Isiah Berlin talked about two concepts of liberty. The Force asks those who adhere to it to understand the difference between light and the dark sides of the very substance of all matter that binds us and to pursue only one path. If you’re not with me, you’re against me. The friend of my enemy is my friend. Yada yada yada.
Essentially, lots of the history of humanity is about understanding absolutes but living in the shade between black and white. We compromise. We make decisions based on instinct, on passion, on dispassion, on analysis, on empathy, on prejudice, on fact and on fear. We make conscious choices that go against our best interests, we resist changing our decisions in the face of massive, overwhelming evidence. Is it a condition of being human, or a conditioning from the prevailing social mores, the economic and political systems which enforce their will on what is deemed appropriate and ‘right’. We deal in moral absolutes and moral nihilism, we are careening towards oblivion, poisoning each other and the planet. So, where does football fit in this?
The reason for the stream of vox pop cod philosophy above is because there are, for me and really should be for all, massive contradictions in the sport of football. A sport I’ve grown to love and that reaches new peaks of popularity each year, even as more and more aspects of the game become unpalatable for more and more of the audience.
How do I square this away? Well, simply put it is either ignorance or the willing suspension of disbelief. It’s a corrupted version of faith, of evidence of things not seen to contradict the plain facts and evidence clearly seen.
What, may you ask are these things? The list is pretty varied and though there are things that bother me more, there will be some that others think are more important, others less. There are some unquestionably reprehensible things about football though, that really are beyond discussion and fall more into the ‘absolutes’ area of what is acceptable or not.
The blind-eye to perpetrators of domestic abuse and the clear, undeniable links between playing the game and CTE, brain damage and significant mental health issues. These are things that in the cold light of day should turn any and all followers off. But they don’t, though they give most with a speck of empathy significant pause. Yet we watch on, we consume, we perpetuate and validate the decision making and the behaviour. Why?
Football, for me, and for many, is one of the embodiments of what is represented by the United States of America. It’s the American Dream. It’s the history, the culture, the manifestation of, well, manifest destiny. At its best. At its worst, it is the embodiment of the USA’s worst facets.
But, at all times it has and does reflect the ever-changing nature of the American landscape, culturally and socially. It evokes a whole plethora of emotions – from those harking for sandlot football, factory teams and the story of Johnny Unitas, through to the glitz, glamour of materialistic 80s America, eyes on the future, reflected in ostentatious celebrations played out on astroturf inside cavernous domes built as futuristic post-weather cathedrals of sport. Sure, there are more serious reflections of society, of the searing tensions of race in America, of affluence and power covering all manner of sins, of murder, of rampant drug use, abuse and an omertà around it all.
So, what has driven the ever increasing popularity of this uniquely American sport? Perhaps therein lies the fundamental attraction, it is an absorbing sport. This is not the place for a reductive ‘rugby with pads’ or ‘nothing happens it take forever’ stance from anyone reading these words…nor is it the place for my over bombastic pronouncements regarding it being ‘the thinking man’s chess’ or ‘gladiatorial match-ups played out in microcosm across 22 participants broken down into individual duels’. As fun as it is to reduce things down to dismissal or irreverent hyperbole, the game is one that necessitates physical sacrifice, mental prowess and, to varying degrees, team work, individual brilliance, grit, skill, explosive athletic ability and durability and stamina. It is complex yet at times achingly simple. The intricacies of playbooks to diagram incredibly clever plays that result in a key four yard gain through to the simplicity of a massive 60 yard heave downfield for a simple score.
It demands concentration and patience in its viewers, it does not lend itself to casual watching by those passing. If you don’t know the game you need to watch incredibly hard to get to grips. I myself wouldn’t be anywhere near as invested or knowledgeable had my burgeoning passion for the game not been burnished with essentially teaching from one of my best friends who, over 10 years helped me learn more and he did this as an American who had grown-up with the game who came to live in the UK. Sharing a flat with him and watching games every Sunday made me love the game even more.
Football has overtaken baseball as America’s favourite sport and is a behemoth in terms of viewing figures domestically and has seen an unprecedented (in terms of American sports) rise in global popularity. It draws the biggest names to showpiece events, it has transformed a 16 game season into a year round event and manages to make people intrigued in round-the-clock coverage of people essentially auditioning for jobs by doing exercises. It fuels some of the most popular audio, video and social media content in sport globally. NFL Films create, for me, the finest highlights, documentaries and series in sports globally. It is phenomenal how it has permeated American culture both as a mirror to it and, at different times, both a negative and positive reflection of it.
There is something romantic that draws me to football. Narrative is a powerful force in the game, and the history of the professional game replete with exactly the sort of events that lend themselves to emotionally charged documentaries and vignettes. Reading ‘Monsters’ by Rich Cohen and the vivid detail of George Halas and those dirt-yard games in the 1920s; the aggression and drug-fuelled abandon of the game in the 70s recounted in ‘The Last Headbangers’ by Kevin Cook. These are only two examples of the rich imagery that is so entwined with football. It, for many, stirs up emotions not always associated with sport and not always accessible in life. It becomes a touchpoint for how people actually tap into their emotion. Is that a little trite? Yes, but that doesn’t stop it being true.
Reading (the absolutely fantastic) ‘America’s Game’ by Michael MacCambridge feels like a journey through the heart of 20th Century America, because it is. The language and imagery conjured for me Fitzgerald and Kerouac, Salinger and even Harper Lee. Not necessarily the prose, but how it seemed to chart the changing nation in its period of most intense economic and social upheaval and (erratic) progress. It is an incredibly emotive book and one which is a must read for any fan.
The pageantry of the games themselves, the pomp and ceremony, the bluster and superlatively blunt patriotism is all, to this outsider, mesmerising. In a way alien, in a way stirring. It’s almost a magic trick of turning rampant consumerism wrapped around a sporting event into something meaningful. And I still don’t know why I’m so drawn to it.
And we return to the fact that there are incredible tensions in the NFL and college game that are deeply troubling and reflective of a tense and divided society.
It is hard to reflect on cheering for a team with a deeply racist name, and knowing the countless other school and college monikers out there that are as deeply insensitive. It is hard to think of how handsomely rewarded are individuals who are avowedly remorseless for despicable acts. It is hard to see the effects of the physical aspects of the game ruin the lives of those that play it and those around them. It is disturbing to see the vast amounts of wealth created for those that control the sport that already have unimaginable sums. For many, the close allegiance with the military gives pause. The massively corporatized and commercialised experience of the game – from every TV segment being sponsored to the relentless barrage of adverts throughout the intervals and breaks in play. But. But.
We compromise. In every phase, aspect and decision. If choice is the human condition, then compromise is the condition of those living in post-industrial democracies with disposable time and income. We compromise on our values, our freedom and our integrity. This isn’t said for grandiosity. If I truly think of my decisions, they are all compromised by the knowledge of what I’m not doing, wilfully ignoring or desperately hoping isn’t true.
Do I think this every time the ball is snapped? Of course not, but in the offseason it germinates a little more. As football is a complex and chaotic landscape filled with inexorable contradiction and forcing the participants, commentators and followers to compromise, it is like the rest of life.
Ultimately, I love watching football and consume some form of football every single day of the year whether a game, highlights, fantasy, a podcast, a conversation on Whatsapp, an article here, a story on ESPN or NFL.com. It has problems much bigger than it realises, and ones that reflect the turmoil of the country it dominates the sporting landscape of.
It has some remarkably positive aspects from aspiration to the commitment and dedication of those that serve the game, play the game and surround the game, it has some monumental soft-serve PR stunts that do little, and it of course has some uneasy truths that need to be addressed.
But, like with most sports we consume, when the ball is booted from halfway and the game gets going, it’s all meaningless outside of the next play. That’s all I really know…and that isn’t something I’m comfortable with either.
I must stress that by acknowledging the contradiction and conflict is not my way of providing a personal panacea to go into the 2017 season feeling like a damn saint because I wrote a few words. More, this is an ongoing internal conversation that I increasingly feel should be externalised. Because I do love football. But I’m also fundamentally in disagreement with many aspects of the game, the edifices that control and enable it and the individuals within it. And I square that away, as I do with many contradictory decisions and choices.
piccredit: Yestervid via youtube.com