An uninitiated viewer of American Football might be shocked at the spectacle and should be forgiven for characterizing it as an appalling brute's game. American Football in no way resembles what the rest of world knows as Football. That would be a simple introduction to “American Exceptionalism”: if the world does it and calls it one way Americans will do it differently and call it their way.
The game embodies Adrenalin induced rage; Testosterone induced homo-eroticism; and grave physical danger for the head. In some ways American Football is reminiscent of games held in the ancient Rome where slaves and gladiators fought Lions in a bloody battle. Then thousands cheered; in today's 45th Super Bowl a hundred thousand cheered inside a football stadium in Texas as millions did the same in the comfort of their home in front of a TV with friends and families. This year’s contenders are the “Packers” from Green bay, Wisconsin, colliding against the “Steelers” from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Imagine eleven heavy-set players each weighing an average of 250 pounds with swaying bellies, padded shoulders, wearing motorcycle helmets and tight leotard pants showcasing every nook and cranny of their body, and swelling with a torrent of Testosterone as they plunge themselves into another set of eleven players of the same type. The intent of the team with the ball, which is shaped in the form of a oblong spheroid, is to transport it to the other side's goal-line (“Touchdown”); the defending team's aim is to physically tackle anyone from the offending team and bring the opposing players down to the ground.
In general, in any team sport involving a ball, the competitive behavior is mediated by the ball and the players show their prowess and skill via the ball. In Baseball the two teams compete against each other through the ball; same in Cricket; or in Ice Hockey. In none of these sports the competition is directly against the other team’s players. But in American Football the purpose is to physically run down your opponent. Consequently heavy set players have an advantage—of sorts; it also requires that much more energy to run with a heavy physique.
A large portion of the game’s time is occupied by each player physically mauling their opponent. Even as one watches the collision and the pile of massive human bodies from a thousand-mile distance, it sends a shiver down the spine to think what if one's puny self were to be at the bottom of that pile: crackling of bones and a searing pain engulfed in a volley of sweat and smell.
It is a crude animalistic sport, reminding one of the perilous journeys undertaken by the hungry Wilde Beest in crossing the Mara river to the other side of the pasture. The Wilde Beest are of course familiar with the lurking dangers: prowling crocodiles that will chomp and beat the Wilde Beest into a delicious meal in the middle of the river. Yet for a bystander it is a vicarious thrill to watch the Wilde Beest safely wade to the other side of the river. Well, some do; but some don't.
A 2007 study conducted by the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of Retired Athletes found that of the 595 retired players who recalled sustaining three or more concussions on the football field, 20.2 percent said they had been found to have depression. That is three times the rate of players who have not sustained concussions. It is indeed risky.
Then there’s the cultural side of the game. The annual "Super Bowl" Sunday is an American ritual sanctimoniously revered as much as apple pie or Uncle Sam is. Teams--with intimidating names like "Ravens", "Vikings", "Lions", "Falcons", "Eagles", "Seahawks" and "Raiders"--vie for the "Vince Lombardi Trophy", colloquially called the Super Bowl. Vince Lombardi was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers and died from cancer and the trophy was named after him to commemorate his victories in the first two Super Bowls.
Families gather around TV and organize Super Bowl Sunday parties to witness this annual ritual. What the host serves—the typical is Avocado Salsa with Tortilla chips plus Bud Lite—and the concomitant game experience will be remembered by many for a life time. Die-hard fans—and there is no dearth of them in any small or big city team—will spend a fortune to flock to the game, waving the "Terrible Towel" (Steelers) or their "Cheese Heads" (Packers) to show their belief and conviction in their respective teams’ mettle.
Then there are the advertisements on TV that are littered during the course of the game. Product marketers are thrilled at the prospect of millions of eyeballs glued to the TV and spend $3 million for a spot spanning 30 seconds.
On TV it would appear as if the game itself has been relegated to the background as every advertiser wants to be the most remembered one during the next day’s office-cooler conversations. And they go to enormous depths to ensure that. Unfortunately most of the advertisements end up being crude, lewd, monstrous, message-less, and a despicable depiction of what they want to sell. Advertisements seem to involve childish boyhood fantasies (inevitably invoking some theme from the movie “Star Wars”) or raunchy insinuations (inevitably invoking women, sex and nudity.) The quality of commercials from big name car makers is usually crass, perhaps marginally better than the loud mouthed shout outs by fat and balding local car dealers.
But such a critique misses the whole point of watching the Football game—or any game for that matter.
Games are not about aesthetics or TV advertisements. They are about our raw emotions.
For a man, the purpose of watching a game is to pick a favorite team and become one with that team. Once your favorite team is ready all that you want is a Touchdown and you care less if your team's players are naked or if the beer you were served was hot. If the team does well, you are doing well. If it fails, it is your failure, too. Men go on to showcase their rage, ecstasy, anguish, euphoria, disappointment and all that comes in the roller coaster ride during those few hours.
India's cricket fans will have their parallel stories: Those growing up in India during the mid-eighties will remember that sixer when Javed Miandad sent Chetan Sharma’s full tossed ball flying across the stadium in Sharjah in 1986. And the despondency and hopelessness that followed a week later and beyond. (Bal Thackeray specifically invited Javed Miandad when he was generally touring India in 2002 and made it a point to congratulate him.) Others might remember Kapil Dev’s performance in the 1983 World Cup or the match against Zimbabwe. Once you have a team, winning is all that matters for you.
Even as I was mulling over the brutality embedded in American Football I found myself edging on the seat as the Steelers inched the ball from one point to another. And I watched with joy the 225 pound Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers pummeling his opponents and bludgeoning his way with the ball across the Packers. My heart sank when that Packers’ novice Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, skillfully passed the ball to his team mate, Greg Jennings, for a Touch Down. At one point the game was close—Packers were leading with 28 goals and the Steelers were at 25—and I assured myself of a Steelers victory. Alas the Packers were tougher than steel and led their team to a victory in the 45th Super Bowl.
Life will never be the same again. At least until February next year.