This Sunday most of America will be watching that uniquely American spectacle known as the Super Bowl. Even casual fans will tune in because they’ve bought into the concept that the commercials – an ordinary and somewhat onerous distraction on any other day of the year – are high art, must-see TV that evening.
I used to play my part in the annual extravaganza, dutifully marching off to show up at a Super Bowl party and even hosting a few myself. But I’ve since given up on the game of American football for the simple reason that it doesn’t fit in with American values. Let me explain.
In many ways, football, which has somehow ascended to the top of American culture, is paradoxically the most un-American of sports. Americans who celebrate modern football as the “every man” sport are duped. With its defined roles built right into the fabric of the game and a predictable storyline contingent on those roles, there’s little room for “social mobility.” American football is like Old Europe.
More than any other sport, football viewing has also been overtaken by new media. That means heavily managed pervasive commercialism intermingled with sports commentary. The average sofa spectator isn’t watching unbridled team athleticism and split-second cooperation so much as he’s consuming perfectly engineered commercial breaks. And at every interruption, he’s fed instant analysis from the sports center aristocracy – expertly designed to give him the feeling of inclusiveness.
The real drama of other sports
Please don’t dismiss me as a non-sports fan. I wouldn’t think of missing the World Series or the NBA Finals. I marvel at the Olympics and the World Cup. I’ve simply come to the realization that American football is actually a faux sport, closer to the Disney World that the Super Bowl MVP would claim that he was going to than the real drama that one might see at other sporting venues.
Sports are magnificent. At their best, they represent our noblest efforts to surpass our human boundaries. The high jump, long jump, and pole vault may be our purest attempt to slip the bonds of gravity. Individual sports also give us a window into what it’s like to compete against ourselves. Who hasn’t gasped in awe at spectacular one-on-one clashes that have been so epic in nature that the names of the competitors will now and forever be connected with a hyphen, as if they’ve become a single entity, such as Ali-Frazier or Federer-Nadal?
Even weekend warriors can replicate that feeling by being so evenly matched against another on the golf course or tennis court that it seems as if one is competing against oneself. With that comes the exhilarating realization that only by reaching down deep within ourselves and accessing a better, previously unexplored part, will we prevail. The result can be as personally transformative as when Jacob wrestled the angel.
Team sports contain all of that and much more still. Aside from dealing with a formidable opponent, one also has to make oneself a viable part of a team. This means retaining one’s individuality while joining with a group of individuals for a common goal. This happens all the time, of course, but rarely outside of the sports field (or perhaps a jazz band jam session) does it soar to the level that it forms an entity so dynamic and cohesive, it creates its own separate consciousness. The result can be almost transcendental. I feel sorry for those who’ve never experienced it.
It's not an everyman game
This is where football comes up short of even a first down. The facade of team cohesiveness is there, of course. How else could they march up the field? But the individuals have long ago given up their dynamic individuality to scripted roles that they are supposed to play.
If there is anything that defines us Americans, it’s that we tend to be iconoclasts. We have a legacy of tearing down the class structure. It’s how this country was founded. That’s even truer for those of us who have only been here one or two generations, because we have direct and personal interaction with parents or grandparents who made the ground-breaking decision to reject the old structure and embrace the unbound possibilities of the new. That’s one reason why a healthy infusion of immigration has always been essential. It keeps the American spirit alive.
Baseball, basketball, and soccer are more everyman in nature and, thus, more in line with the American experience of rugged individualism. Anyone on the field or court can (and often does) hit the winning home run or score the winning basket. Shaquille O’Neal, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson all led their teams to championships from different positions – center, small forward, shooting guard, point guard. In baseball, The World Series MVP could be the second baseman.
Classist, defined roles
Football, on the other hand, with its more defined roles of officers (ball handlers) and linemen, is more classist and essentialist. It’s a horrible sport for kids, not because of the significant chance of injury, but because of how it will most certainly affect their personality, as they unconsciously conform to the perceptions that others have projected on to them according to the position that they’ve been conscripted to play.
How many after-school TV specials involved a high school football team with a handsome ego-driven quarterback; a wide receiver who was somewhat deceptive; a defensive lineman who will stop at nothing to get what he wants; and an offensive lineman who is naively overprotective of those around him or just plain dumb?
It’s true that the critically acclaimed show “Friday Night Lights” has attempted to break down those stereotypes. But “Friday Night Lights” is in many ways the “exception that proves the rule” (and a good example of the proper use of the expression). The show’s contrasting story lines, such as the fallen quarterback, or the sensitive lineman, wouldn’t carry as much weight without our own preconceived notions to challenge – that how individuals are supposed to act is based on the position they play, not on who they are.
The illusion of fan involvement
So why has football ascended to the pinnacle of American culture, given its restrictive, clichéd story line? The answer may be exactly that. Many Americans simply buy into the soap opera. It’s reassuring to some to know that the quarterback is married to a supermodel (like Tom Brady) or that he’s the son of another quarterback (like the Peytons).
Football also gives many the illusion of control. With its segmented action of downs, it’s tailor-made for media analysis and commercial breaks. Now, everyone can be a Monday morning quarterback after each and every play. It also allows us to watch each other watch the game. It even allows us to watch the officials as they watch themselves on the instant replay to review the call we just saw them make. All this readily available content pretends to give us ownership and involvement, even connection. But does it really?
As for me, I’ll take a pass on the not-so quintessentially American touchdown pass this Sunday. Someone has to break the cycle.
Brian Fox is a freelance writer.