Super Bowl number something or other is being played this coming Sunday. There was a time, even quite recently, when I would have looked forward to the event, and planned on seeing it with some friends. Nowadays I can barely muster up the interest to even turn on the TV towards the end to see the result.
My initially strong interest in football began immediately after I arrived in the US to do my doctorate in physics at the University of Pittsburgh. I was there during the period 1975-1980 when the famed Steelers “steel curtain” defense and spectacular offense led them to four Super Bowl titles in six years. Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris dazzled fans week after week. At the same time the University of Pittsburgh football team won the national championship and its running back Tony Dorsett won the Heisman trophy. And if that weren’t enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series. So the town went crazy, and it was all sports all the time.
I was a teaching assistant during my first year in graduate school and my students were eager to teach this cricket and rugby lover the rules of these strange American games, and I got hooked on football, perhaps because I arrived in the fall. I never quite got that same high level of interest in baseball for reasons I have discussed earlier and never got interested at all in basketball, since Pittsburgh did not have a franchise for that sport.
I maintained my interest in football even after I came to the US a second time from Sri Lanka in 1983 and would follow the games and the standings, spending many weekends in front of the TV, cheering for the Steelers. When I moved to Cleveland in 1989, I developed a fondness for the Browns too. Like the Steelers, they projected a simple working class image, a sense that the game was the most important thing and that all the rest of the glitz, cheerleaders and the like, were unimportant.
My interest in baseball disappeared completely with my arrival in Cleveland because I could never support the home team (the Indians) as long as they retained their ridiculous and offensive Chief Wahoo logo.
But my decline in interest in football was more gradual and resulted from an increasing dislike of the changing nature of the game and its increasingly businesslike aspects. I dislike the fact that team owners hold cities hostage, using their fan support to enrich themselves by gouging public subsidies for their facilities using the threat of leaving. I dislike the fact that much of the sports pages read like business pages with contract details and disputes dominating. I dislike the fact that teams rarely stick together any more and that the composition changes so fast that it is hard to keep track of who is playing for whom. These things have long ceased to be games played and watched for fun. They are business ventures and we are customers.
I also really dislike the almost non-stop boasting, grandstanding, and self-promotion by the players, ‘celebrating’ each and every minor achievement, and trash talking their opponents. I have this urge to shout at them: “Just shut up and play the game”. It seemed like poetic justice when the OSU wide receiver was injured right at the beginning of the Bowl Championship game when he received an ankle injury as a result of the team ‘celebration’ after he had returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Without a star player, OSU then crashed to defeat despite having been favorites to win. I wonder if this will put a damper on such excesses in the future. Probably not.
But the last straw for me was instant replay. As if football was not slow and intermittent enough with the game stopping every few seconds, instant replay has dragged things out even more so that now the game stops for minutes on end as the referee goes to the booth and we are treated to the same play from all kinds of angles with the commentators blathering on. Just last week I turned on the TV to see one of the conference championship games and just at that moment a coach threw the challenge flag and everybody started hanging around waiting for a revised calling. I switched off.
What’s the point of all this review? Why is it so important? It is quite impressive that despite the almost fanatical importance people place on these games, I have very rarely heard suspicions that the referees were crooked or pulling for a team. If we believe the referees are unbiased, then we should just let them make the call and get on with it. Sure they will make mistakes sometimes since they are human. But if they are fair, the breaks will even out in the long run. The only benefit of instant replay that I can think of is that it has shown that the referees are correct remarkably often.
The only reason for reviewing the calls is perhaps after each game, when league officials can study the tapes and rate the officials for how often their calls were correct, and look for possible bias. This could be used to ensure that the quality of refereeing improves and to determine who the best officials are to officiate at crucial games.
Getting rid of instant replay will probably not bring me back to watching the game. That moment has passed. But who knows how many others are slowly getting disenchanted as the game drags more and more. Football should take a cue from rugby where the game is truly fast moving, and try and find ways to speed things up rather than slowing things down. But it will not do so because as long as we keep watching, longer games and more wasted time means more time for advertisements and increased revenue.
But I still have a mild interest in who wins that Super Bowl, although this is based on factors that have little to do with the game itself. This year I hope that the Colts win, simply because I like their coach Tony Dungy. I first became aware of him when he was a good defensive coordinator for the Steelers but he spent a long time as an assistant before finally being given a chance at the top job with the perennially hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After making them into serious contenders for the championship, Dungy was let go and could only watch as the team he groomed won the Super Bowl under the new coach the following year (or the year after, I am not sure). But he took that obvious disappointment with grace and has now taken another team to the championship game.
Dungy has always been an understated and gracious man, not given to showy behavior or yelling or boasting or showing extreme emotion. The suicide of his son last year must have been a cruel blow but he handled that too with dignity. You get the sense that he realizes that football is not life and death, not war and peace. In the end, it is nothing of real significance. It is just a game.
You have to admire a person who can maintain that attitude in the face of all the hype and I feel that it is time that he gets the reward that people in football seek, of being part of the championship team.
My enthusiasm for Dungy and the Colts to win was diminished this week when it was revealed that he was being honored by a group in Indiana that has been actively promoting anti-gay legislation in that state. It is not clear at this time if Dungy’s decision to accept such an award was made with a lack of awareness of the group’s agenda, or because celebrities routinely get roped into appearing at such fund raising events, or whether he is actively hostile to gays. But if it turns out that he opposes the rights of gays to be treated like just any other people, then it does diminish my respect for him as a person.
POST SCRIPT: Defining normalcy down
This photograph of a street scene in the Iraqi town of Ramadi grabbed my attention. It seems like a normal busy city street, with people going about their business except that they are not paying any heed to a masked person in their midst carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on his shoulder (at least that is what I think the weapon is). Behind the person with the scooter looks like another masked person carrying an automatic weapon.
I was really struck by these signs of normalcy in the midst of obvious signs of war. How sad that people have been reduced to treating armed masked gunmen on the streets as if they were just any other pedestrian.