America's Game, America's Obsession the National Football League-Then and Now

By Villalon, Oscar | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

America's Game, America's Obsession the National Football League-Then and Now


Villalon, Oscar, The Virginia Quarterly Review


America's Game, America's Obsession The National Football League-Then and Now

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly, May 2008. $23

A Few seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, by Stefan Fatsis. Penguin, July 2008. $25.95

One of the biggest shifts in American popular culture in the past half century-right up there with hip hop sidelining rock and roll and TV steamrolling radio (and now TV being shoved aside by the internet)-has been professional football usurping baseball as America's sport of choice. During the National Football League's 2006 season, nearly three out of every four Americans watched an NFL game on television. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball do not have audiences that come anywhere close to that figure. The NFL-which plays a fraction of the games that pro hockey, baseball, and basketball do, and doesn't benefit from featuring a game played as globally as the other three-is the richest sports league in the world, with the average NFL team worth nearly a billion dollars. If baseball is "America's pastime," then football is America's obsession.

The evidence, beyond the overflowing coffers of team owners, is everywhere. Linebacker jerseys are worn as casual clothing, or even dressy fashion, if it's an authentic $350 item from Mitchell & Ness. Adults work their summer family vacations around draft parties for their fantasy football leagues. (Every fall, newspapers report how US companies lose hundreds of millions of dollars a week in productivity as employees, from their cubicles, haggle over quarter-back trades and scan the waiver wire for available running backs.) The yearly release of one of the most successful video games ever created, John Madden Footbaii, is treated as a bit of Christmas in August. And most telling of all, there's the Super Bowl's apotheosis.

It's an unofficial American holiday with its own unvarying rituals: Everything shuts down for one Sunday, as people who don't care at all for first downs and safety blitzes get together with friends and family. They all eat and drink as the game plays out on the latest model of television, purchased only days before, especially for the event. The game might go mostly unheeded, but everyone quiets down when the spectacularly costly commercials come on. Even at its worst, the Super Bowl fares better than other pro championships at their best. The fewest number of people to watch a recent Super Bowl was 74 million, when San Francisco played Denver in 1990. In 2004, when the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series-one of the greatest events in modern baseball history, featuring a team with fans across the nation-the series averaged only 25.5 million viewers.

The reasons for the NFL's popularity are not mysterious. The game is fast and complex; the athleticism displayed is outrageous; the physical courage required of men knocking each other off their feet with tackles packing a half ton of force is awe-inspiring. Where other leagues play nearly every day during their seasons, the NFL's sixteen regular season games are played once a week, on the weekend or on holidays or Monday nights during prime time, making viewing-or even attending-relatively simple. Then, there are the emotional aspects of the game and its lessons of resilience and grit, imparted by last second field goals and crucial first-down conversions. Football's grunting combativeness and bruising execution attest to the value of discipline and intensity. You must be prepared through endless practice and relentless training if you want to win. And sometimes, even that's not enough; you have to desire victory more than the other guy. You have to gut it out. Difficult circumstances cannot be avoided. If rain is pouring and the field is a muddy tributary, you must play. If snow is flurrying and the field morphs into frozen concrete, you must play. …

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