COLUMN: And On Sunday, There Was Football
Published: Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 23:09
There is the National Football League, and then there is everything else. There is no one David to its Goliath (has the allusion ever been more apt?), but several outmuscled, puny, atrophied associations and leagues and TV programs. And they’re all getting smashed in the mouth, put on their asses, and sent back to the locker room for a blow and some IV.
Let’s take a look at some all-important Nielsen ratings for the three major sports in America (sorry, hockey). The NBA Finals, site of the most intense, competitive, skillful basketball in the world—the best of the best—for the last 10 years has had an average rating of about nine. The World Series has perhaps done slightly better on average, although it has seriously tailed off in the last year or so. In any case, it hovers around a nine as well. The Super Bowl has averaged a rating of 45. About 166.8 million people watched part or all of last year’s Super Bowl, a little over half of the entire country. About 113 million people were watching it at any given time, making it the third most-watched television event of all time behind only two other Super Bowls. Rounding out the top 10 most-watched television events of all time is the finale of M*A*S*H followed by six Super Bowls. Here are the top five most-watched televised shows (by viewership) in the last week. NFL Football, NFL football, NFL Pre-kick, Football Night in America, and Under the Dome with 25.4, 25.13, 18.03, 14.09, and 11.15 million viewers, respectively.
Americans love NFL football.
Here are some other stats. According to footballoutsiders.com, there have been over 7,500 injuries, minor or major in the last two years alone, and 1,496 major injuries (lasting eight weeks or longer) in 2012. There were 170 concussions last year and a grand total of 531 in the two years prior. From CNN: the NFL recently pledged 765 million dollars “to fund medical exams, concussion-related compensation, medical research for retired NFL players and their families, and litigation expenses” as a settlement in a class action law suit against the NFL involving more than 4,500 retirees. The brain damage caused by repeated concussions often leads to a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and was a focal point of the settlement. Symptoms of CTE are difficult to trace (they’re thought to include mood swings, general depressive symptoms), but the disease invariably moves in one direction. Autopsies often show a brain unpredictably swelled and shrunken and generally worn and pulped like an old punching bag.
NFL football is intensely violent.
An NFL defense has a defensive “line” (short for “frontline”), a set of linebackers, and secondary whose roles, respectively, are to win territory, stop threats to territory that have broken past the frontline, and stop aerial territorial threats/act as a final defense of ground threats. An offense has an offensive line, rugged territory gainers and maintainers, receivers, aerial threats, tailbacks, ground threats, and a quarterback, often called a “field general.” There are “formations” designed to maximize a side’s ability to pierce through a line, and tiers of attacks in case the first or second line fails. A coach’s locker room whiteboard consists of tactical, swooping arrows directing x’s and o’s to charge, feint-then-charge, switch emphasis of attack, run decoy attacks, scramble defenses with misdirection, overwhelm weak opponents. It’s a game in which players “dig into the trenches” along a line of “scrimmage.” Playing through injury is cultural, there is “training camp,” deep “bombs” are thrown, “blitzes” rush from blindsides and flanks, and people get “blown up” by hard tackles. It is a bitter, furious struggle for yards (“fight for every yard,” it’s said) and territory.
NFL football is a lot like war.
There is a precedent for violent, warlike games wildly adored by the public. Even in structure: Gladiatorial schools had spending limits, roster restrictions. Venues were often littered with gaudy advertisements from wealthy corporations, and huge sums of money were exchanged to host the best games. They were spectacles in every sense of the word. The Romans, with regard to the “game” itself, were a bit more literal in their interpretation of “warlike.” Amphitheaters held Punic War mock-ups. The Coliseum legendarily could be filled with water for famous naval battle re-enactments. Once barbarians began invading Rome, stadiums featured captured barbarians in their simulations of the current battles. Hundreds of thousands died gory deaths in front of millions of thirsting spectators.
In my estimation, we arrive at NFL football from here. First of all, Christianity became a seriously big deal, and as it turns out, Christianity is incompatible with more than a few aspects of the games, namely with the gross amounts of money spent on what was conceived as hedonistic. Interestingly, it wasn’t until about 300 that Tertullian, an important early Christian writer and thinker, identified games-deaths as murder and an affront to Christian morality. Plus, Rome was broke and really needed money. Then, for 1,000 years or so, any sort of violence is performed in the name of a religion that allegedly abhors violence, therefore stigmatizing violence in a strange, teenage-angsty way. The general confusion outpouring from this position was cleared up eventually, but 1,000 years later and only when warfare was no longer all that exciting to watch. Lining up a few rows of people and watching them shoot muskets at each other and mostly miss just doesn’t have the same verve as watching a centurion getting stabbed in the kidney with a gladius, I suppose. But anyway, warfare, though still essentially a matter of territory and death, becomes abstracted with technologies like airplanes and bombs, strategies like trench-fighting and blanket-bombing.