota, whose husband was locked for three hours into the Viking games. She wrote, "Sunday afternoons used to be a quiet and, well, you know, sort of intimate day for the two of us. The rest of the world went away. Now I can't get him away from the TV."

I called with a suggestion I thought was helpful. "Why don't you try to lure him away at halftime?"

She said, "I would but the creep is hooked on marching bands, too."

They had bands at halftime in those years. I mean, it was that long ago. But football then was a relatively normal, nonpathological experience. And yet I found myself dwelling on that phone call and mulled through a simple exercise of cause and effect. Today we call it connecting the dots. Women by the millions felt left out of a new culture. Fighting it, they were going to lose. Better, I said, to join it.

I organized a football clinic for women. Modestly I identified myself as the visiting professor. Occasionally I wore academic robes. Thousands attended over the years. Women of Minnesota, I said, the mumbo jumbo of pro football is consigning you to irrelevance in your own home. At our clinic, you will learn the difference between a red dog and a hot dog.

In eight sessions, you'll be able to stop listening to sick jokes about tight ends and learn that tight ends are normal citizens who weigh 240 pounds, block ferociously, and catch passes in traffic. You will learn that catching passes in traffic does not mean getting free rides on public buses. You will gain knowledge and the freedom to call your husband what he is - an arrogant pretender who doesn't know a banana route from a banana boat.

For years the clinic turned female neophytes into football scholars. They took tests. Everybody passed. They could explain the quarterback's nonrhythmic "hut---hut-hut-HUT" cadence. Coaches clamored to be invited to give the commencement talk. We chartered buses for field trips to Chicago's Soldier Field for Viking-Bear games. Dressed in Viking purple, horns, and Brunhilde braids, they ignored unruly Bears fans spilling drinks on their heads and stayed the course, disciplined scholars that they were.

All of which is one reason I look forward to those all-too-brief interviews from today's sideline reporters, invariably women. In fact, I was offended when Sam Ryan (actually Samantha Ryan, journalist, mother, college instructor) was frozen out of her usual niche before halftime of this week's Monday night game. Maybe it was tight programming. Whatever it was, I clicked the surfer, tuned out Al Michaels and Tim McGraw's hot-paced bellowing of the Sunday scores, and went to bed with this silent conviction:

Sam Ryan, Michele Tafoya, and all the rest, you are the progeny of a rich tradition. I know that because I've heard at least one of you identify a slip screen, which Al Michaels occasionally misses.

Jim Klobuchar was a longtime columnist in Minnesota.

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