Sunday, February 7, 2010

Football curmudgeon

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and in an hour or so I’ll be sitting down with a few friends to watch the big game. If I can find any trace of it, that is, among all the hype and hoopla and commercial frenzy and overproduced halftime extravaganzas and general cultural trash that has almost smothered the actual playing of the game itself. It’s going to be an ordeal, as usual.

I love football. I was imprinted on the game early in life; I grew up just across the railroad tracks from the football practice field at the college where my father taught, and some of my earliest memories are of going with my big brother to watch the players bang into each other. That was a spectacle to capture a four-year old boy’s heart forever. My desire to grow up and be a football player vanished only after I failed to grow up enough, topping out at about 135 pounds as an undersized bench-warming high school halfback.

But I kept watching-- my father, who had gone to the University of Oklahoma in the Bud Wilkinson era, was a fan, and watching football on TV with him was a bonding experience for my brothers and me. I vividly remember watching the Chicago Bears beat the New York Giants for the NFL championship in 1963, with my father’s friend Bill Wade at the helm for the Bears. I was hooked early, and I’ve been watching football for fifty years.

And in those fifty years it has gotten harder and harder to watch the game on television. A recent study by the Wall Street Journal confirmed what I’ve suspected for years—there isn’t a whole lot of football in a football telecast. Of the three-plus hours it takes to show an NFL game on TV, about eleven minutes consist of actual football. Yup, that’s right. Sit down to watch an NFL game, and two hours and fifty minutes of your time will be spent watching something other than football.

Part of it is the nature of the game itself, of course; you run a play, huddle, run another play, and so on. The action isn’t continuous. And that’s fine—there’s time between plays to savor, scheme, anticipate. That’s part of the game. But that aspect of the game unfortunately lends itself to the insertion of commercial announcements, as the marketing geniuses realized early on. And brother, is that a slippery slope.

The NFL sold its soul to the networks decades ago, and the networks have been piling on the commercial time ever since. They have made the NFL game unwatchable. They lost me for good when they started going back to a commercial after every kickoff. Touchdown, extra point, endless commercials, ten seconds for the kickoff and what’s this? Right back for more endless commercials. Go to a televised football game in person these days, and you will be struck with how often the game is halted for no apparent reason while everyone stands around doing nothing for three minutes. Those are the TV timeouts, and they ruin the flow and continuity of the game, absolutely ruin it.

The misery was compounded when they brought in video review of officials’ decisions. Now the game often grinds to a halt for five or more minutes, often at the most crucial juncture, while the ref sticks his head under a hood and watches the play from a dozen angles so he can come back out and make the wrong call anyway. Meanwhile, we are treated to more commercials.

I can’t watch commercials any more. I just refuse. I started muting the TV for the commercials about twenty years ago, and then after a while it was too much trouble to turn the sound back up, and I just kept the thing muted. Now I usually keep one eye on the game while catching up on my reading. If you’re thinking that means I’m paying less attention to the game than I used to, less than a real hard-core X’s and O’s geek would, you’re right. My passion for the game has waned a bit.

Because, you see, there are other aspects of the game that distress me. I’m old enough to remember when there was such a thing as sportsmanship. You respected your opponent, you didn’t brag or taunt, and you let the ref call the game. Now, football players act like prima donnas at La Scala on opening night, prancing and dancing and putting on airs not just after touchdowns but after every first down, every tackle, every routine completion of an assignment.

They need to watch some footage of the old-time players. When Jim Brown scored a touchdown, he handed the ball to the official and trotted back to the bench like a workman completing a competent job. When Dick Butkus made a routine tackle he didn’t act as if he’d defeated fascism or ended world hunger. In the old days players acted like grown-up men doing their jobs. But that’s gone, and we’re poorer for it.

So I’ll watch the Super Bowl; my friends will probably want to watch it with the sound up because the commercials, in an ironic triumph of money over meaning, have become as big as the game, and I’ll do my best to follow the drama of the game despite the excruciating, drama-killing nature of the TV coverage. I’ll root for the underdog Saints and I will probably get at least a little excitement out of the experience in addition to the indigestion.

But I’m going to leave the room at halftime to avoid all the schlock and go for a quiet walk, doing my best to remember when a football game was what you got when you sat down to watch a football game.

Last fall I went to a high school football game for the first time in about forty years. I went because my daughter was in the marching band, but I found myself unexpectedly captivated by the game. I stood in a cold rain and saw players who weren’t getting paid a cent, most of whom will never play beyond the high school level, playing their hearts out on a miserable October night, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, with no dancing, no taunting or chest-beating. The game was fluid, intense and dramatic. It was the best time I’d had watching football in years. Best of all, there were no commercials.

If you love football, try this: next fall, go see a high school game or an NCAA Division III game, a game the TV networks don’t care about. If you love the game, you’ll like what you see.

Sam Reaves


Gator said...

sounds like you need to create a internet football site that edits the game video down to just the 11 minutes of play. Maybe it would be the next killer sports site. You could advertise that its not just highlights its the whole game in 11 minutes.

Now me, thats what I do but instead I go to youtube so that I can watch the football game edited to included only the commercials :)

Saltman said...

That's what Tivo was invented for.

I share your opinion about commercials and to a degree the blatherers that spew play-by-play and commentary. (Some are better than others.) But I can't embrace the mute button technique - watching football in silence seems unnatural. Football is a noisy spectacle. That's part of the allure. (Remember the Jets-Dolphins game of 1980 than NBC broadcast with no announcers? That's more like it.) The solution I've adopted is Tivo. Ok - DVR to use the generic term. I record a game and watch it at my convenience. I can FF through the commercials with ease, stop for a bio break, rewind over and over for notable plays, and reduce my time wasted on football from 3 hours to 1 hour - and still watch every play with my full attention.

I'm the networks' (and their advertisers) worst nightmare. That's a good thing too.

Sam Reaves said...

I'm with you. Tivo is a great invention and may just save civilization...