For years I have been made to feel like a communist, a foreigner, a child molester or worse, all because I can't stand football. I watched part of a game yesterday anyway — or I tried. I sat naked in the sweltering heat, wondering why football season begins in the middle of summer. I know very little about the game; I am not, for example, clear on what a "down" is, though I assume it's not terribly complicated. So, if you're a fan, unless you want to work up your blood pressure, seek me out, and kick my Nancy-boy ass, I wouldn't read any farther.
I had a can of Bud in my hands. I think it really should be Bud because of the red, white, and blue label. I rested its cool base on my gut. I positioned my chair in front of the fan and felt hot air on my face and chest. I scratched myself, even where I didn't itch. I tried to get into the game and forced myself to think about it in different ways.
Football as metaphor: well, war, of course; everyone knows that. And on some level, many men and more than a few women love war. They might not admit it, but they do. Patriotism is a submetaphor under war: the guts, the dynamism and virility, the free competition that is, by God, America. The pathetic, sickmaking disgust of failure - that is, losing. Nothing more American than that. The brass bands at college and pro bowl games, especially at half-time. John Philip Sousa: you only hear this stuff at military or state functions and football games. The effect: anyone who does not love football is perceived to be unpatriotic.(Often this is true. I know I've never been able to work up a decent fit of patriotism, even drunk.)
The late Frederick Exley in his first novel, A Fan's Notes, spoke of his love for football because of what he perceived as its perfectibility, something that could never be attained in life or literature. Reading that novel was the closest I came to understanding football. Yet soon after I closed the book, I found myself wanting to shoot my roommate while he was watching a Penn State game.
Football as metaphor for license: I was working in my room, trying to concentrate on a novel. The problem passage: "Crimson was my whisket among the daffodils" or "Crimson were my daffodils among the whisket"? I was doing my best to ignore the volume on the set in the next room. My shoulders were set, tensed over the keyboard waiting for another outburst from Bob. He was watching the game alone, in his shorts, Penn State T-shirt, and hat, a stack of empty Buds next to him. I nearly levitated through the ceiling as a blood-chilling cry of animal pain and anger filled the apartment.
I thought something truly horrible and painful had happened to Bob. I thought maybe he had, having gripped the thing so hard, shattered his Penn State beer mug, slicing his hand open, and in his rush to get a towel compress from the kitchen, had fallen, broken his leg, and put his eye out on the handle of his nine iron. I could think of no other logical explanation for that howl of agony and rage.
I threw open the door to my room in time to see Bob hurling a full beer can at the television set.
"What happened?" I asked him. He rounded on me with a look of such pure hatred and feral violence I thought he would kill me.
"Are you okay?" I asked. No response, just the gritting of teeth and the rising and falling of his shoulders. I pointed at the dripping-with-foam television.
"That's my set, man." His face was flushed, a rising growl escaped his throat.
"They let 'em score. Kowalski...fumbled...conversion... can't get a goddamned running game...." He was approaching me in an unmistakably menacing fashion. I was backing up, making placating motions. In his eyes I saw all the pent-up resentment and now blind malevolence he felt toward me for the hundred little things that annoy roommates. He wanted to swing at me, I knew it. Instead, he lifted his head to the ceiling - and, I suppose, Heaven - and from his diaphragm screamed, "Aaaahhhhgggrrrrrhhh!"
I was sure the neighbors would call the cops, but they were all watching football games.
It is well known that the incidence of domestic violence rises dramatically on Super Bowl Sunday. Slapping the bitch around, maybe one of the kids. The beer consumption is what most cops would blame it on, but I think there's more to it. It's the nature of the sport itself.
Most things on television are moronic and violent, but these players aren't actors; the violence is real and we are invited to participate in the stands, in the parking lots, in our living rooms. Sitting here, sweltering, naked, I think, okay: football is two lines of identically clad automatons facing each other with a little ball. They bash into each other, advancing or retreating a few yards. Someone gets hauled off the field on a stretcher, and the little ball resumes moving back and forth a little bit. The men resume bashing. Someone throws the ball; it is either caught or it isn't. Running, then more bashing and jumping on a pile of men, anonymous except for the numbers on their uniforms.
In baseball, you can see it's Gwynn or Strawberry. Even in hockey, goalie aside, you can see the faces of men. Where did this come from, my combination of hatred and boredom with football and "the warriors of the gridiron"?
First football game. I'm 13 years old. Friends invite me to the school's first high school football game of the season. I go. Those around me are shouting, throwing Cokes in the air (I get stickily drenched), and punching each other and me in the arms. I'm missing something. It is clearly my ignorance of the sport. I try to focus, I can't. I decide to get a hot dog. The much older kid working the hot dog stand has run out of steamed hot dogs and only has frozen ones, which he has neglected to put in the steamer because he is watching the game. I ask him repeatedly for a hot dog and he charges me for it then places a frozen dog into the bun. I point this out to him and he ignores me for several minutes. Finally I launch the frozen wiener at him. It hits him in the back of the head because he is watching the game. He turns and jumps across the counter. We roll around on the floor for a while until two priests pull us apart. I am 86'd. Sent home. I walk some 10 or 12 miles muttering the whole way, "Fuck football."
Next year, for some reason, I go out for football at St. Joseph's in Westchester, Illinois. That first day, at one point, I go "long." That means, you see, that I run far away from the quarterback - whom everyone was trying to pound the crap out of - and I catch the ol' pigskin and run some more. I'm tackled and the guy purposely clomps his cleats onto my wrist, missing my artery by a centimeter. I am taken to the hospital bleeding like a swine. "Good game?" asks the ambulance attendant with locker-room machismo as he tousles my hair and the other guy tapes my wrist. "Fuck football," I tell him and he looks at me like I just said, "I wouldn't know. I'm really a ballerina."
In adult life, as a bartender off and on for 14 years, I was given even more reason to dread weekend afternoons and Monday nights when even paunchy, middle-aged men are men, and yes, a few women are men. When asked for "the spread," I said I didn't know. The score? Hey, I'm working, sorry. What do I think of Dan Fouts? Who is he? This was met with either a look you can find on constipated children, outright laughter, or hostility: "What kind of pantywaist are you?"
Working bars in New York, I had to keep the nightstick ready during Giants' games. I pried sports fans apart, called cops and ambulances. In Coronado years later, tending bar, a drunken married woman about 50 became despondent over a Chargers loss. She clutched me in the office after closing time, tears streaming from her eyes, and begged me, "Make love to me now. Help me to forget."
Football widows are often advised to "share" with their husbands the experience of football viewing. "Learn," they are told, about the game. "Enjoy the game with your spouse and make your marriage stronger." I once saw a woman pack up her children and flee her own home when she saw the game was going badly for the Chargers in the final quarter.
An English friend of mine might have put it best when he compared soccer to American football. "Well, it's rather dumbed down, isn't it?"