By Jason Keidel
Unless you’re a television critic or deeply devoted to deciduous leaves, autumn is almost universally bad.
It’s the end of summer, of warm days, of baseball, of a child’s three-month oasis from school. Your office generally revs up, casual Fridays float out the window, and the suits are back from their summer homes, in earnest. It’s a precursor to winter, to slipping on cement, to chasing buses and taxis through the muck of brown snow, to Thanksgiving dinner with that weird uncle, to the stress of Christmas shopping.
And so the American quid pro quo begins. We suffer the frostbitten nights and frosty walks to the store, bank, or Post Office…
Because of football.
And thus begins the endless barters. We give wifey, spouse, or significant others Saturdays in exchange for the dark, brooding ritual of Sundays, when men dress in all manner of moronic garb, yell at a glowing cube, squeeze our remotes down to the nub, and use our shirts for napkins.
Football reduces us to our most private and primate impulses. We survive winter through the vicarious thrill we get from our favorite football teams. Our women surrender the living room and we surrender our sanity. Even if you’re lucky, like me, and your queen adores football, she roots for your rival. (Mine is a Bengals fan, in clear contempt of my beloved black & gold.)
But despite all the physical and metaphysical hurdles, we buy in. All the way in. And yes, even we New Yorkers halt commerce for the Sunday pigskin orgy.
The world west of the Hudson thinks of New York City as a baseball town at night and buckets and blacktop by day. And it’s true that there were no football fields in Manhattan and a basketball rim on almost every block. But at least my humble swath just south of Harlem belonged to football. It was about trees and lamps for goal posts and fences for sidelines. It was about catching every pass, lest the scraped leather run out of laces.
And if you are of my demographic – raised in the ’70s and early ’80s – it was easy to avoid all manner of New York football teams. We were wrapped in Cowboys, Raiders, Dolphins and (of course) Steelers jerseys, roaming for the right spot to play, where we could do the least damage and have the lowest chance to be chased away by cops, security guards, angry citizens.
Some of us even remember that wretched football movie with Goldie Hawn (Wildcats?), where the best part was LL Cool J’s soundtrack. They call it the sport of kings, better than diamond rings…
You don’t need Nielsen ratings on your lap to see that the NFL owns the USA – at least on Sundays, which has become our de facto religious sermon, with FOX, NBC, and ESPN preaching from their pre-game pulpits.
To the highbrow sort, the red wine and wind chimes crowd, who says sports are little more than pituitary cases stuffing a ball through a hoop, you won’t ever understand us, our obsession, our pseudo-religion, our worship of a game that can only be viscerally felt if you’ve indeed watched or played since childhood.
Football isn’t something you learn at 30, unless you’re now married to a linebacker or you’re an accountant who caught the fantasy football bug. It’s not new and not accepting new members unless you mean it. We feel no need to sell our slice of Americana to the poseur who wears a carnivore’s jersey then orders tofu or sushi at the bar.
The NFL’s apotheosis came in the ’70s, when it began to rise in ratings and commandeer our hearts. Soon baseball was a seasonal affair. Basketball had it’s Magic/Bird/Jordan revival and is now well-heeled with LeBron James. But the NBA and all the other American sports, are star dependent.
Football itself is the reward. The game is the product. And the product is perfect. Some say the 1958 championship game put it on the map. Others may assert that Lombardi brought the sport to America’s living room. But to yours truly, it’s about the four dynasties of the 1970s, which ushered in a new lineup and lexicon. Football cemented the idea of rooting for the laundry. How else do you explain our frothing devotion when the average NFL career is just three years?
Sure, you have the fantasy component, which isn’t even why the sport truly prospers. And you have the gambling component, which is real and really expensive. Heck, my father used to cut out the Wednesday point spread published in the New York Post and tape it to his dresser.
But the ancillary, monetary draws are not the meat of the NFL bone. It’s the action and traction and the perfect fit inside our televisions. The home theater experience has become so cozy and accessible that teams must now find new ways to draw fans to their respective stadiums. If you watched “Hard Knocks” you saw Falcons owner Arthur Blank frowning over the blueprint of his new arena, pointing out unique ways that his customers can experience the sport away from home.
But that’s no matter. Each NFL game draws its 70,000 fans, while millions are watching, barking, sweating, and swearing from home. Football is truly our home sport, home experience, and frankly and finally, our pastime.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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