More Thoughts on Why We Like Football

September 21, 2010

For some reason football is still on my mind. I’m sitting in a hotel in downtown Seattle watching the end of the Monday night game between San Francisco and New Orleans. The end of the game had plenty of drama–SF looking like they’d self-destructed with a turnover, then their defense forcing a Saints field goal instead of a TD that would have iced the game, then marching down the field to score a tying TD (after barely converting a two-point play), then unable to stop the Saints on the game’s last drive, as the champs kicked the winning field goal as time expired. Wow, all that back-and-forth late in the game creates a lot of drama in about five minutes of game time.

The drama is heightened because of my other two reasons why we like football. The reasons are related. The first is that football offers the possibility of perfection. There’s an adage in baseball that everybody wins a third of their games, everybody loses a third, and it’s the other third–54 games–that determines where the teams finish in the standings. But football is not that way. If football followed baseball’s math, it would be rare for a team to win more than ten games out of sixteen.  But every season several teams win at least 11 or 12, and usually one team wins 10 in a row to start a season. And in college, with its wider range of talent and shorter season, it’s unusual for there not to be at least two undefeated teams at season’s end. So fans can expect perfection and it’s not unheard of. If the Yankees lose 2 in a row to the Royals in mid-July, no one notices. But the 49ers (and the Cowboys and the Vikings too) are now 0-2 and it’s huge–their chances of winning their division or making the playoffs are considerably steeper.

The related reason is that, because there are so few games, each is an event. With tailgates, bar promotions, satellite television, and all-day cable TV coverage, the limited number of games heightens the value of each. And that’s just the regular season–all of this just gets ramped up more when the playoffs start, capped off with the most-hyped day of America’s sporting year: the Super Bowl. Falling between MLK weekend and Valentine’s Day, it’s almost an extension of the winter holidays, celebrating our civic religion.

ESPN will digest yesterday’s games, and tonight’s, all week, until it’s time to start priming the pump of interest in next weekend’s events. The combination of adrenaline, alcohol, media focus, and the militaristic/patriotic tones the game has always evoked, and it adds up to football, our nation’s sporting passion.


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