From: Emilio DeGrazia
The philosopher Albert Camus, sensitive to society’s desire to enjoy a moral lifestyle, made no secret of this essential belief: “All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football.” Since “football” meant “soccer” to him he understandably skirted the lessons to be learned from American football field generals simulating our World Wars by calling for a blitz or throwing a bomb. My cousin Louis, a tennis player living in Iowa City, tells me about a Japanese visitor who had some knowledge of American bombs, two very horrifying ones in particular, but who could not understand American football. “Why don’t they give each team a ball,” she asked, “so they don’t have to fight?”
It’s that time of year again. Here, downstream, the maples on the Mississippi River bluffs are maturing into their lovely hues, and on Sunday mornings church bells tell us there are hymns in those trees. Meanwhile, outside the Minneapolis Metrodome, the tailgate parties have begun—those picnics in parking lots. As game time nears, the huddled masses gather in front of TV sets, their souls sinking into sofas as their mouths water for chips, beer, and a score that makes winners of them about half the time, or less.
Why all the fuss? The Vikings never raped and pillaged in these parts, and our Ole and Lena folk tend to be nice Lutherans not much interested in Norway or Thor. So why do we shell out $50, $100, even $500 to achieve a couple hours worth of social security inside those unpearly stadium gates? Why no fuss when team owners—no doubt troubled that the nation will have socialized medicine before their new executive suites are furnished with the widest wide-screen TVs—keep asking for new taxes to build new sports palaces? Why are we reminded of doctors’ waiting rooms as we endure the roughly four hours of talk, huddles, time outs, and endless ads for Viagra, cars, chips and beer that interrupt the roughly 18 minutes of action on the field? And who needs the sanity of old-fashioned Sundays, that day given to meditation and quiet leisure once upon a time sacred to pagans as the day of the Sun, to Christians as the Sabbath and day of the Son.
A few years ago, while I was in church on a lovely Sunday morning trying to become more congregational, I became aware of football’s power to move cultural mountains. The minister, a nice-enough regular fellow, was chipper when he made the announcement to the assembly: The annual membership meeting with its discussion of faith and policy would be changed to late afternoon so we wouldn’t miss the Vikings-Packers game. Only a few puritans in those pews frowned. No one stood firm—like the golden-haired prostitute Melina Mecourie—to declare
“Never on Sunday.” And the traditional chicken dinner every Sunday at the family table simply no longer can compete with the TV football feast of chips and beer.
Let’s not go too far with this complaint. Though in ancient times it was hard to tell heroes and gods apart, Sunday football is not a religion. Football honors heroes, not God.
But there’s something deeply moving about crowds that can make demi-gods of heroes. While visiting my cousin Louis in Iowa City I attended a football game pitting Hawkeyes against Panthers from Northern Iowa. I paid $54 to get in. The Hawkeye Marching Band made clever designs on the field while cheerleaders strutted their shameless stuff with military precision. I was mainly impressed by the massive collage of yellow teeshirts across the way, thousands of University of Iowa students teeming like bees in a hive, clapping their arms like mandibles in unison. And then the spelling bee began, with huge flags requiring thousands to stand and wave as they spelled out I-O-W-A in a chorus round that no doubt appeased all gods gazing down at the football shrine from clouds above endless fields of soybeans and corn. The spectacle was spectacular, colorful, loud, and grand—choreographed into a dramatic ritual for a mass of humanity happy to lend their individual identities to energize the scene.
What would an anthropologist from outer space—or cousin Louis’ Japanese friend—think of such performances, especially when they become more ferocious and less artfully conducted on NFL holy days?
The question became more troubling a couple of seasons ago on the day Brett Favre turned traitor and joined the Vikings enemy. A few old Cheesehead gasbags on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi compared Favre to Wernher Von Braun, who defected from the Germans to work for the Americans after he did Nazi work for years to perfect the V-2 rockets that bombed London in World War II. Favre’s rocket arm and Von Braun’s rocket mind are incomparable. And both confronted moral dilemmas: Do we abandon—call it betray—our people, our communities, those who cheered us on as our greatness swelled? Yes. For a higher good? Football and bombs? The prevailing opinion at Cheesehead tailgate parties is that the number both of them wear beneath the uniforms they shed is the one closest to their hearts: Number One.
So what do we root for at a football game? The heroes have huge home-town followings, but they’re known to follow the money trail to some other town that is really a vast city swollen with anonymity. Newspapers and TV swell player-hero stories into myths, and now and then the heroes‚ names end up in the crime reports. We are awed by the artful beauty of the occasional great deed—the move combining power and grace—but go silent when it’s performed by the visitors. We’re dumbstruck by the well-honed athlete, but would rather not gaze at some of the grotesque body parts. The coaches are geniuses, but they’re plugged into earphones that deliver wisdom to them from sources better informed. The players’ numbers are larger than their names, but they’re faceless behind their masks. A lot of them get hurt very seriously. There’s a certain unpleasantness about it all, even when the Purple-People Eaters win.
And there are certain uncalculated costs. We chip in with taxes to support this free enterprise, not just for a new stadium now and then but for the roads and the parking lots and the latrines and the landfill acres the new stadium requires of us to fulfill its destiny. We are told that pro teams are necessary to local economies, without bothering to count how many people don’t shop on Football Sundays, or if the money spent on this week’s game would be spent on groceries and diet pills if it were not heading down the freeway to get in line at the stadium gates. And we tax our minds with all the time we invest chewing the fat found in entire sections of daily newspapers and endless TV programs that provide sports free enterprisers a steady stream of free advertisements. Call it welfare, if you dare.
We’re deeply into it, so what’s in it for us?
Though the Iowa Hawkeyes also claim black as one of their essential colors, at the Iowa game yellow stood out. Everyone wearing yellow was cheering for Yellowness. I, born and raised in Michigan, a graduate of Ohio State who pays taxes in Wisconsin, am also a longtime resident of Minnesota with a cousin in Iowa City and daughter at the University of Iowa. So I, at once Wolverine, Buckeye, Badger, Gopher, and Hawkeye, had (like most good Americans) an identity crisis. I was all and none of them. But I found myself rooting for Yellowness too. The other team, the purple-suited one from Northern Iowa, was Purpleness. But on that afternoon I was Yellowness, and I rooted for it. At a Vikings game I would root for Purpleness. I confess that I too wear Number One close to my heart.
No team, by the way, wears pink, for reasons any real man can explain. And though no one had a thing to say about black, someone provided a corny explanation that in Iowa yellow is really gold.
A lot of preachers know the end zone is near. Football has stolen Sunday from them, so they’re fighting back with their own high-tech blitzes to accompany their own sporadic outbursts of the wave. Those who are best at it are also good at taxing their congregations to build new stadiums for them. These preachers understand alienation—the sitting alone we do staring at TV and computer monitors, the hours exhausted in idling cars, the vast noplace that is cyberspace—the privatizing of experience that has come to define what it means to be American. And they know what we need: The value of uniform beliefs expressed in colorful and powerfully concentrated chorus form. They understand well the depth that cheering for Yellowness, or a similarly profound theme, can provide when our genuine family, neighborhood, and national communities falter, become polarized, or don’t exist.