I’ve never been a great fan of professional football here in the United States. I just can’t get into the game. I’ve even started to fall off the college football bandwagon in recent years. The game just doesn’t work. It takes too long to play, the game doesn’t flow well, and the television broadcasts are now dominated by advertising breaks.
Take for instance yesterday’s conference championship games. In the second game of the day, Pittsburgh has a slight lead with time running out. If they hold the ball and convert a couple of first downs, they will force New York to use all their remaining time outs and then be able to run out the clock. If New York can stop them, they get the ball back with a chance for late game heroics.
As the drama builds, Pittsburgh converts one first down and New York runs out of time outs. Then New York forces a third down play from Pittsburgh. If the defense holds, New York gets the ball back. If Pittsburgh converts, they can run out the clock and win. It’s the most important play of the game, so what do we do. As usual, we go to a long break for commercials. For those of you who stayed with the game – I did not – here’s the play. (The video should start at 9:45 in, just before the crucial play begins. Watch it soon – I’m sure the copyright people will get to it soon and it will be gone.)
This should be exciting, but it isn’t. The game built up to this moment, but then ground to a halt while we had to break for the two-minute warning, otherwise know as “the last big advertising break of the game.”
You don’t find this mess in some other sports. The drama builds through the entire game and the frantic finishes aren’t interrupted by advertisers or by constant time-outs. This forces the players to actually play the game. They can’t stop to rest when they are exhausted. They can’t stop for extensive consultations with the coaches. They just play. This is why football (soccer) is the beautiful game.
Consider this explanation of the game from Laurent Dubois, Duke Professor of Romance studies and history.
Things like luck, theater, and gamesmanship are vital to the game. And that’s something that people who dislike the sport tend to focus on. But I think that’s precisely what makes it so great for so many other people. The fact of it being unfair, and being this space of incredible moral ambiguity and complexity, is partly what makes watching the game so exciting.
The modern version of American football has done everything possible to eliminate “luck, theater, and gamesmanship” and in doing so has created a very dull product. According to Dubois, soccer is also “a sport that generates a lot of philosophizing and reflection, intellectual activity.” Has anyone said that about American football? Ever? I really doubt it.
So you can see why American football has just about lost me as a fan. Sure, I watched a bit of the games yesterday, but I was also emotionally empty as I did. There’s just nothing in them that appeals to the human emotions the way the beautiful game does.