Does everyone have to pick a side?
By Phillip Ratliff
It’s a blistering Tuesday in Birmingham, Alabama, a town set further ablaze by football rivalries sweeping across town. Yet here I sit, in air-conditioned comfort, oblivious to all things pigskin save that certain knowledge that if I choose to go to Publix on a Saturday afternoon between now and—what, early December?—I’ll have the run of the place.
I make no pretense of this: I do not care for the regional obsession that is football. I don’t even care enough for football to hate it. It’s an indifference that I rarely feel the need to defend and that I usually don’t have to wear, except when it’s necessary to head off demands for my declaration of loyalty. If I wanted that sort of treatment, I’d move to North Korea.
It’s been suggested that my inability to develop a taste for football reflects a sort of cultural snobbishness, a superiority that is, at worst, un-American. Balderdash! First, the argument suggests that being an American was somehow defined not by individual preferences but by one’s ability to conform. You might wish to further unpack my quip about North Korea. It’s not a common argument leveled against me, I’ll grant you, and my defense probably borders on straw man, but I suspect it’s lurking out there.
My main objection is that calling me a snob ignores the fact that I’ve given football a fair shake. In high school and on into college, I would watch college football with friends and try to hide my confusion over a basic assumption I carried to the game: that the rules are set up in such a way that some sort of strategy is possible. “Here’s a group of large males threatening to knock down this other male who has gained possession of a cherished oblong ball,” I’d observe. What is the point to this struggle, this end-less running up and down a stretch of grass in Tuscaloosa, or Auburn, or Athens? And exactly whose struggle is it? We could view this as a squaring off of, not players, but of coaches and their strategies. But this doesn’t quite work either, for they too are subject to forces beyond their control, namely the unpredictable actions of their terrified players. The best analogy, to my thinking, also drawn from the world of sports, is wrestling, but wrestling with a set of spastic limbs, such that you occasionally have to pull them off the mat and berate them: “Yesterday, we all agreed this was a well-thought-out plan! What gives?”
Feigning interest in football was a survival strategy I proudly left behind once I hit graduate school at Rice University, a school whose reputation for football rested on John F. Kennedy’s famous diss of its misguided gridiron ambitions. “Why does Rice play Texas?” Kennedy asked. The implicit answer was: because the Rice Owls are too damn idealistic not to know the folly of such an undertaking. The context of that football-as-life metaphor was a speech in support of a manned mission to the moon, a topic that must have seemed far-flung to President Kennedy’s earthbound audience that day, even to a crowd of future physicists and chemists. “Can’t we just go on about our formulas, and living out our dreams for glory on Saturdays like everybody else?” Rice’s more introspective Owls knew the answer: President Kennedy says you can’t, not without missing the very point of being an Owl, at any rate. This ethos of scrappy optimism in the face of giant obstacles was actually dealt a hard blow my final year of grad school, when Rice beat Texas.
Kennedy delivered his Rice Manifesto in 1962, and what followed changed the course of history. Football and space-age ambitions, of a sort, would cross paths again in Houston the next decade with the proliferation of AstroTurf. This blight upon 1970s porches and patios was to real grass lawns what Tang was to orange juice. What appealed to your average 1970s middle-aged dad or housewife about AstroTurf was not that it might have seemed a reasonable approximation of grass to people who had lost all sensitivity to nature, but just how very unnatural it was. AstroTurf had what real grass didn’t, a kind of uniformity and predictability that insulated against the unforeseen. With real grass, there were bugs and weeds lurking beneath and within. Nothing lives in AstroTurf. (There’s barely any living to be done on it.) There are no weeds, no bugs, no voles, no moles, and, to its real point, no mowing. If you fall down on AstroTurf, you don’t get grass stains—you get carpet burn. Fortunately, nobody besides the Houston Oilers much moved on AstroTurf, so even there, you were probably safe. For a generation that had seen a world war as children and watched a youth movement erupt from a distance as young adults, AstroTurf must’ve seemed like a reward for a life well endured.
For all its sweat and struggle, football presents a similar sort of appeal: a neater, cleaner version of life. It’s in two halves, or, actually, four quarters, a tidy, close-ended number that’s stacks symmetrically into a box. Four, you may recall, is a square root. Mozart’s archetypal musical phrasing is based largely on twos and fours. Indeed, this structure renders out musically with the halftime show, that point in a college football game when 100 or more musical college students storm the field to pay their tuition. The halftime show is a sort of pan reduction for all that’s been simmering out on the gridiron for the past 30 football minutes, but the band members wear not helmets or shoulder pads, but feathers and epaulets. They look vaguely like soldiers cast off from the era of Napoleon, wielding not muskets but shiny brass tubular contraptions that blare music in foursquare patterns that echo the larger patterns into which they’ve been placed.
That’s the logic of football, and that I can appreciate. In another respect, football can be frustratingly illogical. The game doesn’t quite arc the way Greek drama does, with its rising action, climax, and catharsis —though you can see these bits manifest at various points in football’s gestures. Fans, like a Greek chorus, rhythmically chant commentary and words of warning, but they can also turn on you if they think that you’re not trying. There are incomplete passes. Players freak out and run out of bounds. They are carted off with injuries. Touchdowns happen, on average, what, once every 15 to 20 minutes or so? Occasionally, players run the wrong direction, the way a middle-aged man runs toward his 20s, maybe even toward a cheerleader, come to think of it.
And like some views of life, the field is soaked in a somewhat arbitrary set of rules designed to make the game intelligible and to reveal ability. Here, there’s a tautology: The ability that the rules reveal is the players’ ability to follow an arbitrary set of rules. What postmodern rubbish that is! But does football reveal values external to the game, absolute and transcendent qualities, like strength, courage, or teamwork? As I recall it, yes, and this, I sense, is what draws so many people to the sport. These values are what football neatly packages and puts a bow on. It’s not a metaphor for this life, but a manifestation of values beyond this life. Football is, in this respect, devoid of action and is to be more contemplated than followed.
The players seem aware of this quality. When they need direction, they embrace one another, seek strength from solidarity, and huddle up against the creeping moral entropy. When overwhelmed by possibilities and challenges, they fashion little Ts with their hands, as if to say “Too much! Let’s stop the rotation of our little earth here and ruminate on where this is going.” It’s not a coincidence, I think, that many football players seem drawn to spontaneous postures of public prayer. All this suggests that the values of Someone beyond us are being projected onto the field, even if that Someone has decided to withhold any definitive statement of preference. (The empirical data suggest that that Someone is partial to a team residing 60 miles to our west.) For all that, football gets my respect, even if it won’t likely be getting much more of my attention.