Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Football Nation

I really enjoy the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies, especially when the athletes march in smiling and waving. The TV network gives you an interesting item or two about the country, then it's off to the next one.
Some countries become known for excellence in certain sports. The Finnish ski jumpers, the Bulgarian weightlifters, the Dutch speed skaters, the Kenyan distance runners, the Jamaican sprinters, and the Italians, who not only have a darned fine soccer team, but look great in their outfits. And the list goes on.
A handful of countries are associated with sports that they don't even have Olympics competition. Japanese sumo wrestlers, cricket, strictly a Commonwealth item, or dog sledding, excluded because of the focus on, well, dogs, horses being the only animal that gets Olympic participation of any kind.
That gets us to the biggest exception of all - American football, a sport which soaks up so much resources in this country that it's a wonder we have money left over to devote to anything else.
Consider. Even football teams at the high school level take upwards of forty players or more, while the golf team can ride in a single vehicle. Large universities count on their football teams, not only to finance all the other non-revenue (which means "money-losing") teams, but to fuel the donations of the entire institution. Football requires assistant coaches by the dozen, medical staffs that could step into Iraq without missing a beat, and other support personnel (cheerleaders, groundskeepers, equipment managers and a marching band) enough to require a major general to keep track of it all. No wonder the football coach at state-owned colleges is often the best-paid person of all state employees, including the governor.
Do Americans get all this? Oh, yeah. They've got whole networks toiling to keep them informed of all the action - high school, college and the king of all pro sport leagues, the NFL. This behemoth collects billions for TV rights, branded products, and its own video productions before a single kickoff takes place. The constant swirl of information makes the average fan think his knowledge is superior, which in turn fuels a huge betting interest in games each week. The league doesn't collect from the bookies directly, but betting interest, like rooting interest, keeps those TV sets on long into Sunday evenings every fall. Even Major League Baseball bends over backwards to try to keep its games, even the World Series!, from competing on TV with the regular season NFL contests.
Is there a down side to all this? Sure. Injuries happen at a rate which makes one think of a huge pile of broken body parts. Spots are taken in college classes that might have gone to better academic candidates than the football players. Players sometimes suffer from a kind of extended childhood, in which their needs are supplied by people employed to keep the players happy. A certain cynicism becomes dominant in a world in which ignoring certain rules becomes the rule. But so far, we don't want to let go of something that seems so much more exciting than real life. We have become Football Nation.


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