I’ve always hated football.
Not the garden variety brussels sprouts kind of hatred. It’s deeper than that. I’ve always identified with hating football. As a geek growing up in the U.S., hating football is in a category with appreciating the works of Tolkien. It’s what you’re supposed to do.
During my childhood football was hours of awkward silence while beer-addled relatives yelled “that’s what I’m talking about” at a television with which, as far as I could tell, they hadn’t been speaking at all. It was the soft green lighting that illuminated the aftermath of the always uncomfortable and drama-heavy Thanksgivings at my uncle’s house. It was the unending Sunday night slog that was as likely as not to run long and slice off the first half of the new Simpson’s episode.
It was what the kids who weren’t into djinn battles and rune-etched spaceships enjoyed. It was an arbitrary competition between entitled, testosterone soaked hot shots, smashing into each other under bright lights in front of mindless fans in inglorious tribute to tribalism. I felt this, even when I was too young to know what half of those words meant.
My parents fought about it. My dad’s love of football grew slowly and unseen over the years, like a Phylloxera infestation in the vineyard. Sometimes, in a fit a irritation-driven oversimplification, my mom claimed that she married dad because he didn’t like football.
My father tried to get me to like it. I think it was more about bonding than football. And I tried right back. I really did. But it didn’t stick. The game was just too dull. I believed him that it had tactical nuance. At least, part of me did. But I don’t think he understood that if you don’t understand those nuances, football looks like a series of jerky moments of human collision interspersed by long stretches of inactivity. That’s the entire experience.
The ball snaps, a bunch of padded guys run, and maybe the situation advances. The action lasts only a few seconds, and then it resets back to nothing. Players stand around a lot. Commentators draw arrows on the screen. Sometimes the momentum breaks and something dramatic happens, like an interception or a break-away touchdown. In those moments, hopped up on social a thirst for mainstream social belonging paternal affection, I felt a spark of excitement.
But they never lasted long. And the excitement was always sucked dry by the fact that it was replayed over and over. The more interesting and important the play, the more they ran the footage it and talked and dissected it into desiccation. As if Indiana Jones had leapt under that boulder again and again and again, while John Madden droned clichés about his choice of leap.
Plus, I had my geek pride to worry about. I had my identity. I was the kid who carried D&D books in my backpack. I was the kid who tried to steer sports conversations with other middle schoolers into long-winded monologues about how hiccups worked or Einstein’s fantasies about light beams.
But I never stopped wanting to like football. Because I was always a bundle of contradictions. And because I wanted to like everything. Not every instance of everything, mind you. But you can either be a person who says “I don’t like rap music,” or you can be the one who says he doesn’t listen to a lot of rap but can still name his favorite Wu Tang release. It’s always appealed to me to be the latter type.
I no longer have much in the way of identity issues. The desire to be into everything blossomed throughout my 20s into a wholesale rejection of identity-based opinions. On the other hand, my wife married me because I don’t like football.
She has nothing to worry about. I’m never going to like football. It doesn’t matter that watching Friday Night Lights has exposed to me on an emotional level how much football is a game of tactical bluff and counter-bluff played out in frenzied moments of activity. It doesn’t matter that some of the books I’m reading on deliberate practice and habit formation have made me feel that the game has an ocean of depth with regards to approach and execution just below its brightly lit surface. It doesn’t matter that even since the Seahawks turned competitive this town I love and identify with has had an alluring and distinctly Seattle-flavored passion for the sport. Or that I now recognize that when the ball snaps, the simplicity of the padded guys smashing into each other belies a scene that displays both a precise interchange of sophisticated and precisely executed stratagems colliding in real-time and also a physically manifest cascade of poetic intensity and athleticism that bursts into being in an instant, then is gone.
Maybe, just maybe, I’m forced to admit there’s something to this game. Maybe I have to ditch the decades-long opinion that people only watch football because they are indoctrinated by groupthink and the brain altering properties of buffalo sauce, and would drop this interest if they were clever enough to appreciate literature or roleplaying games.
On the other hand, maybe I don’t. I do, after all, own a Gandalf t-shirt.