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Pro Football and Popular Culture

All right, admit it. You watched the Super Bowl. At least until it became obvious that the renegade Baltimore Ravens (no greater offense to Edgar Allen Poe can be imagined) would destroy the New York Giants. In the aftermath, allow me to make just two points.

First: they don’t actually play football anymore. Not in New York. Not even in Baltimore. Not anywhere. Not real football. Real football was played by men with names like Marchetti, Brown, Taylor, Moore, Conerly, Unitas. Real football was played by men with dirty uniforms and bloody noses. Not spandex tights and Heisman poses.

The beginning of the end of real football occurred not with the merger of the AFL and the old NFL, but much earlier, at the moment when the Dallas Cowboys franchise was added to the NFL. After that the players, and the game, began a rapid degeneration, straight to today’s gold chains, earrings, do-rags, and the cocaine-laced parties and indictments for violent crimes that accompany them. Maybe it was the Cowboys’ tight silver pants.

Modern football is really two games played simultaneously on one field. In the center of activity a bunch of fat boys are pushing and shoving in their own little sumo wrestling tournament. They might as well wear loincloths and toss down salt for luck.

Around the perimeter of the sumo tournament, and occasionally darting through it, are a bunch of greyhounds playing frisbee. Occasionally one of the frisbee players makes an especially good throw, another makes a good catch, and the catcher runs the frisbee – uh, the football – across the goal line. This is how touchdowns are scored in modern football.

This game should have a new name. Let’s call it Sumofrisbee.

For real football, one must now turn to the Classic Sports channel on cable. That’s real football: a game played by athletes, athletes who play every down, athletes with the endurance and stamina to spend more time on the field than posing for the cameras, helmets off, do-rags in place, on the air-conditioned sidelines.

Real football is a game without sumo wrestlers. In Sumofrisbee, the sumo wrestlers – they were called “linemen” in real football – have bellies like middle-aged recreational league softball players. Since they can use their hands to “block” (in Sumofrisbee, it’s really just pushing), they need, more than anything, poundage. If they are too big and fat to move, they will also be too big and fat to move out of the way until the quarterback has made his frisbee toss, usually out of the “shotgun” (stay away from the sumo wrestlers) position.

To envision how much the two-platoon rule changed the nature of football, imagine a similar rule change in baseball. Do you appreciate the designated hitter rule?

What if the rule were expanded to cover all nine positions? On defense, eight speedy, acrobatic fielding experts and a pitcher are on the field. On offense, nine hitting experts trudge to the plate, one over-developed creatine-user after another. That would change the old game, wouldn’t it? With all those fielding experts arrayed against all those designated hitters, baseball would almost certainly become an unabashed home-run derby. Sort of like the present reliance on the forward pass in Sumofrisbee.

Real football will never be back. The college football factories now turn out the types of players the professional teams want, the fans show up on cue every late summer in the RVs and in front of the TV screens, and the advertising money from the economic engines driving this sick culture rolls in. Most fans haven’t even noticed the difference.

Second point: on Super Bowl Sunday, Americans gather ’round their television monitors to watch a game played by men most of us would not allow in our homes absent the use of force. What I can’t figure out is whether this fact is an irony or mere proof that all that was once decent in American popular culture is irretrievably lost.

January 31, 2000

Steve Gregory is a lawyer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.