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Confessions of a Football Skeptic

I was born around the time of the very first Superbowl, and my parents named me after a star player on the Green Bay Packers. Yet for 40 years our nation’s most popular sport has remained a mystery to me. I never understood the game of football. I never wanted to understand it. I was never very athletic or competitive, and the whole culture of sports never appealed to me.

At family gatherings, the inevitable football game merely provided a soundtrack of unintelligible voices. I remember taking comfort in the authoritative tone with which sportscasters discussed matters I couldn’t comprehend. There’s a metaphor there — but I digress.

Growing up in Indiana, I couldn’t avoid learning to appreciate basketball, which is like a religion there. I never played it, but at least I understood it.

Football was another story. Sure, I got the basic concept, each team trying to move the ball in opposite directions. But that was about my limit. My few attempts to comprehend the game left me confused. (See ROX #82.) The rules are complicated. But then again I wasn’t really trying. I didn’t really care.

Over the years I latched on to various critiques of our sporting culture. You know the lines. It’s too macho. It’s too violent. It places too much emphasis on competition. And of course the standard line:

It occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. (Elie quotes Chomsky.)

These critiques are not without merit. But the truth is I couldn’t follow a football game anymore than I could read a book written in Chinese.

With my 40th birthday approaching and all the excitement surrounding the Saints, I decided it was time to make a real effort. I wanted to understand what so many of my fellow citizens were so crazy about. I was tired of being oblivious.

So back in October I went to see a Tulane game with DJ.

DJ Eats

It was my first time in the Superdome since I was eight years old.

At my prompting, DJ explained the concept of “downs.” I figured I would need a series of lessons to truly understand the game. But as it turned out, I didn’t. That was all I really needed to know: downs. Once I had that, everything snapped into place. Suddenly the game made sense.

I’ve been watching the Saints ever since. I was happy to discover that, yes, there are elements of the game which I find compelling. There is a certain aesthetic elegance that emergences from the play on the field.

And I sure picked a hell of a season to get into the game. I won’t go on about what this season meant to New Orleanians, or how what last night’s loss to Chicago meant, as others have done that much better than I could.

Instead, I’d like to reflect for a moment on those critiques I mentioned above. They have some merit. I certainly wish we brought the same level of analysis to serious social problems as we do to sports. Can you imagine if there was a whole section of the newspaper devoted to issues of conscience?

But when intellectuals levy criticism against the people for their devotion to a game, I feel it misses the mark.

Consider, for instance, Andre M. Perry’s article in Louisiana Weekly, which states:

Say, “Saints” three times and you forget about the rest of the world.

Saints! Saints! Saints!

Your synapses are clogged with the rue [sic] from yesterday’s gumbo.

Say “Who Dat?” three times and without realizing it you’ve just invited Allstate executives to the playoff party.

Saints mania has certainly induced an acute amnesia to the flamboyant violence of recent weeks. It’s unlikely there will be any large scale protests this weekend. If the Saints go on to Miami, the majority of the city surely won’t concern itself with the former residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development.

You don’t have to read between the lines too carefully to detect the scorn in Dr. Perry’s words. (Or perhaps I am being oversensitive.) Yet I wonder, what’s the point? Football fans are both numerous and passionate in these parts. Framing the argument this way only serves to alienate them from the cause. Rather than insult people for their excitement, wouldn’t it be better to emphasize a commonality? St. Bernard residents are Saints fans too, y’know.

Love of the Saints transcends race and class and brings New Orleanians from all walks of life together. Conversations about the team and the game take place all over town. To the extent that’s true, I think people of conscience shouldn’t reject sports culture out of hand, but embrace it. Enthusiasm for football does not preclude a social conscience. Sports fans can still get involved with “things that really matter.” Conversations about sports can lead to conversations about other things.

None of which is to suggest that I’ve become a giant fan of professional sports. I’m still skeptical. I could list a dozen well-justified reservations. But I did enjoy this season a great deal, and it’s helped me to connect a little bit with my fellow New Orleanians. For that, I am grateful.

Postscript: “The mayor sucks. The governor sucks. The legislature sucks. The president sucks. The only thing that doesn’t suck is that team. They brought hope to this city.” — lifelong fan Stan Gelpi in an ESPN story

Published inPixPolitixSports?


  1. Being named after a Packer, now that’s something. I remember exactly where I was, sitting in a naugahyde rocker, when the Pack won that 1st Super Bowl. Keep up your good work.

  2. Julie Julie

    You should have great fun rooting for the Colts on Superbowl Sunday.

    A terrific team from INDIANA lead by a brilliant quarterback from NEW ORLEANS.

  3. TM TM

    You get it!
    Being a football fan doesn’t mean one doesn’t have a social conscience and fighting for social causes doesn’t mean one cannot enjoy a football game.
    How very narrow is that point of view!

  4. Lee Lee

    I get your point B. If even a slight percentage of the energy, excitement and press regarding sports were used for social causes, aka rebuilding NO. The place would be a palace.

    You keep up the fight! I’m not able to help physically, but I’m with you in spirit.

  5. Football gives men (especially) something to talk about. It is also a safe outlet for emotions in a society that doesn’t allow for public displays of emotion. It also creates a harmless sense of bonding in a society that badly needs something to bond over. I find sports really boring, but I’ve kind of come to understand that’s my loss. Also like the idea of fandom and the desire to “represent” one’s home city. Again, I don’t feel any sense of ‘patria chica’ when I think about the sports carreers of 20 something multi millionaires, but that might be my loss.

    Other side, I used to work at SF ’49er games. I thought that most of the fans were jerks, and a lot of their behavior creeped me out.

    I’ll never get it right.

  6. “Football is violence punctuated by committee meetings.” – George Will

    Great point that sports can and often do cut across many of the other lines which divide society to provide a common topic, a shared experience. The pure joy over the Colts’ post-season victories has pervaded this area in some wonderful ways; I’m pleased that thus far we are riot-free.

    It’s the money that bothers me – what is spent on the players, coaches, support staff,new stadiums, what people are willing to pay for skyboxes – which, among other things, drives up ticket prices far beyond the reasonable means of ordinary mortals.

  7. George Will just said that because he so deeply loves baseball. Lots of baseball people disparage football. I’ve often thought it was a sign of their jealousy over the lesser sport’s greater media attention.

    As you said, sports bind us across our differences. They harness and focus, and yes, sometimes divert, copious amounts of collective human energy.

    They also show us that a team together, driven by spirit, can do more than anyone could ever do alone.

  8. chrissieroux chrissieroux

    I have mixed feelings about it all. As a mental health professional I worry about the rage and despondency that accompanies major competitions. As a social worker I cannot deal with the fact that these players earn so much freakin’ money…I mean, we call them “heroes” but how heroic are you, really, when you’re making several million dollars a year for playing a game? David Beckham is going to make $250 million dollars in 5 years. Gasp.

    But I do think it brings people together. This football season certainly gave a lot of people something to think about other than The Storm.

  9. Actually, I think rage and despondency are crucial to the human condition and we are right to celebrate them.

    Seriously though: It always surprises me to see smart people assume that intellectual curiosity is a zero sum game and that interest in one area of analysis precludes participation in others. I would argue the converse, that living a full life means harboring a healthy interest in as many subjects as one can get one’s mind around. But then.. I work in libraries so that’s not a big surprise I guess.

  10. chrissieroux chrissieroux

    ‘I would argue the converse, that living a full life means harboring a healthy interest in as many subjects as one can get one’s mind around.’

    I could not agree more!

  11. I’ve been experincing a bit of the same the past two years, with the caveat that my dad, an inveterate fan, made sure I understood the rules as a tot. My own turning away from the practice and concept of enjoying sports is deeply rooted in my little-kid fear of my father’s impassioned displays of enthusiasm as he watched the games.

    As the Seagulls went to the big game last year and made a run this year, Viv began asking many questions about the game – after all, her folks are from another country and so she had never been exposed to it as a kid. She remains in a bemused state as my father-given knowleldge unfurled before her, to my own surprise.

    I am bitterly disappointed that the Saints won’t win the Superbowl this year. I am bemused to find the team I loved as a child – BECAUSE THEY LOST ALL THE TIME – facing the team that sneaked into Indy about the time I split. I was telling my dad that I remember the last time the Colts were in the Superbowl, in 1970. My sister and I were snuggled into my dad’s torso in a beanbag, and I wanted to know why the men on the TV called Johnny Unitas the ‘Man With the Golden Arm.’ He responded by telling us the Mark Twain ghost story “Who took my Golden Arm,” scaring us silly in the process.

    He wrote back today noting that a Baltimore QB prior to Unitas, YA Tittle, had spent time hanging out with Alexander Kerensky in the Bay Area while playing for the SF 49ers. Kerensky spent the last few decades of his life in the Bay Area as a sort of professsor emeritus of Russian history. Apparently my dad ran into this unlikely pair while attending Stanford, or something. So there you go: the Russian Revolution connects directly to Peyton Manning’s Superbowl appearance.

  12. Carmen Carmen

    Classic jocks vs. geeks dissertation. But the link to “O Fortuna” was nice. 😉

    Sports bores me. I only really get into it when it goes to a higher level mental game, like the 1998 Chicago Bulls, and this year’s Saints. And then I *really* get into it. The lower level game is where you get the ugly fans like some of those Bears and Eagles ones others have blogged about. It’s like, that’s the businessman’s line of defense, the jarring egghead. Because so many deals are brokered behind the scenes of the powerhouse teams, it’s almost like a training ground for CEOs to watch the interplay and discuss strategy. Pure politics (which might be why it bores me).

    The academics, rather than the pure intellectuals, are those who criticize team allegiances. Of the serious thinkers, it certainly can be said that “we [bring] the same level of analysis to serious social problems as we do to sports.” In fact, I’d wager that’s why this season drew you in, more than the fellowship of the community. But the collective needs to swing that way, to social conscience.

    It’s a good dialogue. I don’t think you’re being oversensitive. You’re recognizing division as being caused by artificial boundaries, in whatever medium. There are people, especially rhetoricians, who do not want those boundaries crossed.

    Now, if only I could stop crushing on the King of Orpheus, I could put the season behind me. Smart men are just such a turn-on.

  13. […] football in my fortieth year. If you missed this fascinating disclosure, I suggest you revisit my Confessions of a Football Skeptic. Most everything I’ve learned about the game has come from watching the Saints. I still […]

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