Why, some of us ask, can't people use some of that sports-fueled energy to get equally excited about and committed to things that actually matter? And why must I and my fellow public school parents help raise money for our kids' middle-school music program by selling pizzas at our local college football games, when the football players' parents don't have to engage in quite so vigorous fundraising? (I sometimes joke that in my ideal world, parents of student athletes would have to raise money for their kids' sports events by selling pizzas at sold-out symphony concerts.)
And all that's before we even get to the college level. As an English professor, I'm well aware of the disparity between the incomes of football coaches and professors (especially in humanities fields). Although the small university where I teach has no football program, it's common knowledge that big-bucks programs like football suck major resources away from the central mission of education, and away from public perception of what universities are supposed to be for. This reflects a twisted sense of priorities. Furthermore, all too often athletes and coaches at all levels are given "free passes" for despicable behavior--a state of affairs made doubly disturbing by the fact that so many young people revere them as role models and heroes.
And those athletes also pay a price: this is a violent game that poses the constant threat of injury, possibly quite serious. My husband's brief teenage stint as a high school linebacker ended abruptly when he was clipped (by a fellow teammate in practice, no less) and landed in the E.R. with internal bruising in the kidneys. Since he knew he wasn't going to be NFL or even college-team bound, he (and, of course, his mother) decided it just wasn't worth it. These athletes' bodies pay a steep price. Often, so do their minds and emotions.
All this and we haven't even gotten to the problematic gender politics of it all. Female athletes may have made inroads in soccer, baseball, basketball, track & field, swimming, skiing, even hockey--but American football remains the province of males, with females serving as eye candy and cheerleaders. As reported by the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, women's sports receive only 4% of media coverage even though 40% of all athletes are women (HERE). Undoubtedly much of this disparity is due to football, which re-enacts its own imperialistic impulses by stampeding, "Beast Mode" style, over every other sport when it comes to media coverage. Many even mistake this game for some kind of religious experience (HuffPost reports that 25% of Americans believe "God will decide who wins the Super Bowl"), a phenomenon that curiously attaches itself to American football more so than to any other game.
I really should hate American football.
But here I sit, writing this post with a couple of other Internet windows open--Pinterest, where I've been surfing for blue and green party food to make for next Sunday, and Facebook, where I'm exchanging good-natured (I hope) banter with a friend who happens to be from Boston. I've got a Seahawks pennant hanging on my office wall. I just had my fingernails and toenails painted green and blue. I'm pathetic. I just may be the world's worst hypocrite.
Actually, I feel this kind of cognitive dissonance fairly frequently: when I like a movie whose messages are somewhat in conflict with my values, or I enjoy the prose of a writer whose personality totally puts me off, or I feel drawn to a song written later than 1982 (rare, but it happens). For that matter, I feel it whenever I order dessert. Rather than castigating myself for what I believe to be pretty normal human behavior, I like to analyze the "why" of it all: Why do we so often enjoy things that we simultaneously recognize as problematic? In this case, why--despite all the valid reasons I should be ideologically opposed to football's existence--am I still drawn not only to watching the game but to participating in some of its fandom's sillier, irrational manifestations?
For starters, because for human beings, "irrational" is actually normal. Too often we forget that, while we are all (hypothetically) capable of rational thought and behavior, at the core we are not purely rational beings. Deny this as vehemently as we like: we operate from a mix of logic and emotion, but emotion has the upper hand, (Countless cognitive studies confirm this; if you want scholarly references, just ask). But this isn't necessarily a bad thing: Just watch Star Trek (or read any dystopian novel) if you want to see how flattened out a world would be in which everything were rational. Too much irrationality, of course, might be even worse. We need balance. But we're never going to live in a completely rational world, nor should we want to.
And our collective life, I'd argue, has presently become a bit too rational. Don't want to share the great outdoors with your neighbors? Ditch public parks and create a gated-in, grassy lawn that's all your own. Don't want to share your books? Ditch libraries and just buy what you want (if indeed you read at all). Don't like mixing with the riffraff? Embrace the private automobile over public transportation. All very rational. If you're a manager or company owner, do you have employees who want to receive money for days they aren't even working, because they are sick or want a vacation? Irrational. Cut 'em back to bare bones, to the point of desperation, and they'll keep working for you not because they want to, but because they have to. Exploitation and isolation: it's all quite rational.
Yet all of us--and yes, I do believe it is all of us--are attracted to something, or somebody, or someplace, or some activity that is, by traditional numerical metrics, not totally rational. Human beings don't always want everything to make logical sense. Why should we? What is life for, if we never emerge from the confining box of rationality? Why do I occasionally order dessert when I know it's more nutritionally sound to forgo the sweet stuff in favor of more vegetables? Frankly, because dessert tastes better. But do I do that every day? No. Once again: Balance.
Football fandom makes no rational sense. But it's fun. We took our son to his first college game when he was seven, and although he understood almost nothing he was seeing, he told us later, "I liked it because I got to use my outdoor voice for three hours without getting in trouble." I joked with a friend that this must be heaven for a seven-year-old. Then I realized that hey, it was heaven for me--when do I ever get to use my "outside voice"? (At football games and Elton John concerts, that's where.) Like most of us, I have to suck up a lot of things and play the "rational" game all day, every day. Who doesn't want to let loose every once in a while and just scream, even if you are screaming for a bunch of overpaid, oversized men who really don't have a personal connection to you? Logically, you know this. But do you care?
Fun isn’t rational. Screaming isn’t rational. Aligning yourself psychologically with the fates of large strangers isn’t rational. But then, neither are we.
Sports fandom also revives a sense of community and connection that nowadays we experience far too rarely. Note how all the “rational” decisions outlined above also lead us to close ourselves off from those around us. Much ink has been spilled regarding the loss of extended family, community, and social connection in the technological age. (See the work of Robert Putnam, for instance--Bowling Alone and Better Together). I believe such observations are true—nowadays most of us are too cut off. I can understand the desire for occasional solitude. People aren’t perfect—far from it (often way far from it). They drive us crazy, and sometimes we just want to pull away. But in the end, we are social animals and we weren’t built for total isolation. When I read about the "Twelves" Seahawks fandom phenomenon, I always notice countless references along the lines of "It brings the city together," "We feel like we're part of something," "You're able to talk to strangers." We need that. That's another part of the appeal.
Now I'd be first in line to call for us to build a stronger sense of community in additional ways besides sports. Yet: (a) I'm glad to hear that a spirit of community is emerging at all, and (b) the fact that it does actually demonstrates our deep human need for it. In the endless individualistic quests foisted upon us by the powers-that-be, we keep doing things that reassert our deep need for belonging and connection, even as it seems we've forgotten that it is a need. The sight of The Twelves speaks to the need for community more loudly than any textbook theory ever could. I hope we can learn how to do make this happen through other means as well.
Hometown and regional pride--even when displaced onto a bunch of overpaid strangers--also points out the strong human need for a sense of place. I was born and raised in Seattle and lived there well into my adulthood; it's "my" city. (I often tell people that I was "Seattle" before Seattle was cool.) But life did what it sometimes does, and I haven't lived there now in over a couple of decades. As much as I love so many things about my present hometown, there is much I miss about the Pacific Northwest. In our increasingly depersonalized world of endlessly replicating big-box stores and corporate shopping malls with the same chain stores and restaurants that you can visit anywhere you go, what we finally love about a place--whether we're at home or visiting--are the characteristics that make it "here" and not someplace else.
For me, seeing all the "Twelves" hype evokes not so much football memories as sensory impressions of a place I love and miss: the smell of evergreen forest and fishy/salty air, the taste of fresh salmon and Dungeness crab and Washington State apples, the sight of Seattle's many bridges and waterways ringed by snow-capped mountains, the sounds of trains whistling late at night as they traverse the tracks along the edge of Puget Sound. It isn't just about a game played by strangers. It's about a place I still call home.
Last but not least: I may be one of the few people on earth who is quite this geeky, but I enjoy football for its literary dimensions. Basketball might be faster-paced and baseball more civilized, but what sport is more epic in its scope, more dramatic in its unfolding, more operatic in its range of emotions than football? All the elements for a compelling mythological narrative are in place: heroes and villains (though my Boston friend and I may disagree about which is which), quests both defensive and offensive, obstacles and helpers, the right mix of predictability and surprise, dramatic successes and fatal mistakes, the ever-looming possibility of a sudden reversal of fortune.
Add in the ultimate narrative twist: when these epic stories unfold on the field each week, we don't know in advance how they will end. In that way the game is much like our own lives--and at least, unlike our own lives, in football we do get to see the end, which may or may not be what we thought we saw coming. (Take the ending of that Green Bay-Seattle NFC championship game last Sunday: I don't think anybody saw that one coming!)
There's also an aesthetic dimension to the game. Sometimes things get really ugly--the hard hits, the injuries, the running plays that result in little more than a giant pile of large men tangled up with each other. But then there are moments that are almost poetic: the improbable length-of-the-field run, the well-thrown long bomb. There's a weird kind of elegance in a perfectly thrown pass or a tackle-defying run. Beauty among the beasts. Hope juxtaposed against despair. Elegance amidst brute force. The contrast is compelling.
And of course once it's all over, those pivotal moments morph into object lessons for those of us who will only ever experience what it's like to be "third and 19" in the metaphorical sense. We want to know that sometimes we can get that first down even when the odds are against us. Sports metaphors may be corny and cliche, but sometimes things become cliche precisely because they're true. Lately I've been trying to pull through a situation that sometimes feels as bleak as the Seahawks' prospects during the first 57 minutes of the NFC championship, and if I or others in such situations gain some inspiration to persevere from watching "our" team turn it around--well, maybe it's corny, but so what? Is it preferable to fall into a state of utter despair?
That's not to say the problems I outlined at the start of this post aren't real. Even though I enjoy watching football, I'd like to see our society have better balance. I'd love to see civic life, political engagement, and the arts generate as much excitement and sense of community as sports does. I'd love to see money more equitably distributed (and some of those billions of dollars spent on Super Bowl commercials funneled into more meaningful pursuits). I'd love to see gender equity and the abolition of female objectification, in sports as well as elsewhere. I wish people would stop thinking football has something to do with church. I wish we could prioritize the educational mission of our universities. I wish more of our athletes would serve as worthy role models, and that those who don't will not be given a free pass for bad behavior. I also hope additional safety measures can be taken to reduce the likelihood of severe injuries.
Things are definitely out of whack, in so many ways. But even with all its problems--and no matter how weird my colleagues may find my blue and green fingernails--I enjoy the dimensions that are added to my life by watching sports, particularly football.
Though I want a lot of things to change, next weekend I'm going to have fun. I'm going to escape, for just a few hours, from the excessively rational demands of daily life, I'm going to enjoy feeling momentarily reconnected to a spectacular place that I miss, and to a geographically scattered community of family and friends who are having fun in the same way, who feel loyal to the same place. I'm going to revel in the unfolding drama, and I'm going to make some blue and green food. The spectacle may be ridiculous, but I'm it's a spectacle I plan to enjoy.