My wife presented me with the choice of either joining her and a friend to watch the latest episode of Downton Abbey or joining our friend’s husband to watch the Superbowl. I opted for neither, though if forced to choose I said I would pick the Superbowl. “I feel like I don’t know you,” my wife said.
I don’t like sports. I wish I liked sports, because I have a lot of admiration for physical skill and toughness, and sports smalltalk is interesting in a way that weather smalltalk is not. Plus I am an inveterate city-dweller, and nothing solidifies your urban patriotism like being a fan of the local team. A couple times in your life they’ll win a national championship, at which point you and your fellow citizens will take to the streets for a spontaneous party that is one of the great rewards of living in close quarters with other human beings. But I can’t help it–sports bore me. I have a tolerance for watching about one football game a year, so if I do fill my quota it is usually with the Superbowl, but even then I end up paying more attention to the TV spots, and watching the Superbowl for the ads is like reading Playboy for the articles: valid, but not truly living.
Some of my football tolerance is inherited–it is the one sport my parents enjoy. Most of it, though, is due to the game itself. Football is the least boring sport. Sports fall into two broad structural categories: Too Much Happens and Not Enough Happens. Most team sports are of the first type. Soccer, basketball, hockey–the genre where two groups of people vie to place an object in goals on opposite sides of the field has too much uniform motion. People just scramble willy-nilly for an hour or so. It’s like watching chickens. Most solitary sports, on the other hand, are boring because of a lack of activity. A guy runs. A guy jumps. A guy picks something up then puts it back down again. Baseball is unusual because it’s a team sport that falls into the latter category. Baseball and golf try to spice things up by occasionally having someone whack at a ball with a stick, but don’t be fooled: it’s all just competitive bus-waiting. And perversely both baseball and golf are televised, presumably as part of some Zen Buddhist conspiracy to make the population of America achieve enlightenment though mass meditation on stasis.
Football, on the other hand, lands in a sweet spot between these two extremes. Again there are two groups of people trying to transport an object to opposite ends of a rectangle. But instead of being a game of continuous activity, football is granular. It is broken down into a series of plays, each of which lasts for ten seconds or so. The players run around for a bit, then they stop and regroup, giving you a chance to process what just happened before they start running around again. Football also slows things down. The basic marker of progress is the same as in soccer, basketball, etc.–i.e. at any given moment the ball is at a particular place on the field in the possession of one of the two teams. But where in the other games these facts change on a second-by-second basis, in football they take enough time for you to notice and quantify them. There are yards, downs, and turnovers. In football a pass interception is an exciting singular event, while in soccer it is just something that happens every minute or so. Football’s elongated and discretized time scale gives it a linguistic, narrative quality. Basketball players play a game. Football players tell a story.