By Laura Pappano
More people will watch Super Bowl XLV this Sunday than tuned in for the President’s State of the Union address last week.
The issue is not just the NFL and the Super Bowl. As a sport, football obliterates all other sports in just about any category you can name – at any level. Share of athletic budgets? Number of players required? Cost of equipment? Institutional support? Media attention? Fan focus? Ticket prices?
Honestly, how many parents battle one another to work the concession stand at the high school gymnastics meet? Oh, they don’t have boosters selling snacks? Point made.
Why is football so culturally dominant – and is that a problem? I do not have answers, but I do have thoughts.
1. Do we like football because it’s violent? The game has always been dangerous (when it was primarily a college sport, young men died every year playing until President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 called representatives from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton together to change the rules – and save the game). Ben McGrath in the New Yorker argues (and he’s not alone) that the concussion crisis is threatening the future of football. But is that bone-crushing intensity and threat of injury exactly why people watch (think auto racing and car crashes)? Does risk appeal?
2. Is football popular because it’s popular? Has football become the de-facto community-gathering event because it’s where everyone is? The fact that it’s played once a week – and not every other day – makes it easier to follow and discuss because there’s less to miss. Plus, of course, we should thank TV for making it impossible to overlook any key pro or college play. Ever. Scary thought: Is football the closest thing we have to a shared discourse?
3. Is the sport just a troublesome guilty pleasure? Because it’s a fun game to watch – a highly physical chess match that unfolds slowly enough to allow analysis between plays – we may overlook the negative messages and fallout, not only of the game, but of the hyper-celebrity, bad behavior, macho show-off trash-talking values. The game may have started as a noble effort to prepare college men for future leadership, but that faded long ago.
4. If football is such a great and important game, shouldn’t more girls and women play it, too? The amount of social, cultural, and financial capital expended on football suggests that it matters beyond the gridiron. If that’s the case we owe it to females to have the same encouragement, support, and access to the game as their male counterparts. It’s not unlike barring women from combat roles in the military. Keeping them out in the name of “protection” also keeps them from experiences critical to career advancement.
5. If football is special, is that a problem? Ever? The NFL may be the most lucrative sports league in the world, but when we get to levels below pro – grade school, high school, and college – shouldn’t there be some sober accounting of spending public dollars to amplify the status of a relatively small group of individuals just because they play football? Is it right for a Texas high school to spend $60 million on a football stadium? The NFL may be its own case, but the brand reaches all the way down the line, disrupting any semblance of equity between football programs and everybody else. That, in my mind, is a problem.