Sunday, January 11, 2009

Best of: Football and Technology

As the college football championship has just been played, I thought I'd run this one again, from 9/9/07, also in view of today's day--a Sunday.

It’s Sunday and America’s obsession with pro football has begun. I think it fitting that our culture would prefer our brand of football over any other sport because of its technological complexity. No other team sport employs so many trainers, specialization, special teams, pads, helmets, gloves, wristbands—not to mention an awkward projectile of a ball. Then there are the team rosters that approach 50, many of whose players are paid a million a more a year, and some paid well for just one function, like a punter or a holder and long-hiker.

The most popular game in the world is soccer, called “football” everywhere but here. It can be played anywhere there is an open field and something resembling a ball. American football, by contrast, is a Rube Goldberg concoction—more bells and whistles than one could ever want or need. Baseball doesn’t compare, not even polo. Maybe mountain climbing would, except that the sport has no crowd appeal. “Piton advanced by two feet, look at that, wow!”

The Soviet MIGs were much cheaper to build than our Phantom jets. They were more maneuverable, not “technically” superior in speed or firepower. MIGs had inferior arms and guidance systems, but our jets were burdened with everything a group of engineers could come up with while locked in a room with those venerable monkeys pounding on typewriters. I’ve seen ravens easily fight off red-tailed hawks on the same principle. The most advanced is not necessarily the best.

At a time when Detroit was introducing the Edsel, with its pushbutton transmission, and T-Birds with automatic trunk openers and cruise control, a little car called a Volkswagen began to make inroads into American car sales. Not only were these imports cheaper, they were simpler; any teenager with an interest could do his own brakes and even re-build the engine. And the cars didn’t use as much gas. This was soon followed by the Japanese invasion and Detroit didn’t get it. It was simply expected that the standard rising middle class American would want the car with the most gizmos, the most futuristic styling, the ultimate in current technology.

Americans love football because it is technical, so technical that we need a million analysts to explain it to us. It’s more strategic than a war and more violent than boxing. Best of all it plays well on television. (In my experience at actual games I couldn’t see what the hell was going on from the fifty-yard line. Three yards and a cloud of dust.) Moreover, football is a sport of interrupted action, a sport ruled by minute calls of inches, video replays, picayune details that can decide the fate of a season. Our Puritan heritage loves rules and no sport has so many as football, I’d wager. Americans also love to argue and disagree with authorities, because, as we all know, the Declaration of Independence has morphed into a national sentiment that not only were men created equal in rights, they were created equal in ability and intelligence. Stanley Kowalski deserves to go to Harvard as much as the next guy.

I watch the Super Bowl every year just as I put out candy for Halloween, as an American tradition. The grand event is usually a disappointment, even when Justin Timberlake exposes one surgically enhanced breast of Janet Jackson in the halftime show. Last year was laughable, with the Strolling Bones going through the motions (have you ever seen musicians more bored than Keith Richards and Ron Wood?), while a sixty-year old man danced around in leather pants and thick make-up trying to preserve his sex symbol status while ultimately appearing ridiculous. What’s funnier is that the image-conscious NFL turned to the Rolling Stones for more wholesome entertainment than Janet and Justin, or perhaps their marketing division thought them advantageous as demographic baby boom fodder.

I digress. Americans are in love with technology. My middle daughter complained about my youngest daughter texting 500 messages last month on their joint account. It adds up. People stood in line overnight for I-Phones, now a bit angry that the price has fallen. But they wanted the latest technology and were quite willing to pay for it.

Think of how often in B-movies from the 50s, especially Sci-Fi movies, humanity is saved by technology, and it doesn’t stop there. There’s “Independence Day” and “The Andromeda Strain” and those two terrible movies about meteors where astronauts sacrifice themselves to avert the world’s destruction, and countless others. And I find it interesting how often, instead of a standard hero, Americans demand a technologically enhanced hero, like Batman. Is it any coincidence that all the Marvel comics are being made into movies today? Not only because of a failure of imagination in Hollywood, but because we want to believe in technology as the answer, as our ally and friend. Right now, with the greenhouse gas threat, technology is looking more like the question. But the genie’s out of the bottle and no one no one can tell a developing country like China that their rising standard of living isn’t worth the pollution it’s creating. (China has surpassed the U.S. as the greatest greenhouse gas contributor.)

I don’t even like an analog phone. I’m a bit of a Luddite. Right now we have only a dial-up Internet connection, which is painfully slow. Cell phones don’t even work where I live. My car’s a beat-up ’99 Plymouth Voyager. Though a beater, it has cruise control, a rear windshield wiper, A/C and electric windows and seat adjustment. It took me a while to learn all the options it featured after I bought it. I really did have to read the owner’s manual. I shudder to think what the dashboard of a 2007 Lincoln Town Car might look like. If only I had the money to hire a chauffeur!

Football. Emblematic of a nation obsessed with winning, the danger of violence, the endless chess board of play-calling, the specialists and the special teams, and most of all, the privilege of second-guessing the coach, general manager and owner (a joy shared throughout the world by all fans of professional sports).

Speaking of violence, did you know the average career of a pro football player is three years?

Again, why is America’s sport really football, while baseball is only its “national pastime?” Because it’s the most complicated, technological, violent competition known to man.

How many of you will watch football today? If you do, don’t be ashamed if you are an American. For any foreign readers I hope my remarks transmit some understanding of our obsession. And, given that we have more firearms in private hands than the rest of the world combined, football may assuage some of our need for violent confrontation. It’s not that Americans condone violence, more that we are accustomed to it, I fear, and football codifies it nicely, though I much prefer a good boxing match.

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