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The Inevitable Pain of Football Season


Couches around the United States are girding their loins. It’s football season.

You know it because even though the days are still too bloody hot, all of a sudden there’s a hint — just a whisper, a faint whiff — of fall in the mornings before the sun comes up. You know it because school’s been back in for weeks and you just need that release of watching large men knock each other around in a sophisticated war simulation. You know it because you can’t not know it: football takes over the airwaves like a soccer-mom-driven Hummer swooping across six lanes of traffic on I-75.

Football season.

I’m from the South, (you can tell because I capitalize “South” as if it’s an actual place and not merely a cardinal direction) where football is as much a religion as a pastime, so it’s somehow baked into my DNA to get hyped come this time of year. Football season. Hell yes. Burgers and beers and rivalries and lots and lots of hours spent on the couch (and jumping off of it).

Of course, football is problematic these days. To be clear, it’s always been problematic, we just didn’t know quite how problematic until recently. It’s essentially been proven to do some form of brain damage over time to anybody who plays (for a good look at this, I heartily recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast. Excellent in general, but he did a deep dive on CTE and it’s … shocking to say the least). It seems ethically questionable to partake in such a pastime; it’s not that far removed from the days of the Coliseum when viewed through that lens, except the players don’t die right in front of you, they die years after the fact, wracked by brain disease.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

And then there’s the question of pain. Not the physical pain of the players, which is immediate enough and severe enough that it should give us pause. But the mental pain of the viewers, the fans. The pain we choose.

I recently read Everything is F*cked by Mark Manson, which is an analysis of pain in the modern world and a treatise on choosing the pain that you can live with. Not about eliminating pain — that’s impossible, claims Manson, and I tend to agree — but choosing pain you can endure. For example, I love my current job teaching theatre to high school students — but there is still pain associated with it that I didn’t have when I was just a run-of-the-mill English teacher: long hours after school, dealing with my students’ emotional issues (which they share with me now on a level I was really not prepared for from teaching English), deadlines and demands on creativity. These things put pressure on me (and by extension, those that love me), but on the whole, the goods outweigh the bads, to oversimplify things to a point of ridiculosity — so I choose that pain.

And to watch sports is to choose pain. Trust me on this. I’m an Atlanta sports fan. I know all about pain from sports, and that’s only going back a few years.

Image result for life is pain

To watch sports is to choose pain. Overwhelmingly so, and for virtually all sports fans. Because, unless you’re an Alabama fan, your team doesn’t win all the time. The nature of the game dictates that they can’t win all the time. In fact, the nature of the game dictates that only one team can win — in the NFL, that’s out of 32 teams; in the NCAA, that’s out of over 100. Everybody else is doomed to lose: either right away so that the losses quickly become demoralizing and sad to watch, or at the last possible moment, so their fans get the exquisite pain of literally tasting victory before having it snatched away, or at any unfortunate point on the spectrum in between.

To watch sports is to choose pain — for almost everybody who chooses to watch, almost all of the time. It stands to reason, then, that we would be mentally happier if we didn’t watch. All that pain — the disappointment, the disillusionment — gone, just by not watching, by not drinking at the fountain of pain.

But because we are human, and we have evolved the dubiously useful skill of acting outside of our best interests, we watch anyway. Despite all the pain. In fact, we seem to relish the pain, to luxuriate in it, even. Which seems supremely silly, when viewed from outside. Yet here I sit, warming up my couch, getting ready to go on the ride again. A fan account for the Atlanta Falcons says the following:

You just know that it’s going to go badly — and probably catastrophically badly — at some point.

But we ride anyway.

We choose the pain.

This is not me telling you that you shouldn’t watch football, or shouldn’t watch sports, period. We choose the pain we can live with. But we can choose it mindfully, knowing what’s in store, rather than choosing it blindly, as if we don’t know the outcome.

Besides, Georgia plays Vanderbilt tonight. Should be a slaughter.

Bring on the pain.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.

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Opinions are Okay, Nonsense Bigoted Politically Insane Opinions Are Not


Want to give yourself an aneurysm?  Want to feel a blind, all-consuming urge to destroy another human being with your bare hands boil through your veins?  Cruise over to this article by Stephen Webb, entitled “Why Soccer is Un-American”, and give it a read.  I’ll wait.

Okay, disclaimers first.  I don’t know Stephen Webb’s background, but given what I read in this article I’m going to go out on a limb and say he’s one of these more-or-less-lunatic-fringe right wingers that LOVES AMURIKA and wouldn’t piss on the rest of the world if it was on fire.  Seriously, there is so much anti-everything-but-America in this article that I actually vomited a little bit of red, white, and blue after reading it.  Just a little bit.  I also don’t know what an article about soccer is doing in a magazine like Politico, which I don’t read regularly, or in fact ever, but I imagine it’s just one of those topical pieces to fill space in a periodical — hey, we have some space to fill, the World Cup is going on, let’s write about that!  Not that I would know ANYTHING about that on this blarg.  Ahem.

So, in this article, Webb lists a litany of reasons why soccer hasn’t caught on in the US, arguing from the standpoint that sports are “a reflection of national character and aspirations,” which I’ll grant is in a lot of ways true.  But basically, after that first sentence, he deconstructs soccer and our nationalism (the way he sees it) in ways which are frankly bordering on certifiable.  When I first read it, I thought the whole thing was a gag piece, until I read the disclaimer that he himself printed at the bottom which states that the entire article is “non-ironic” except for the ADHD study that he completely made up.  Let’s just start there.  You can’t write a serious piece, one meant to be taken seriously and read intellectually and, presumably, to have a discourse had over it, and then just invent a fake study as one of your supporting points.  Okay?  You just can’t.  But we’ll come to that in time.

Here, then, is a summation his arguments as to why soccer isn’t taking off in the US, and why they are so ridiculous, so insane, so bat-sharknado, poop-flinging crazy that if you read Politico unironically, you should rethink your life decisions which have led you to this point.

  1. There is not enough violence and aggression in soccer to satiate our national bloodlust.  Okay, bloodlust was my word, but it’s certainly implied.  In short, he claims that we love sports like (American) football for the innate violence and aggression that the sport demands.  Two things.  First of all, uh, that’s insane.  We love sports because they’re violent?  Sure, (American) football has its share of warlike, pound-your-neighbor-into-a-pulp-for-no-good-reason behavior, but baseball?  Basketball?  I’d argue that soccer is at least as violent, with the potential for injuries as significant if not more so.  Which is the second point.  These guys (soccer players) are running around a field at top speed with feet flying everywhere wearing virtually no protective gear.  Watching the game, I don’t know how any of the players escape without at least a rolled ankle; compound fractures of the shinbone seem more likely.  How is this not violent enough for us? STUPID x1.
  2. The game is about preventing goals rather than scoring them.  Sorry, but no.  American sports are just the same.  In (American) football, it’s oft-stated that the best offense is a good defense.  There’s a huge premium put on preventing the other team’s scores.  Heck, look at this year’s Super Bowl, where the #1 offense (Denver) met the #1 defense (Seattle).  It wasn’t even close; Seattle embarrassed Denver through superior defense.  And baseball?  Yeah, sorry.  Who’s the most important person on the field during a baseball game?  If you said anybody besides the pitcher, hook up some jumper cables to your nipples and try again.  What’s the pitcher’s job, again?  Oh, that’s right, TO KEEP THE OTHER TEAM FROM SCORING.  Saying that soccer is a defense-oriented sport and that’s why Americans don’t like it is as idiotic as saying that fat-free potato chips are better for you than the regular kind.  You’re fooling yourself.  STUPID x2.
  3. Soccer minimalizes the performance of the individual.  This is getting a bit broken-record here, but let’s look again at American sports.  Football.  Is one man responsible for the victory or defeat of his team?  No.  Baseball?  Ehhhhh… maybe you could say the pitcher is, but it’s a stretch.  Basketball?  I don’t care how good LeBron is, if he doesn’t have competent teammates he’s not winning anything.  They’re all team sports, and typically the best team wins.  Sharknado, look at my hometown Atlanta Falcons.  We’ve got some excellent players, but last season, we were one of the worst teams in the league.  Individual performances do not success make.  THAT SAID, shut up.  Soccer teams have stars.  Pele?  Ronaldinho?  I didn’t even follow soccer and I knew those names.  STUPID x3.
  4. Kicking a ball is not as precise as hitting or throwing it.  Oh my god.  It’s getting really bad now.  Seriously?  Okay, deep breath.  AMERICAN FOOTBALL.  Kicking the ball is a major goldfingered part of the game, precisely because you lose control when you kick it.  You know what you gain?  RAW FARGOING POWER (see #1).  They offer points for a field goal because it’s not easy to kick a ball with control through a set of uprights thirty or forty yards away.  And hitting?  Uh, nope, wrong again. If hitting were precise the scores for baseball games would be in the double digits every game.  And has Webb been watching these World Cup matches, or any professional soccer matches ever?  Tell me there’s no precision in the way those guys can kick.  Are they perfect?  Of course not.  Does luck play a role?  YES, JUST LIKE IN EVERY OTHER SPORT EVER.  STUPID x4.
  5. He made up a study about why soccer is basically only appealing to people with ADHD.  Because watching the ball bounce back and forth stimulates the “lesser humans” in a way that “sophisticated sports” doesn’t.  Seriously.  He said that.  It’s so idiotic I can’t even dissect it.  STUPID x5.

Sorry, Stephe.  Five strikes and you’re out.

There’s more, of course.  He talks about how the sport is “socialist” because of the low scores and the way that nobody really stands out.  About how scoring is an accident rather than by design.  And okay, okay, I get that this is an opinion piece, and just like buttholes, everybody has opinions.  Also, this is the internet, so everybody (even me!) can share his opinion just as easily as the next guy, no matter how stupid it is.  The problem I really have with this article is not that Webb (obviously) hates soccer: hates it so passionately that it’s not enough for him not to watch it, he wants you not to watch it either (narcissist).  The problem I have is that he takes all this, all his idiotic mouth-foaming ill-informed illogical hate and then goes and makes it political.

Don’t like soccer?  That’s fine.  But it’s no less American than any other sport, certainly not for any of the reasons he’s listed.  And it’s not a lesser sport, no matter how you slice it.  It’s just not popular in America, and do you know why?  Because we’re not exposed to it.  Check the statistics.  Viewership for this World Cup is through the roof and breaking records left and right because the sport is compelling to watch.  Why have we not been exposed, then?  BECAUSE ADVERTISERS CAN’T PUT ENOUGH OF THEIR BRIGHTLY-COLORED PSYCHO-VOMIT INTO YOUR FACE DURING A MATCH.  Seriously.  That’s it.  There are no breaks during a match except for halftime, and that means no ads.  No ads means no money, and no money means the networks aren’t showing it.

The only way soccer is Un-American is that it isn’t peppered with two-minute breaks for you to get off your donk and go get another beer or tray of chips or buffalo wing.  You know, during the time-out or the pitcher substitution or the instant replay review or the inning change or the scoring time-out or the offense/defense changeover or the injury time-out or the rain delay.


Why the World Cup is Awesome, Even if You Don’t Know Anything About Soccer


I imagine that I am not all that much unlike many other Americans at the moment in that I know very little about soccer (sorry, football) and yet at the moment I’m trying to pretend that I’m obsessed with it.  Except I’m not so much pretending as I am actually becoming actually fascinated and interested and a little bit mouth-foamy over it.

Seriously, I cannot pull myself away from the games.  If the USA is playing, I’m watching.  This is deeply and personally important even though I’ve never particularly cared about soccer (sorry, football) in my life.  (Also, full disclosure, I coached middle school soccer for a year and yes, I am probably more invested in these games than I was in those.  Something about watching from the air-conditioning from my home instead of the sweltering heat of the sideline, not seeing my team (yes, actually my team that I actually coached) get trounced 6-1 just makes it more enjoyable.)  But if I happen to catch another game on, I’ll watch that, too.  My wife gets frustrated — “you never watch soccer, you never talk about soccer, what is this all of a sudden??” — and I find myself saying things which might be true, like “well since USA won their game, they might meet the winner of this match down the line, and I want to know what they’re up against.”  Because, naturally, team USA needs me, the average schlub, to know what their potential opposition might try to pull so that they can hopefully stop it.

There is something infectious about it, though, soccer (sorry, football).  It’s one of the strangest and most natural sports I’ve seen.  Strange because the pacing of it is off the wall.  Seriously, televised bowling has better pacing.  Ping-pong is more predictable.  Soccer (sorry, football) is twenty minutes of dinking a ball around a field that really is just too big for anything that isn’t motorized followed by ten seconds of frenetic, heart-pounding mouth-foaming blood-boiling couch-stomping action.  But it’s incredibly natural because it simply flows like melted butter across piping hot pancakes.  Nobody has to be told what to do.  Things don’t have to be explained, reviewed, argued, discussed.  The game just happens and continues to happen until a goal is scored or until somebody gets their knee dislocated, but even then they only stop for maybe five minutes.  True story: I was at a football game — college football game, mind you, not the World Anything — and a player was injured.  Okay, injured player, that’s bad news, but the action was stopped for thirty minutes while a parade of coaches, trainers, officials, and I think even the player’s scholarship official ran on and off the field seeing to this kid.  Thirty minutes!  The soccer (sorry, football) game (sorry, match) is half over by that time!

I should mention, also, that I’m watching most of the games on Univision, and if you’re not watching the games on Univision, you’re missing out.  Okay, the real reason I’m watching on Univision is because I don’t have cable and ESPN has a stranglehold on the broadcast rights, so I’m boned otherwise.  But seriously, watch the games on Univision.  Or at least flip over now and then.  I don’t understand a word of what’s being said, and I don’t pretend to.  It just sounds like a couple of guys — I picture that guy, “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the beer commercials — and another guy in a mariachi hat for some reason — discussing what might as well be politics over cigars in some dive bar, and then all of a sudden one of them is jumping on the bar, throwing his headset across the room, and shouting GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL and so am I, thrashing around my living room like some mariachi marionette.  (Seriously, how awesome is that little turn of phrase: mariachi marionette.  I don’t care, I’m kudos-ing myself for that one.)

As an endurance athlete…

Okay, sorry.  I had to pick myself up off the floor from the laughing fit that calling myself an “endurance athlete” induced.  As a practitioner of an endurance sport, let’s say, I have tremendous admiration for the soccer players (sorry, footballers).  You can’t watch these guys trot back and forth across that field (sorry, pitch) which might as well be a well-manicured airstrip without having a sense of the tremendous training and physical prowess they possess.  The kind of endurance that, well, let’s just say my wife would have a worse laughing fit than I just had if I compared their endurance to mine.  The kind of physical prowess that… god, you get the idea; let’s just move on, okay?  Jeez.

A thing occurs to me in watching these games, though, which is that I think I know why soccer (sorry, football) hasn’t taken off with American audiences (outside of the World Cup of course).  It’s the flow.  There are no stoppages, no timeouts, no ten-minute breaks to warm up a new pitcher.  We Americans are spoiled by the ever-present commercial break in which we go to the bathroom, grab another beer, serve up some bean dip, flip to another station to check the other game… whatever you do during the commercial break, you can’t do it when you’re watching soccer (sorry, football).  Because you never know when the sharknado is going to break loose and you’re going to have to throw a chair through a window because team USA just gave up the win with less than a minute left in stoppage time even though they had the victory completely locked up, I mean SERIOUSLY, did we just forget to play DEFENSE there at the end or WHAT!??

Er, I got sidetracked.  So yeah.  It’s not that American audiences can’t handle soccer (sorry, football).  It’s that the game itself doesn’t lend itself to standards of American advertising, which keeps it off the air because there are more profitable things the networks can air.  (If you thought networks were in the business of providing content to their audiencess, you were sorely mistaken.  Networks are in the business of providing audiences to their advertisers.)

But we’re a bright people.  Certainly one of us can come up with a way to stick some commercial breaks into the middle of a soccer game (sorry, match).  Mandatory three-minute water break when a new player comes on the field (sorry, pitch).  Mandatory review with commercial break every time the ball goes out of bounds.  Ten-minute explanation with graphics and holograms anytime offsides is called (seriously, if you can explain offsides in a single sentence that makes sense, you deserve a mariachi marionette).

So?  Get to it.  I’m back to watching some FOOTBALL.


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