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<p>Photo by Jim Rogash / Getty Images</p>

Photo by Jim Rogash / Getty Images

Why The Super Bowl Is A Super Bore

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.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

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.

More game time is spent adjudicating the plays than making them.

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.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

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.

Sports are cultural artefacts. And Australia is in this sense at least the most cultured of nations.

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.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

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.

Baseball commentators and fans … spend an inordinate amount of time discussing arcane statistics.

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.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

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.

A game lasts an average of about three hours, and in that time you get 11 minutes of action.

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.

Three: Specialisation.

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.”

18 comments on this story
by John


Loved the article about American football. Loved, particularly, the statistics of how little play occurred in the three-hour telecast.

A spot-on summation of what American society is about: power, quantity, speed, whatever. Subtlety & quality have little attraction, it seems.

February 6, 2012 @ 1:37am
by John B.

Loved the article about American football. Loved, particularly, the statistics of how little play occurred in the three-hour telecast.

A spot-on summation of what American society is about: power, quantity, speed, whatever. Subtlety & quality have little attraction, it seems.

February 6, 2012 @ 11:49am
by Isaac

Compared to the other examples of very well researched and considered writing on this site, this article presents such an ignorant, uneducated point of view.

Mike should stick to political writing because this effort is kind of pointless fluff I would expect from a fan forum. This article shows a complete lack of respect and understanding for the skills involved in baseball and American football. "Baseballers always almost go for the slog". With the skill of major league pitchers it takes amazing concentration, discipline and talent to generate a productive season over 100 games. The mental fortitude it takes to deal with streaks and droughts is true athletic achievement. Baseballers do not swing in hope and the incredible fielding skills make it a great game to get into in the same vein as an epic cricket Test series.

On American football, while I agree there are a lot of stoppages due to ads, the way the game is played makes it the most intense, strategic and technical contest of any sport. The amount of analysis, strategy and physicality that goes into every play is obviously not something you either appreciate or understand. Yes roles are specialised but this is because it is a true team sport where each man has a role to play. A let down in any position will result in a play falling apart. I find it so pointless when sports writers choose to waste their words rubbishing sports followed and enjoyed by millions instead of highlighting the virtues of sporting achievements and spectacle.

February 6, 2012 @ 11:55am
by John

There's actually a lot more subtlety in American football than you give it credit for. I would describe it as chess with real, live action figures. Although many of the plays are pre-determined, the fact that you are working with human beings means there is always an element of surprise, an opportunity for a player to do something extraordinary, and this occurs on a regular basis. The quarterback will often change the designated play depending on what the defence shows at the time.

I've been following the NFL for more than 30 years and still find nuances in the game that keep it fresh for me.

Your description of the game also reveals some lack of sports understanding - for example, there are actually three distinct teams - there are also special teams. But often a player from one of the three teams will be utilised in a different role, specifically to create the element of surprise and take the opposition off guard.

True sports fans can appreciate various forms for what they offer.

February 6, 2012 @ 12:24pm
by Philip

A wonderful piece and an interesting perspective. I am very sympathetic to the analogy that you propose. American and its citizens are a fascinating study. A friend suggested that they would be easier to understand if they spoke a language other than English.
Congratulations to The Global Mail enterprise for a great initiative.

Love the refreshingly different format and the interesting articles. I'm already a fan — keep up the good work.

February 6, 2012 @ 12:31pm
by Trev

I think you've missed the point with American football. It's not the individual, but the sum of its parts - When you have all the elements on an offence or defence working seamlessly, the outcome is magnificent.

The way a QB can throw a perfectly-timed spiral 50 yards downfield to a receiver running flat-out, who catches the ball without breaking stride. All parts must be working as one - that's the beauty of the sport.

Sure, they get instructions from the sideline, but that's all part of it. It's a chess match between opposing coaches, like the generals in a battle.

It's much better than the mish-mash of disorganised chasings for the ball - akin to watching seagulls fight over a chip - that is AFL.

And don't get me started on why baseball is better than cricket!
(btw, I'm Australian)

February 6, 2012 @ 3:17pm
by Bill

Like Mike, American football (read inaction) has always puzzled me. Its obscure rules, lack of activity on the field and, in some apparent instances, grossly unfit looking players are a continuing mystery. It masquerades as a sport when, in fact, very little athleticism happens.

I'm also mightily puzzled by the ways non-Americans obsess over the sport. We have live coverage here but not coverage of other sporting activities (ice hockey for example). Perhaps we're all suckers for the hype and lack of substance?

Thanks Mike for the analysis. It makes a lot of sense!

February 6, 2012 @ 5:24pm
by David2

Brilliant summary Mike, especially of American Football. To this day I have never been able to understand what purpose this whole smash, bang, crunch has in the world of Sport. I have tried to come to grips with it but alas, to me it is a complete and utter bore and a waste of time.
Even the critics of Aussie rules admit, there is skill, fitness and a purpose in the game. Sorry America, you can have your mini war labeled as sport, I will move on.

February 6, 2012 @ 7:59pm
by Mick

I never thought you could get such an insight into a culture from the national sports of that country.

I look forward to reading more from this new news site.

American football is bloody terrible isn't it!

February 7, 2012 @ 9:01am
by David

Fantastic article, I realised most of these points after watching my first game of NFL (Super Bowl 2012). Another reason to go back to cricket and AFL I say!

February 7, 2012 @ 2:49pm
by Jim

Surely this article is a wind-up, Mike? You've gone to serious, in-depth lengths to simply state your subjective take on why sports you like are better than others (in this case American sports). Beauty is in the eye of the spectator and who are you to say what one fan finds boring or requiring of skill? Your point about how much more complex or challenging batting in cricket is than in baseball shows how little you know about the subtle arts of the latter. And if you took away India, millions more people in the world would play baseball than cricket. I would't argue against your points about the athleticism and skills of Aussie Rules players but, personally, I find the game a chaotic mess to watch. Opinions, hey, we've got 'em. Doesn't make 'em right.

February 7, 2012 @ 11:46pm
by Heath

Mike Seccombe's story (opinion) on the Super Bowl is both ignorant and weak. This is not an article but just his thoughts on the topic. I am unsure why he is ridiculing the sport seems strange at this point in time? Why would some one want to read a story of why another sport sucks? Our nation is already so mystified by the NFL that to write about this seems odd? Is he trying to discourage us to watch it?
He spends the entire article writing about other sports, telling us why he thinks they're better, and then only in the last few paragraphs he brings up a shallow argument explaining that the sport is bad because of the fact there are too many rules and they are all too complex for his naive little mind to comprehend.
The NFL's extensive rulebook is what makes the sport so entertaining and complex itself. This is why the fans love talking about the statistics.
Why wouldn't he have written about his wishes to maybe attempt to understand the sport? Instead he immediately discards it. A very disappointing first story, and more of an opinion which should be placed in a cheap magazine. I challenge you to find a person who agrees or even can stand reading the story without being frustrated.

February 7, 2012 @ 11:53pm
by Joffre

I have never read so much crap in all my life

February 9, 2012 @ 7:51pm
by Tom Krause

I was moved to write a blog in response to Mike's article. Here's an excerpt:
"... my ire grows higher when I hear criticism of the National Football League, not that it doesn’t deserve it, based on national stereotypes.
Mike Seccombe, a veteran writer about politics for the SMH whose work I have long admired, has written a sports piece for a new not-for-profit news and features website, The Global Mail, which looks very promising in its first week of operation http://static.theglobalmail.org/ His well-written feature is called “Why the Super Bowl is a super bore.” (Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/xpVwyW )
He spent five years in Massachusetts, the home state of the Boston Celtics basketball team and the New England Patriots, and claims not to have been culturally compatible with American sports, and then asks: “Who, outside the United States takes American sports seriously?” Mike, you’ve been away a long time, and American football, baseball, basketball, and to a certain degree, ice hockey, are played in Australia."
If you're interested, here's a link to the full blog:
http://bit.ly/wOWFlc

February 9, 2012 @ 9:17pm
by Cap'n

It was interesting reading some of the comments defending American football. I don't recall anywhere in the article describing the players as unskilled, or the strategies lacking, yet this is what the commenters got up in arms about in defense of the sport.

I used to watch gridiron myself a little bit when the late night Don Lane hosted show was on the ABC. There, the games were shown with the stoppages edited out and done like that they could be quite entertaining, and one could begin to pick up the strategies and formations in play. That didn't change the fact however that (a) the time spent actually "playing" the game IS ludicrously short; (b) the game play IS a succession of shock-and-awe moments, no matter how carefully planned; and (c) the "interference" from off-field IS high, leaving little room for individual initiative outside - or even inside - their designated roles.

If all of that doesn't describe American culture to a tee, then I don't know what does.

February 10, 2012 @ 11:55am
Show previous 15 comments
by Bruce

Great that you wrote your article, but i take exception to your bald and unsupported assertion that golf is not interesting to play or watch on television. My advice is that you read John Updike on golf and learn how a real writer makes sense of the world using golf as a metaphor. For any golfer (and I am a poor one) , sunday golf on television is possibly on par with church as a calming influence and a source of excitement for the spiritually needy. Bugger grid iron, it's on the same level as fat shows. Just wait till a well lofted wedge makes you think of a lark ascending.

February 14, 2012 @ 2:36am
by Richard

The New York Times gives credit where it is due to the role of Britain in devising games people like to play and watch. http://goo.gl/nN0cC

March 18, 2012 @ 7:02pm
by Chris

Loved the article on why gridiron is a bore and the relationship between culture and sport in society. Obviously this was written at the time of Super Bowl. I too have tried and tried watching it, each year becoming more familiar with the rules, but never, I have to admit, sitting through an entire match. Give me either of the two rugbies any day. Six Nations, test rugby, Super Rugby, State of Origin, Rugby League Finals Series, Rugby league Challenge Cup Final... these are the stuff of courage, attrition, athleticism, speed and skill. But what does it say about our culture?

April 10, 2012 @ 12:40pm
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