Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why I Am a Football Heathen

I've never been more afraid to publish a God Blog post than the following. I wrote it last year and decided it would fit on this blog (though I didn't originally write it to be published here), then sat on it like a coward. Yes, I've written about the Bible, evolution, Christianity, atheism, Islam, Scientology, and Santa Claus, but never about something people get this passionate about: football. If this is my last post, you'll know that some fan tracked me down and put a stop to my blasphemy.

During my third year teaching at a football university, I went to my first -- and let's hope last -- of their football games. It's one thing to grow up (as I and most everyone else I know did) in a football house, but it's another to live in a football town. Luckily, even though my wife and I currently live in the latter, we no longer live in the former, so it balances itself out somewhat. I can only pity the little boy or girl who doesn't enjoy football and lives in both.

Let me first get this out of the way: football fans are selfish. The assumption of football fans is that football matters to them and so it should matter to everyone else (and it often does, so that fits their opinion nicely). Anyone football doesn't matter to is just a perversion, easily ignored.

If a football game is on television, it must be on, usually at extreme volumes, often accompanied by everyone yelling at the screen. "But, Dad," a child might argue, "this show is on that I really want to watch. It only lasts twenty minutes and will only come on this one time. Once it's over, you'll still have the next eight or more hours to watch football." Answer: "No, I might miss something." Or say you're having a party, maybe a birthday party or a going-away party. If there's a game on, it will eventually trump the special occasion. Your special celebration becomes just another football night. Selfishness is the reason Thanksgiving is synonymous with football. Football doesn't make Thanksgiving special; football makes Thanksgiving commonplace. Over and over, the ubiquity of football wins over any potentially-unique event.

Imagine if I behaved this way for my own personal hobby or interest. What if I went into the middle of the family room and began reading a book at the top of my lungs and insisted that you let me do it? Imagine if I, in fact, got downright violent if you didn't let me do it (as football fans do when interrupted). Once my wife and I were trying to have a birthday dinner at a restaurant during the Super Bowl and the server ignored our table because he was distractedly staring at the screen the entire night. What if I stopped in the middle of my job, stopped teaching students, so that I could play some videogame or engage in some other personal interest? What if this were acceptable or even expected--since I'm sure many readers are thinking, "Well, yeah, if you try to have dinner during the Super Bowl, what do you expect?"

In this football town, if Halloween falls on a Friday or Saturday (perfect nights for the holiday, you'd think), it is moved to another night because of football. (Sunday, I learned, is safe, so take that however you like.) Most businesses here close early on Saturday. The guy hooking up the DSL at my new house was surprised that the wires were properly color-coded because, normally here, the wires are the same colors as the football jerseys. (I learned that out-of-towners put these wires in, so that's why.)

Don't think that my anger comes from my personal dislike of football as a game. I don't like bungee jumping either, but I don't mind if people do it, as long as they don't come crashing through my roof or insist that all other life stop while a bungee jumping contest is underway. In fact, I even like football as an activity to some degree. I played the game all the time with friends and family as a kid. I understand the sport. I know all the rules. I can throw a perfect spiral, and I will teach my daughter to do so. It's the selfishness of the fan that bothers me, and the way that -- as a result of this selfishness -- football sticks its enormous face in yours and screams at you, whether you want it to or not.

On the weekend that I went to the university football game, as is the case every game weekend in my town, tailgating begins on Thursday or Friday. Tents are set up all over campus and people just sit there, waiting for Saturday. Do they sleep there? I'm not sure. Do they have jobs? I'll have to ask someone one day, but as far as I can tell, fans will sit on campus for 40+ hours just to claim their spots, like in the frontier days. Even if you do as I did and only show up a little ahead of time, you're still dedicating at least twelve hours of your precious day off to football. I left my house a little after noon, because I had to park at the mall and then be shuttled over to campus -- since, on game day, faculty parking decals are meaningless -- and, after some mild tailgating and the game itself, didn't get home until after midnight. Out-of-towners have to tack on however long it takes to drive (and many do it every weekend) plus the time it takes to drive back (and let's not forget money: potential hotel prices, tailgating fees, food, and the extraordinary price of the game tickets).

Tailgating is admittedly the most fun of the day, since the sport seems more about hype and less about itself. (For what is it really but, as Mary Robison says of all sports, "men and a ball"?) Hanging out with friends and family and eating hamburgers is always fun. All the parades and banners and celebrating is pretty exciting... once in a while. But, again, I can't imagine doing this every weekend for four or five months, nearly half the year. When does it wear off? Why would you want Christmas every day?

Upon entering the stadium, the first thing I notice is that the women (especially the female students) are wearing dresses, what are known as "game day dresses." (They apparently spend all summer shopping for them.) They're kind of ugly and stupid-looking (especially since they're all the same two non-flattering colors), but that's beside the point. The point is that these women are (as far as they know) "dressing up," wearing uncomfortable clothes (complete with high heels or some kind of mismatching boots) to a sporting event filled with thousands of sweaty people screaming at a field full of sweaty boys. This scenario would be bad enough, but then I remember that these same women come to my air-conditioned classroom where they're able to sit down in a semi-serious and academic setting... and they wear gym shorts. The same exact pair of Nike gym shorts, specifically, but that's also beside the point.

Or is it? Certainly conformity is playing a role here. No doubt the answer for why they wear dresses is "Because that's what you're supposed to do." I've asked my students point blank why they wear gym shorts to class and they say it's for comfort. (Hmmm.) They cannot or will not answer why it's the same exact pair for each girl. The men tend to wear the same shorts and flip-flops they always do to the games, except the fraternity boys who (as some sort of hazing ritual disguised as "respect") are forced to wear ties. At any rate, it's discouraging to me as a professor that they'll "dress up" for football but not for class. They'll "respect" football, but not learning. They'll conform to whatever football tells them to do, but will whine endlessly about academic expectations. (God knows how they'll find time to do the textbook reading for Monday.) And they'll stand for four long hours at the game (because students find shame in sitting on the bleachers, even if it means the short girls can't see and that they all get foot sores) but get fidgety after forty minutes sitting in a desk where they get to actually participate and not just watch. And of course there are stories of guys puking on girls who will sit in their boyfriend's vomit rather than leave or even clean up, which would show disrespect to both the (charming) boyfriend and to the game itself.

The pageantry of the pre-game begins when someone lets loose an eagle that flies around the stadium and then lands in the middle of the field while the crowd screams at it. The eagle and the chant has something to do with some mythology I'll never understand, and all I can think about is that they have starved this poor bird nearly to death so that it will be sure to land on the scrap of food they've placed on the 50 yard line. "Surely," someone in front of me says, "the bird must be hurt or something or they wouldn't keep it in captivity just for this." That would make it better? Not only is the majestic eagle starving for the sake of cheap spectacle, but it's also crippled?

More pageantry includes drum majors in synchronization, stabbing maces into the ground that sets off more confusing crowd frenzy, techno club music that turns the stadium into a rave every handful of minutes, and a Jumbo Tron that reminds us that it would be easier to just watch this all on TV (everyone craning their necks to watch the screen nearly as often as the field). The whole thing has a Greco-Roman gladiator feel, and there are so many white people in attendance that I thought at one point I must have stumbled into a Glenn Beck rally. Of course they play "God Bless America" before playing the actual national anthem to remind us that we're really here to, apparently, worship God.

And we are. I've never seen the god of football worshipped quite like this before. Sure, I've been to little church services here and there, little high school football games. I've seen the televangelists on NFL Sunday. But here I was in person at a bona fide mega-church. And this football god gets 'em young. Nine-year-old boys are behind me with their hands raised, tears in their eyes. They know their credos by heart. "We need to get back to the running game." Or: "What we need out there is some good coverage." Little bullshit prayers that mean absolutely nothing, but are said with such gusto that it seems full of import. Witness this testimony I heard with my own ears: "If our team can tie up the game before the end of the quarter, we'll have a good chance of winning." No kidding? You mean if the team scores points, they could win? Only in football can obvious statements of fact be taken as profound. From the mouths of babes and men alike.

And the men are the worst. One poor fellow a few rows down and to the right of me, while the game was tied, tried desperately to begin a "wave" in the stands. Then another man, sitting about three seats to the left of me, stands up and screams to the instigator from across the bleachers, "You don't start a wave during a tie game!" A pause, just enough for me to wonder why, then, "It's bad luck!" This was too much for me and I started laughing loudly. I'd never heard anything so ridiculous come from a grown man's mouth who wasn't in politics. Bad luck? After cracking up some more, I decided (actually, it just came out of me) to yell something myself. I screamed to the waver, "Yeah, don't you know anything about superstition?" (Either the superstitious guy didn't hear me or thought I was being serious; either way, he didn't threaten violence.) The god of football is a fickle and fragile god, and you must be very, very careful not to upset him. Try a wave during a tie game and he will smite your team so fast you won't have time to prepare your lamb for the sacrifice.

Of course, unlike actual church where everyone is more or less on the same side (not unlike a pep rally), the greatness of the football service depends on whether your team wins or not. I hear fans complaining: they'll go home if their team doesn't pick up a few points soon. Do they like football or not? Are they here to watch a game or just to win? Can't they win at home? Instead, they'll be sore losers and go home early, wasting their hundred and something dollar tickets (mine was given to me, by the way) if things don't go their way. I couldn't help but thinking that when I, say, go to see Paul McCartney perform live, half the crowd doesn't walk away depressed. Once again, the religion of "contest" is nothing in comparison to the beauty of real things like literature and music and rational thought.

But then the real spirit of the religion begins. A guy catches a pass and gets sacked by the opposing player, one of those bone-crunching hits everyone can feel and hear. "He held on to that thing, though," someone says, referring to the ball. That's right. He did his duty to god and country: he caught a brown pigskin and held it as tightly as he could, even though he knew it meant someone would come crushing into him any moment. Both god and worshippers are pleased.

Later, a play ends and there's a lone figure on the field, some player laid out unconscious. He's one of ours. The crowd gets silent as a few people rush to his attention. Time passes. The crowd grows restless. More than one in the crowd decides, "He's all right." "He's all right?" My sarcasm button, which before had been flipped humorously, is now flipped angrily. "Yeah," I say, "I know that when I've had the crap smacked out of me by the biggest guy I've ever seen and I'm lying flat on the ground unable to move and completely blacked out, I know that I'm really just thinking how 'all right' I am." Time keeps passing. The crowd is now beyond restless. They begin applauding. What for? You're only (and this is a custom I thought I knew well) supposed to applaud if the hurt player is able to make it off the field by more or less walking off. Some emergency golf cart thing pulls up with a stretcher and then the crowd applauds like crazy. What are they applauding for? The poor boy is still unconscious, no doubt headed to the emergency room. Ah, I get it now. They're applauding for two reasons: 1. This kid -- who I realize must be not much older than twenty, or less -- has sacrificed his own body so that we can be entertained. 2. They are carting him the off the field so we can get on with the fucking game.

The same thing happens about half an hour later, but it's someone from the opposing team, so everyone gives even less of a crap if he dies or not. And this is where football and I truly part ways. The moment even one young man in the prime of his life permanently damages his body (often in greater degrees than I witnessed here, and of course there have been actual deaths), the game should be over forever. No more football. Not worth it, no matter how great the adrenaline rush, how good the hamburgers are, how hot the chicks you get may be, how much it means to you when the crowd worships you as a holy sacrifice.

I sat there in the stands with my head in my hands and felt sick. Here I was contributing to this, even just this once.

My empty seat in the stands isn't going to mean anything, of course, just as it didn't before. Neither is this thing you're reading. The economy of not only my town but my entire country would probably collapse (even more than it has) if football were taken out of the picture. The gods of football and money work together: they feed each other. (The only church service I ever went to in this town, by the way, began with a celebration of the previous night's football victory.) The only reason I'm writing this is to get some of the past thirty-something years of this force-fed misery out of my stomach and onto the page and to let at least one or two of you understand why this sport makes me so terribly sad.

Feel free to call me a pussy now.


UPDATE: (10 Nov 2011) Penn State.


jFan said...

Please do more than one blog post this month, Rusty. I'd love for the "Potential Future Posts" list to grow shorter still.

Rusty Spell said...

I'm currently working on one, which is both (a) about my new baby (kind of anyway) and (b) hindered by her (time-consuming little thing). But I hope it can go up before the end of October. I also want to do a post on either Halloween or the Devil, and this is the perfect month for it, so maybe we'll get lucky there. It seems that my actual posts always jump ahead of my "Potential Future Posts," so that list only grows.

Thanks for the encouragement!

Rusty Spell said...

I missed October, but we'll see about doubling up in November.

teamvalue said...

Thanks for putting into words what I've been feeling for the past thirty something years.

You're not alone.

Rusty Spell said...

Thanks for your comment. We're not alone, but we may as well be sometimes.

Anonymous said...

While I understand how you could have come to this conclusion, I think it is possible that you did not take the time to consider what fans of football find merit in this game.You're exactly right in concluding that it is a dangerous game. And sadly, despite the advances in safety equipment and protective rules, players do sometimes get critically hurt. But the danger is part of the appeal. The gridiron is a stage on which boys and men alike can develop and present their courage and bravery. After you have sacked up and and hit the shit out of a man much larger than you; there is very little you will cower from in the future. If you are willing to fully commit to something like this, knowing that it's going to hurt like hell,you have exemplified at least some characteristic that should be applauded. You are right that the commercialization of the game has cheapened it, but the spirit and essence of football is a rewarding activity that develops valuable traits in youths that otherwise would likely not be developed so completely. Sorry for the long comment; I just wanted to present a differing viewpoint that people who have never played the game would not be able to experience.

Rusty Spell said...

Hi, Anonymous. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think I do understand the appeal you write about. I remember being proud of myself as a small child playing "rough house" with kids five years older than I was. ("I could have been killed!") And I certainly agree that competition can foster courage and bravery, and football does so in a very real way since it's so physical and therefore impossible to ignore.

But it's the dangerous, violence-breeding aspect of football that makes me not want to applaud it, and it's why I'd encourage boys to turn to less body-damaging competitions (physical or non-physical ones) if I could.

However, I'm not really picking on the players. This post disapproves of the *fans*: those who are attempting to feel these courageous and "alive" feelings... but only *vicariously*. Fans are not doing anything; they are merely sacrificing someone else and getting the emotional benefit. You can hear it in the language: "*We* beat the Broncos."

It is the bloodlust of these fans that helps to make the sport such a violent and dangerous (and sometimes deadly) one. The carnage is part of what they pay to see.

I do realize (as I suggested in the post) that I'm simply not a violent person while others thrive on it (directly or vicariously). When someone dies in NASCAR (another fatal sport), fans suggest that the driver knew death was a possibility and feel that the driver thought it was worth the risk, possibly part of the thrill. These sorts of "thrills" do not thrill me, and I wouldn't want them as a participator or as a viewer.

So don't worry about your long comment. You can always count on me for an even longer response :)

Jenna said...

I couldn't agree with you more.