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Old News: January 2002

America's Favorite Pastime

January 26, 2002

Football combines the two worst things about America:
it is violence punctuated by committee meetings.
— George F. Will, International Herald Tribune
(Paris, May 7, 1990)

I keep abreast of events in professional tennis, check on the daily leaders of the Tour de France, watch the final rounds of major golf tournaments, and read about each year's new home run race. I follow the Stanley Cup finals if the Pittsburgh Penguins are contenders, and I catch an occasional game in the NCAA tournament.

But football ... I love football. Each year, from college draft day to the summer training camps through to the Super Bowl, I am fully engaged. Any given Sunday, you'll find me parked in front of a television to watch at least one game. I read analysis of the matchups every week and can chat somewhat knowledgeably about the strengths and weaknesses of most teams. I have deeply held opinions on topics like instant reply (a good thing) and Dan Snyder's role as a team owner (a bad thing), and I'm not bashful about sharing them.

So it's no surprise that I also have an opinion about the sport as a whole, and on how it reflects on the United States.

More than committee-punctuated violence

OK, so it's a violent sport. Big guys bang into other big guys, and every team has a benchful of backups for when someone is knocked out. It's also sexist: No women compete at the professional level — it's rare that any even try out for a college team The major female representatives are the cheerleading squads and the wives, girlfriends, and mothers of the players. And although those players earn salaries that are difficult to justify when viewed in the clear light of day, some still throw hissy fits when they don't get the ball enough.

As Mr. Will has memorably suggested, football contains those regrettable elements of violence and deliberation. It also shares other not-so-nice attributes with America:

Both are heavy with marketing. Marketing pervades nearly every aspect of life in this country, from the pitching of consumer and commercial products to the spinning of political parties' messages. Likewise, in football each team is a brand, invented and reinvented over time. The team brand is crafted by behind-the-scenes image shapers but also by the coaches and players themselves, searching for an identity to tell and sell to themselves, to their opponents, to the fans. You don't need to look further than the Super Bowl Shuffle to realize there are hazards in this.

Both are legalistic. The decisions of every game are managed by officiating crews, while final rulings and penalties are handed down from the commissioner's office. The sport also offers a standardized appeals process in the instant reply system, with coaches allowed to request review of a limited number of the field officials' rulings. After the controversy surrounding rules in last week's New England-Oakland playoff game, teams may start keeping rule advocates on staff.

And yet, despite all this, the Super Bowl is the single most-watched television program each year, not just in the U.S. but worldwide.

So why do we love it?

It's true that we're bombarded with messages about the Super Bowl for months before it airs: Ads for the game from the NFL and the networks. Newspaper articles on the cost of this year's ads and the number that are yet outstanding. Endless newspaper and magazines articles. Sportscasters' analyses of potential competitors and outcomes. And on and on.

And yet, even given the relentless marketing and awareness-making, if the game were a total bore people would not watch year after year. There has to be a reason why the viewers show up.

Some possibilities:

Football gives off an aura of equality. The National Football League is the only professional sport in which teams must abide by a salary cap for players, with the cap intended to establish an "even playing field." It reflects the American sense that anyone can be a winner by dint of hard work and determination, that some team from nowhere can within a few years build itself into a Super Bowl champion, just as any child can grow up to be CEO of a corporate powerhouse. Maybe football reverberates with a sense of possibility. (Or maybe the average Joe feels an affinity for the 300-pound athletes that make up teams' offensive lines.)

Football is understandable to passersby: Even if you don't know Rule One, you can watch a football game and know what's going on. The announcers explain and even diagram plays before and after they occur. Instant reply shows what happened and why it was significant. You can't do that in a sport like soccer — you'll miss the next play while looking at the last one. Ditto basketball and hockey. In baseball you can watch the last play, repeatedly, but that's because the whole game moves at the pace of a herd of elderly slugs. In football, there's a set up, a clash, and then a pause during which you can ask whomever you're watching with what the heck happened.

It's larger than life: Literally. The players are big, the stadiums are big, the money is big. Even the goal posts are bigger than any other posts goals. And the system feeds itself so it's all guaranteed to get bigger before it gets smaller. Bigger isn't by definition better, but I think we can agree that people like spectacle. It's difficult to find a bigger four-hour show than the Super Bowl.

But aside from these details, I believe that we are drawn to the game of football because it is competition itself. It invites loyalty from its fans and rewards them, reliably and hugely, for at least five months each year. It gives us rivalries, trash-talking and respect, dynasties and upstarts, Cinderella stories, bad boys, goats, and heroes. It channels our aggression, gives us hand-to-hand combat that is neatly wrapped in protective padding. A football game is a chess match with live and unruly pieces that dance madly when they do well. It crackles with energy. Who could ask for more from a sport?

Knowledge Is Everywhere

January 13, 2002

I learned the word "mendacity" from the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Orson Wells delivers a stirring speech on mendacity, lies, and liars, condemning his sycophant children. "Mendacity, mendacity, mendacity." Wells's portrayal of the disappointed patriarch is terrific, but he's coated in orange pancake makeup that would have melted off in real Southern heat.

When I see the letters "RSVP" I don't think either "respondez s'il vous plait" or "please reply." I think of Cindy Williams on Laverne and Shirley telling Penny Marshall that it means "respond so very promptly." That translation strikes me as more accurate than the literal meaning.

Inkburns Resolutions for the New Year

January 2, 2002

  • Update The Lists more consistently
  • Detail events at the Inkburns offices more frequently, and with greater wit
  • Move site to new hosting provider; add technological wonders like online polls
  • Follow up on ideas raised in earlier installments of "Lift"
  • Use the word "thrum" more often

News notes

Inkburns makes the list: Writer's Digest published their "25 Best Places to Get Published Online" in the January 2002 issue. They have listed Inkburns as number 18. We're honored and delighted to be featured in Writer's Digest.

Stories wanted: Cheryl Dellasega, PhD, author of Surviving Ophelia: Mothers Share Their Wisdom About the Tumultuous Teen Years (Perseus Publishing, 2001) is seeking stories about relational aggression between girls of middle and high school age for her new book, When Girls Hurt Girls: What to Do When Words Become a Weapon. Stories can be mailed to P.O. Box 458, Hershey PA 17033 by Feb. 1, 2002. For further information, email Cheryl at opheliasmother@aol.com .