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Why Football?

go bucksTeam loyalty is kind of a hard thing to justify in the end. You know? I love the Giants, but when you think about it, who are the Giants? You know what I mean? I mean it’s different guys. Every year it’s different guys, right? The team will move from city to city.

You’re rooting for clothes when you get right down to it. […] I want my team’s clothes to beat the clothes from another city. […] Laundry. We’re rooting, we’re screaming about laundry here.

People will love a guy. You know what I mean? Then the guy will get traded. He’ll come back on another team. They hate him now. […] This is the same human being in a different shirt. “Boo! Get! We hate him now!” Different shirt […] “Boooooo!”

—Jerry Seinfeld, Late Show with David Letterman (1994)

We love football. In a country of over 320 million people, over one third of the population of United States watches the Super Bowl each year. That’s over 110 million Americans tuning in to a single game on single day. To put this in perspective, there were only 40 million viewers of the second most watched sporting event last year. It was game seven of the 2016 World Series—a storybook ending between two underdogs, Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, fighting hard to claim a long-awaited title. It didn’t matter; it wasn’t football.

Of course, not everyone watches football. Two-thirds of the country miss the Super Bowl each year. And not everyone has the same reasons for watching. But then, what are the reasons? Why do so many of us care about this gridiron game? In short, it’s because football is an extremely efficient use of our time (seriously).

American football fulfills more human needs than nearly any other pastime; it checks more boxes at once than other forms of entertainment. Imagine you’re at a sports bar with friends, family, and fellow fans cheering on your favorite team as they majestically win a close game against their most hated rival. Everyone is cheering; you’re swept up in the excitement. Community, belonging, family time, self worth, gloating, escapism, positive stress, stress release, celebration, novelty, and awe-inspiring athleticism—all of this happening in just over three hours. And we’re just getting started.

Football also provides us a safe topic of conversation like entertainment news or the weather. Yet, in football, these conversations can become quite elaborate between people of differing opinions (unlike politics, which often leads to yelling, tears, and general destruction). Why? Because discussing coaching decisions or game strategy can be incredibly involved, but the speculation doesn’t change our lives. Whether you would have gone for two or kicked the extra point doesn’t matter. “It’s just a game,” we tell ourselves. Sure, the emotions are real; the devastation is real; the excitement and joy and comradery are real. But there are no lasting repercussions.

The paradox of football is that it is totally meaningless and incredibly meaningful at the same time. With our deep community ties, sense of self worth wrapped up in our favorite teams, and significant emotional investment spent year after year, it’s no wonder football is such a powerful force. But that could be said about any sport. What is it that makes football so unique?

For starters, our favorite football teams play only once per week. This is a stark contrast between baseball, basketball, soccer and hockey. The mid-week dry spell creates a level of anticipation with an almost Pavlovian response once the weekend comes around. Also, the shorter schedule means every game counts. In college, one fluke upset can mean a lost chance at the national title. And as fans know, a blocked field goal run back for a touchdown by an unranked opponent does happen.

Also, American football is unique in that it’s, well, American. We embrace our American exceptionalism with a national pastime that is rarely played outside of the country. It’s a game of territory that developed on the heels of westward expansion; a game where, unlike soccer, players line up as they march down the field, making it clear how much land has been claimed, never looking back. It’s an American story, unique to the United States, with ever-changing rules and regulations mimicking our innovative spirit. Football is America’s game because it embodies our history, our unique values, and our culture. It stands atop the pile of major global sports (above soccer), because it’s unique to who we are as a nation. We are unique, and therefore, we should have a unique pastime.

On some level, humans are rational creatures looking for efficient ways to spend our most valuable resource—time. Watching football is a way to spend time with friends and family; it’s a way to feel connected to something larger than ourselves, to feel included in a community, to talk with strangers without worrying that we will offend them. Football is an outlet to escape a reality that’s too stressful, too serious, too easy or hard or soft. It’s a sport of graceful human ability and athleticism where every game matters and anticipation builds up throughout the week. It is this broad appeal that makes it popular. We may intellectually agree with Jerry Seinfeld’s clothing comments, but deep down even Seinfeld knows that our teams are so much more than just laundry.

Hirt, Edward R., and Joshua J. Clarkson. “The Psychology of Fandom: Understanding the Etiology, Motives, and Implications of Fanship.” Consumer Behavior Knowledge for Effective Sports and Event Marketing (2011): 59-85. (Source)

Paolantonio, Sal. How football explains America. Triumph Books, 2015.


*This essay is a paraphrased excerpt from a book I’m writing about my love/hate relationship with American football. The project is currently on pause.

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America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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