Why The Super Bowl Is A Super Bore
By Mike SeccombeFebruary 6, 2012
Americans go crazy for their peculiar brand of football—and dissecting the game of gridiron reveals much about American culture (hint: power over subtlety)
Sports are not just physical contests, you know. They are also sociology. They are a reflection of the people and societies that play them.
Take cricket, for example. With its traditionally languorous pace and polite ways, it was invented by and for leisured and mannered English gentlemen.
How clearly French are the elegant simplicity of the game of tennis and the wackiness of its scoring system, in which points one, two and three become 15, 30, and 40. As Goethe once observed:
“Mathematicians are like Frenchmen: whatever you say to them they translate into their own language and forthwith it is something entirely different.”
Consider the dour discipline and parsimonious pleasures of golf, so reflective of the Scots.
Or Australian Rules football, played on a vast expanse of land, for this is a vast and open country. A game with no set field positions in the rules, in which you may tackle an opponent hard, but not push him in the back, where a consolation point is given for a scoring attempt that was not quite good enough to be a goal. Fair go. It’s a game where all the players must have all the skills. It’s so very Australian and egalitarian.
Sports indicate national character, and also class. The best example is perhaps to be found by comparing the two codes of rugby.
In league, the working man’s game, one team keeps the ball for six tackles, and must then let the other team have a go. The upper class version, union, is more acquisitive; the team in possession can stick to the ball indefinitely. The working game is almost always decided by tries, by actually laboring to put the ball over the line. Union is more often decided through penalties given on the basis of complex technicalities.
Yes, sports are cultural artefacts. And Australia, one can argue, is in this sense at least the most cultured of nations. I refer not only to this country’s record of success — name just about any sport, and you will find an Australian champion in it — but in its general enthusiasm for and knowledge of a wide range of athletic pastimes.
As a player, I am personally something of an embarrassment to this great sporting nation, but notwithstanding that, I grew up with a fair working knowledge and enjoyment of a range of sports, in particular both codes of rugby, soccer and AFL, cricket and tennis. I would happily watch any of them, and, if at a loose end, desultorily watch others, such as the Tour de France, swimming, beach volleyball, even the odd Bathurst 500. (I draw the line at golf, though. Unexciting as it is to play, it is vastly less exciting to watch.)
Then I moved to America, and found myself bereft.
I knew some of this was just the result of unfamiliarity. You don’t have to be particularly accomplished at any pastime to enjoy it, but even if you have done it badly, it gives some appreciation of others who do it well. And of the major American sports, the only one I’d ever had a go at was basketball. Eventually I became something of a basketball fan. It also helped that I lived in Massachusetts, home state of the Boston Celtics, one of the perennially competitive teams.
But it was not just a matter of familiarity. I tried, really tried, to develop an interest in the other big American sports, and I could not. In due course I came to the conclusion that the reason for this was that, aside from basketball, I was just not culturally compatible with American sports.
I don’t know why this should be, for I find many other aspects of American culture wonderful. So do most other non-Americans.
Think of the music: from bluegrass to blues to jazz to contemporary classical to rock and roll. America gave the world so much music. And the world appreciated it, as it appreciated American literature, movies, art.
But who, outside the United States, takes American sports seriously? Sure, the Japanese play baseball, because it’s marginally more interesting than sumo. Some Latin American and Caribbean nations also play it, but they began doing so, I suspect, because it was one of the few ways their people could get out and make big money.
Nowhere else is it anything more than a minor sport. The British empire gave the world soccer, cricket, golf and two codes of rugby, collectively now played by billions around the globe; the American empire gave it two sports, baseball and American football (not counting motor sports), and around the world ping pong is more popular than either of them (at least according to the internet site Most Popular Sports, which ranks them according to the number of hits received on internet sites devoted to particular sports, such as fifa.com, cricinfor.com, nfl.com, et cetera).
Now, I know some out there will be asking: “What about basketball, ice hockey, lacrosse?”
Well, they are arguably not really American sports.
Lacrosse, which developed from a native American game, has a Canadian pedigree and a French name. In any case, it is pretty minor, even in America. Ice hockey, likewise, is more Canadian in origin, though it is regularly ranked as the fourth most popular television sport in the US. Even now Canadians make up the majority of players in American teams, and less than 25 per cent are US natives. Most of the rest come from Europe.
Basketball also had origins north of the 49th parallel. It was the invention of one James Naismith, a Canadian teacher who set out to devise a game which could be played indoors in the bitter northern winters. It was first played in Massachusetts, on December 29, 1891, but it did not evolve out of American culture; it was created, by design.
For the purposes of this exercise, though, let’s consider basketball an American sport: the best American sport, and the one that is most popular elsewhere in the world.
For me, basketball’s appeal is akin to that of Australian rules. The fast, end-to-end action, the fact that the ball can be played in any direction, the frequent scoring, and the balletic, aerial manoeuvres of the players.
But basketball suffers from a big drawback: frequent interruption due to the over-involvement of coaches in proceedings. Under Naismith’s original rules, coaching was prohibited during the game. But since 1948, when this rule was changed, every time things get tense, a time-out gets called, and the players troop off the court to huddle for further instruction from the boss.
This is clearly some kind of reflection of American culture, because the same thing — frequent recourse to instruction from superiors on the sidelines — is apparent in baseball and football.
Now let’s move on to baseball, the most storied of all American sports, about which more movies have been made and more books written than any other. In some ways, it is the American equivalent of cricket — not just because it also is a stick-and-ball game but because baseball commentators and fans, like cricket commentators and fans, spend an inordinate amount of time discussing arcane statistics.
The purported reason for this is that baseball, like cricket, is a thinking person’s game. The real reason is that there is a lot of time to discuss arcane statistics, while nothing much is happening on the field of play. Indeed, cricket is an action-packed game by contrast.
An average major league baseball game lasts about three hours, during which time fewer than 10 runs are scored. That’s an incredibly slow rate of scoring, even compared with test cricket, let alone the shorter forms of the game. And there’s nothing particularly artful about the way those baseball runs are scored. For the most part, the batter just swings at the ball as hard as he can, hopes that if he makes contact it lands somewhere safe, and runs like heck. The round bat allows none of the subtlety you see from a batsman in cricket, and the game’s rules do not allow the option of not running.
In other ways, too, the baseballer is denied the autonomy of a cricketer.
At most levels of organised play, two coaches are stationed on the field: the first base coach and third base coach, occupying boxes just outside the foul lines, from where they instruct batters running between bases. Yet another crimp on the autonomy of players is that unlike in cricket, where it is the on-field captain who decides bowling changes, in baseball it is the off-field manager who decides pitching changes.
It is very corporate, American sport. Not only in the sense that there is big money behind it — that is true of most elite sports these days — but in the sense that the on-field players are heavily directed, during the game, by off-field officials. The scope for those flashes of individual brilliance or for brilliant improvisation by the group on the field is thus limited.
And this is a reflection of the broader culture. Modern America is a very top-down society. Contrary to the myth about it being the land of the free and home of the rugged individual, the United States is in general quite authoritarian. People know their place in the hierarchy. Sure, there are exceptions — and it is from such exceptional creative enclaves as Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York that spring the cultural and technological artefacts which do inspire the wider world. But US sport plugs into that part of the American culture that expects someone in authority to tell the others what to do.
Which brings us to football. By most measures — per-game attendance, TV ratings, merchandising — it is the most popular of American sports. It is also the least popular elsewhere in the world. And the number one reason for this, I suspect, is that there is so little actual play in a game.
When you watch a 90-minute soccer match, you get 90 minutes of action. Likewise, in AFL, league, or union, you get 80 minutes of play, plus a brief breaks of five or 10 minutes between halves or quarters.
But this is not true of American football. In its case, a game lasts an average of about three hours, and in that time you get 11 minutes of action.
I kid you not. This has been verified repeatedly by people with stopwatches. Each individual play — the interval between the snap of the ball and the official whistling the play ‘dead’ — averages six or seven seconds.
An analysis from The Wall Street Journal a while back went through what happened in the rest of a typical 174-minute broadcast of a game.
Advertisements took up about one-third of it. Shots of players huddling, milling or just standing around, took up 60 per cent of what was left. Shots of managers and officials, at about 12 minutes, got more air time than live plays. Replays got more than 50 per cent more air time.
Despite this it is, as noted above, the most domestically popular American sport, yet the one which appeals least outside its country of origin. That is not to say American football is a bad game; only that it appeals for some reason to Americans, and not to others, including me. And I think this is because it reflects several distinctive American traits.
One: The love of technology and equipment.
The American footballer is armoured as if he’s heading off to fight in Afghanistan, with helmet, shoulder pads, gloves, thigh pads, knee pads, elbow pads, mouth guard, hip pads, tail-bone pads, rib pads. Ironically, all this protection has not always proved protective; the introduction of helmets led to players using their heads as weapons, with a resulting increase in concussions.
What’s more, the helmets of the quarterbacks have speakers in them, so the QB can take instruction from his bosses on the sideline about which plays should be called.
Two: Deference to the chain of command.
The off-field coach tells the quarterback what to do and he tells the rest of the team, who then run pre-determined patterns. There are a bunch of grunts in the line whose job is not to handle the football, but solely to protect their unit commander, the quarterback. After each six- or seven-second play, the unit commanding officer takes further orders from the off-field high command.
Henry Ford would be proud; American football teams are made up of people who mostly do one thing, who have essentially one small part in the production process. There is the guy who can throw, the guy who can kick, the guys who can catch, the guys who can run fast and evasively, and the guys who can block and tackle. Each side fields two distinct teams, one to play offence and another, defence. Some of the defenders seldom run more than a few steps and hardly ever touch the ball. It is nothing like any other code of football, where every player must have all the skills, in some measure.
Four: Lots of officialdom, and deference to it.
There are seven on-field officials in a college or major league game, and they are more involved in proceedings than officials in another sport I can think of. More game time is spent adjudicating the plays than making them.
Five: A preference for power over subtlety.
You see this in so many American sports: their preferred motor sports go either very fast in a straight line (drag racing) or very fast in circles (Nascar). Baseballers almost always go for the slog. And in football, in those rare moments when something actually happens, it all happens at once. Everyone crashes into everyone else. One pass is thrown — and often no pass is thrown, but hardly ever is more than one thrown — then everyone picks themselves up and lines up again for the next few seconds of shock and awe.
In summary, American football is technical, martial, unsubtle, deferential to authority, specialised and discouraging of independent initiative.
Like I said at the top, sports are a reflection of the cultures that play them. So, what does this say to you about America?
To me it said: “Another reason to go home.”