I was born around the time of the very first Superbowl, and my parents named me after a star player on the Green Bay Packers. Yet for 40 years our nation’s most popular sport has remained a mystery to me. I never understood the game of football. I never wanted to understand it. I was never very athletic or competitive, and the whole culture of sports never appealed to me.
At family gatherings, the inevitable football game merely provided a soundtrack of unintelligible voices. I remember taking comfort in the authoritative tone with which sportscasters discussed matters I couldn’t comprehend. There’s a metaphor there — but I digress.
Growing up in Indiana, I couldn’t avoid learning to appreciate basketball, which is like a religion there. I never played it, but at least I understood it.
Football was another story. Sure, I got the basic concept, each team trying to move the ball in opposite directions. But that was about my limit. My few attempts to comprehend the game left me confused. (See ROX #82.) The rules are complicated. But then again I wasn’t really trying. I didn’t really care.
Over the years I latched on to various critiques of our sporting culture. You know the lines. It’s too macho. It’s too violent. It places too much emphasis on competition. And of course the standard line:
It occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. (Elie quotes Chomsky.)
These critiques are not without merit. But the truth is I couldn’t follow a football game anymore than I could read a book written in Chinese.
With my 40th birthday approaching and all the excitement surrounding the Saints, I decided it was time to make a real effort. I wanted to understand what so many of my fellow citizens were so crazy about. I was tired of being oblivious.
So back in October I went to see a Tulane game with DJ.
It was my first time in the Superdome since I was eight years old.
At my prompting, DJ explained the concept of “downs.” I figured I would need a series of lessons to truly understand the game. But as it turned out, I didn’t. That was all I really needed to know: downs. Once I had that, everything snapped into place. Suddenly the game made sense.
I’ve been watching the Saints ever since. I was happy to discover that, yes, there are elements of the game which I find compelling. There is a certain aesthetic elegance that emergences from the play on the field.
And I sure picked a hell of a season to get into the game. I won’t go on about what this season meant to New Orleanians, or how what last night’s loss to Chicago meant, as others have done that much better than I could.
Instead, I’d like to reflect for a moment on those critiques I mentioned above. They have some merit. I certainly wish we brought the same level of analysis to serious social problems as we do to sports. Can you imagine if there was a whole section of the newspaper devoted to issues of conscience?
But when intellectuals levy criticism against the people for their devotion to a game, I feel it misses the mark.
Consider, for instance, Andre M. Perry’s article in Louisiana Weekly, which states:
Say, “Saints” three times and you forget about the rest of the world.
Saints! Saints! Saints!
Your synapses are clogged with the rue [sic] from yesterday’s gumbo.
Say “Who Dat?” three times and without realizing it you’ve just invited Allstate executives to the playoff party.
Saints mania has certainly induced an acute amnesia to the flamboyant violence of recent weeks. It’s unlikely there will be any large scale protests this weekend. If the Saints go on to Miami, the majority of the city surely won’t concern itself with the former residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development.
You don’t have to read between the lines too carefully to detect the scorn in Dr. Perry’s words. (Or perhaps I am being oversensitive.) Yet I wonder, what’s the point? Football fans are both numerous and passionate in these parts. Framing the argument this way only serves to alienate them from the cause. Rather than insult people for their excitement, wouldn’t it be better to emphasize a commonality? St. Bernard residents are Saints fans too, y’know.
Love of the Saints transcends race and class and brings New Orleanians from all walks of life together. Conversations about the team and the game take place all over town. To the extent that’s true, I think people of conscience shouldn’t reject sports culture out of hand, but embrace it. Enthusiasm for football does not preclude a social conscience. Sports fans can still get involved with “things that really matter.” Conversations about sports can lead to conversations about other things.
None of which is to suggest that I’ve become a giant fan of professional sports. I’m still skeptical. I could list a dozen well-justified reservations. But I did enjoy this season a great deal, and it’s helped me to connect a little bit with my fellow New Orleanians. For that, I am grateful.
Postscript: “The mayor sucks. The governor sucks. The legislature sucks. The president sucks. The only thing that doesn’t suck is that team. They brought hope to this city.” — lifelong fan Stan Gelpi in an ESPN story