This is a pre-Thanksgiving blog entry, and what could be more appropriate for that than a discussion of … football? After all, Thanksgiving is the traditional football holiday, isn’t it? The game has always been an object of devotion in the United States, rating as high on the loyalty scale as religion, which, unsurprisingly enough, also competes for our attention every Sunday. However, there is a problem. The U.S. version of football is under siege right now, from several directions. So, what’s causing the problems now?
Let’s start with the current controversy about two “nationals”; the National Football League and the National Anthem. Sports and politics, mixed into one controversy and pulled kicking and screaming over into patriotism, all of them volatile topics! We’ve all seen the images of many NFL players “taking the knee” during the anthem, in protest. They actually started this in protest of injustice and racial bias, not against the anthem or the flag, but we can’t simply let protesters decide what their protests are about, can we? Much better if we decide for them, and claim that they are disrespecting the song and the flag and our military and the very principles this nation was founded to promote—even as they protest in support of the principles this nation was founded to promote.
One of the many irrational responses to the players’ protest—and those responses have been dominated by irrational responses—is the movement by fans to boycott football. Fans have even scorned their wannabe fantasy connections to the action on the field, burning their favorite player jerseys and team banners, tossing their season tickets, walking out before the game starts. That’s obviously because nothing causes the NFL team owners more pain than when someone who has already paid for the entire season decides not to stay and watch the game. So far, it seems that the biggest losers from the controversy are the many small shops that deal in sports memorabilia, which have noticed a significant decline in business during the otherwise-busy NFL season. Of course, they’ll undoubtedly recoup many of those losses later, when the same fans come back in to replace the items they burned or tossed.
All of this happens to create mixed feelings in me. I support the player protests, without question. I believe that Colin Kaepernick (and Eric Reid) had every right to protest racial injustice in any way they felt they could, at any time they felt would be most effective, and that the players who continue this protest are also well within their rights and well within the best traditions of the United States and of nonviolent dissent. Note: polls show that a majority of fans agree. No, my problem is that I would like to do what I can to counter the boycott, but I have effectively ignored virtually the entire football season every year for decades, and it wouldn’t make any sense for me to start watching any games now. I guess I could go out and buy a Kaepernick jersey, if I could even find one anywhere, but it would just end up gathering dust in the garage somewhere.
So let’s move on to the important question of whether U.S. football should be radically altered (or even ended) because of the ubiquitous problem with concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). U.S. football is caught between those people concerned for the players, on one hand, and the other fans (like President Trump) that say that crackdowns on unnecessary roughness are “making the NFL really boring” and “ruining the game” (never mind that football has always been pretty boring—more on that later). The fact is, even devoted fans should care enough to want the players to survive their brief careers relatively intact, especially mentally. If players are spared, either by ending the game forever or by switching to professional flag football, I wouldn’t mind. Personally, I’m not invested in the NFL product or in the ubiquitous college or high school leagues which serve as the minor league apprenticeship system for the NFL.
Let me digress a moment. I am a fan of real football, the “futbol” that is popular throughout the world and that features ninety minutes of virtually non-stop strategic action that pauses briefly only when one team scores a goal and celebrates, which isn’t often, or when someone gets injured (or, more often, dramatically collapses with a fake injury). Neither of these ever causes a very long delay. If you’re watching real football, which people in the U.S. call soccer, there are no opportunities to go out to the kitchen to get another beer or more chips, and there are precious few breaks for advertisements. The time clock and game play almost never stops. I might also point out, by way of justifying use of the name football here, rather than soccer, that real football is in fact the only game in which the ball is moved up and down the field almost entirely by real feet—there’s actually a serious penalty called if a player touches the ball with hands or arms. That’s my bias.
But let’s return to what some people call “gridiron football,” the game played only in the United States and Canada. It could also be called by the name my friends and I used to use when I was young, which was “tackle football”. We could simply get rid of the misnomer “football” and shorten that to “Tackle”. That makes sense because the action called a tackle is probably the most significant element of game play. There are actions called tackles in real football and in rugby, also, but they don’t have the effect of stopping play, as they do in tackle football. But I want to go further. For the rest of this blog post, I will refer to tackle football as “SAR”, short for “Stop-Action Rugby.” I do this because game play in tackle football, and even the shape of the ball itself, is closest to the game of rugby, but with much more frequent stops and restarts. What’s with with the shape of that ball, anyway? An egg modified to increase the unpredictable erratic action when it bounces? Admittedly, the ball does work better in a game where it is so often moved down the field by throwing it, an action, I might note, not involving feet. But I digress again …
The play action on the field of SAR (Tackle) was adequately summarized back in the 1980’s by Mikhail Gorbachev, when President Reagan invited him to attend his first game. In response to a vague question about what he thought of it, he stated, factually, “All get up, all fall down.” SAR is a game in which the average play, the action part, lasts less than ten seconds. Then the teams get ready for the next play; they have at least 25 seconds to do that, and often run right up against that limit. That means repeated short spans of downtime in which players celebrate their last run or pass or tackle, then mill around a bit, then form a huddle (or not), and finally line up for the next play. There is generally so much setup time between plays that on television the broadcasters follow almost every play with an instant replay of what we just saw.
SAR is a game which consists of four 15-minute quarters, supposedly an hour of actual playing time, but the total game length generally, and unpredictably, takes more than three hours. Okay, there’s also a half-hour half-time break, but that still leaves about an hour and a half of extra off-the-clock time. Every SAR game has up to 12 time-outs, two two-minute warnings, lengthier pauses for injuries and penalties, and longer setup periods after every score (i.e., touchdown or field goal) and every time the ball changes hands (i.e., punt). It’s as if the game was designed specifically to allow as much downtime as possible for paid TV commercials. I’m sure the sponsors and the owners love it. In fact, the primary characteristic that makes SAR so boring is the very same thing that makes it so profitable on television.
That profit is vital. The importance of TV revenue is demonstrated most effectively by the lack of loyalty of team owners to “their” fans. Take this from someone who grew up in Oakland, California, which was not once, but actually twice, the “home city” of the team soon to be known as the Las Vegas Raiders. If a team owner doesn’t think the TV viewership in “their” city is providing enough profit, they pack up and leave for a greener locale (that is, one with higher audience ratings and, if possible, a newer stadium with more luxury skyboxes). Yet another digression: That’s an excellent reason to support the Green Bay Packers, the only team owned by the city. Other NFL cities should follow their lead. Instead of going into debt to build a new stadium for an ungrateful private owner, they should buy the team outright. Use eminent domain, if necessary!
Finally, player specialization is also extreme in SAR. Backs are relatively flexible (except the quarterback, who is essentially a risk-averse ball-delivery mechanism), but linemen are intentionally loaded down with extra gut weight, all the better to keep them from being pushed around. They are the Sumo wrestlers of U.S. sport. Each SAR team also consists of several separate teams, one for offense, one for defense, and yet another set of players who sit on the sidelines for virtually the entire game, waiting for the very few minutes in each game devoted to kicking the ball and returning kicked balls (the “special” teams). It makes sense, then, that there is extra setup time every time the ball changes hands, because everyone on the field must be replaced with an entirely different team. That, of course, provides a chance to play four or five more advertisements. Is it any wonder that half of the hype for the big annual Super Bowl now refers to the commercials?
SAR, however, will survive all of the current threats and downturns. This is in part because it is a traditional ritual, especially on Thanksgiving, but mainly because it provides a massive amount of revenue, and the television stations and owners use some of that money to promote the game and build audiences. They won’t let the golden goose die. So there will continue to be more than enough eyes in the living rooms across the country to keep the money flowing, boycott or not.