It’s just not cricket …

It’s that time of the year again, and the newspapers are full of reports about the Superbowl. Vox has been flooded with articles about why we hate the Patriots or why players keep getting bigger, and everyone is expected to have an opinion on this sport. Apparently this year’s effort was extra boring, and the half-time adverts were crap, and the Maroon 5 dude revealed that he has a tattoo in Times New Roman font[1]. This year I didn’t bother with this whole thing, because I have tried to get into American Football and I just simply cannot. I have tried, and I just can’t really enjoy it.

This is a bit of a surprise to me, because I can enjoy most sports if I understand them. Indeed, I put in a bit of effort over the past two years to learn the rules of NFL, I spent time watching matches (which are broadcast live here in Japan if you have cable tv, and which on replay are stripped of adverts and quite easy to watch), I put a bit of effort into studying some of the rules and trying to figure out what was going on. It’s my view that the single biggest reason most people don’t enjoy most sports is that they simply don’t know the rules, and that if a sport is played well by elite athletes and you understand the rules you will probably enjoy it. So I was surprised when I tried to learn the rules of NFL and I still found it simply unenjoyable. I have tried to find reports from others about why they don’t enjoy NFL, but there are precious few, or they are reports like this one that don’t really seem to explain the game’s problems. So I thought I would write a post about why I can’t get into NFL. Perhaps someone will comment to give their own opinion, or to explain why I’m wrong (nicely, I hope!) or perhaps not, but here I would like to outline some of my reasons.

Here I am not going to waste time talking about the many political problems of the NFL – the blackouts, the teams’ insatiable demands for government money, the racist team names, the fact that college football players aren’t paid, the disgraceful treatment of cheerleaders, the concussion scandals, the awful mismanagement of the knee issue or the blatant disgusting militarization of the whole thing – which are well known and are a good reason to boycott it on principle, but not an explanation for why the game itself is simply not enjoyable. I also don’t intend to talk about this as “my favourite sport is better than yours” or to suggest that NFL players aren’t great athletes or that rugby dudes are tougher than NFL dudes or anything silly like that. I thought I should like NFL – I like ball sports with heavy contact, I approve of violent sport, and I like watching men smash each other, and I enjoy most other ball sports when I watch them – but I don’t enjoy it. I also don’t intend to tell people what sports they shouldn’t like, or laugh at people for watching weird shit – if you like snooker or darts or curling that’s all cool and not my business – but I wanted to try and pin down why I don’t enjoy NFL, and see what other people have to say about that. For the record, my favourite sports in approximate order would be kickboxing/MMA/boxing, rugby, high quality English premier league soccer, AFL, some olympic-level sports, lower quality soccer, and then a bunch of other stuff in no particular order. I’m not anti-sport, and I’m not opposed to violent sport (I thoroughly oppose any efforts to ban boxing, for example, on pure civil liberties grounds). I also have done kickboxing (and other martial arts) for 25 years, fought in an amateur fight once, and enjoy regular training with rough men. I’m not squeamish about violent sport. So, here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • The weird stops and starts: I really cannot get used to the strange way the game stops, waits, everyone changes, and then it restarts. It doesn’t feel like sport to me, and it all feels strangely pre-determined. It feels more like work than sport. I just can’t get into the pre-organized changing of sides and ordering of attack and defense. Weird, given I am into turn-based combat in RPGs, but there you go.
  • The lack of ebb and flow: This is a big one for me and I think the single biggest spoiler. When the QB gets sacked or a pass is incomplete the game just … stops. No one fights for the ball, there is very rarely a change in direction of the attack, and it seems impossible that the flow of the game would change several times. When you watch soccer or rugby there is a constant shift and flow of possession, attack and defense, and no reprieve for either team when they have or don’t have the ball. If an NFL team is defending at 4th and goal, there is no sense in which they are under the cosh as they would be in a concerted soccer or rugby attack – they just have to foil one more play and then they are guaranteed the ball. Worse still, the attacking team don’t need to worry about the possibility that a pass will be interrupted or that they will miss the pass, because there is no penalty for this in the flow of the game. The only way the flow changes is if someone intercepts and catches the ball or a player straight drops it and the opposition scoop it up. This gives the game a really dead flavour. Nobody is risking anything, nobody is pressed, strategy isn’t built on what-ifs. So many times you get the 5th play and the team brings on a whole different set of players to punt, because there is this regular process that doesn’t change, shift or move around. It’s weird and I cannot think of any other sport except perhaps cricket which is so completely lacking in these sudden shifts of play.
  • The weird timing: There is something really strange about the way that time is calculated in NFL, as if time were not a thing at all. Teams have time-outs during which they keep playing, a one hour game seems to take 3 hours to play, the last 5 minutes just goes on forever, and every player has to be insanely careful about the implications for timing of e.g. an incomplete pass vs. being pushed out of bounds. I appreciate that rules are rules but why do there have to be so many weird and complex ways of simply keeping track of time? In any other game it’s simple: time passes at its usual rate until the game is over, and injuries are handled either by stopping the clock when they happen or adding time on. I don’t understand why there have to be so many weird ways of keeping track of time.
  • The strangely hypocritical rules: The weird timing brings me to the most frustrating thing I have ever witnessed in sport – a player being penalized for throwing a ball down in frustration and wasting 3 seconds of time, right before the game cuts to 2 minutes of adverts. What is going on with that? Why is time-wasting punished harshly in a game that takes 3 hours to play an hour’s football? Similarly, why is it a terrible offense to touch someone’s helmet but completely cool to hit them with a head-high tackle that is guaranteed to cause serious injury? It’s so pernickety, so finnicky, and so arbitrary.
  • The enormously complex rules: Most games have a simple set of penalties for all infringements, with at most two levels of escalation to deal with more serious incidents. But NFL has this intense system of penalties which involve decisions about whether to reset the downs and whether to penalize with distance, and seem to have an enormously complex set of rules that can be broken. It also seems in comparison to other games to have a lot of indecipherable decision points about basic aspects of basic gameplay, such as what constitutes a catch or pass interference. Every game has ambiguities and inconsistencies, but NFL seems to be consistent only in its ambiguities and complexity. It can be frustrating watching rugby and having to depend heavily on the referee’s judgment, but this pales to insignificance compared to the opacity of referee decisions in NFL.
  • The action is everywhere at once: When a play starts there is action happening all across the line and further downfield, and it’s very hard to follow all of it. I think this also means that in every play there are multiple infractions and it’s just luck if the referees see them. This is fine if complexity is your thing but it’s a uniquely weird experience that this is a ballgame yet almost all the action is off the ball.
  • The messy sideline situation: It really weirds me out that for the whole game there is this unruly mob of random people standing all along the sideline. Hundreds of people just shuffling around doing their thing. It’s so messy and weird. Every other ballgame has allocated places – a bunker or a coach’s area or something – but in NFL everyone is standing right down by the sideline crowding the game and just being messy. I guess it’s necessary because of the constant substitutions and changes of team (and we wouldn’t want to waste time!!!) but it’s just weird to me, like a pitch invasion is constantly being threatened.
  • The specialization: Every game has its specialist players but the level of specialization in NFL seems extreme, and not really much fun to watch. Vox tells me this wasn’t always the case, and that when substitutions were allowed more freely this led to the growth of specialization. It’s particularly focused on the quarterback, and I have never seen a game as focused on a single position as NFL. I guess this is a nice analogy for America’s political system, which is obsessively focused on the actions of one man, and I think it’s just as frustrating in sport as in politics. What kind of team game boils down to the decisions of one man? A weird one.
  • The weird camp machismo: I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say this but NFL players are really really camp, and it’s weird that Americans think they look super macho. I recall watching an interlude in a Japanese broadcast[2], and the American review was focused on some player from some team and talking about how incredibly tough and powerful he is. While the narrator was going on about this the camera was doing a slow-motion reel of this dude walking along, helmet in hand, with aggressive and threatening music playing. It was all a big and theatrical build-up to describe how aggressive and manly this dude was. The dude in question was walking slowly along the sideline with his shirt rolled up and tucked into his chest armour, showing off his powerful abs. So basically this super macho dude was walking along in spandex tights and a midriff top, and I’m meant to think that this is tough and not camp. It just doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong, I know these guys are hard as nails, but what is wrong with Americans that they confuse camp and macho? You see the same thing in WWE, which is outrageously camp, and in super hero movies, which are wall-to-wall spandex and glowsticks. I guess there’s a reason that the players have to wear tight spandex tights with gussets, and have a towel hanging out of their back pocket that makes them look like a glistening furry or something, but I don’t know what that reason is and I suspect I wouldn’t be convinced even if it were explained to me. I just can’t get into the American vision of macho, and I think there’s a deep cultural insight somewhere in the fact that a country whose politics is steeped in misogyny and homophobia has so much difficulty distinguishing between camp and macho.
  • It’s dangerous by design: As I said, I’m into violent sports, but I’m not into sport that is designed to damage its participants. Even boxing has limits on the amount of damage its players are allowed to sustain. But much of NFL seems to be designed to damage the players, or specifically allows tactics that are at their most effective when designed to hurt. The bit where the linesmen crash into each other is obviously dangerous by design, but also the complete lack of any sanction for head-high tackles and neck grips means that players are rewarded for injuring each other. With players getting bigger and stronger every year, and no limit on their strength due to exhaustion as the game wears on, it’s inevitable that people will be seriously injured as a necessary consequence of playing the game. This is particularly shit if you’re a college football player who isn’t even getting minimum wage for your work, you’re betting your whole economic future on making it to the next tier, and then the game fucks you up because that is what the game is designed to do. Most sports have a pretty sharp pyramid shape and most people fall by the wayside and never make it to the top, but to be wrecked before you get anywhere good because that is what the game is designed to do isn’t very fair. Other games have introduced specific systems or rule changes to minimize the risk to players, without necessarily changing the overall level of violence or aggression, but NFL seems uniquely unwilling to do this. There’s a limit to how much I can enjoy a sport I know is designed to ruin its participants, and there are so many moments when the dangerous acts are gratuitous. It’s possible that NFL, being dangerous by design, can’t be changed, but in that case it will likely die as American parents forbid their kids from playing it. I won’t miss it if it does.
  • There’s no endurance penalty: In rugby and soccer players have to play for the full length of the game, which means that they have to balance the energy they put into individual plays against the need to go the distance. This is a natural part of any competitive system in nature. But in NFL the constant switches of teams mean that players don’t have to balance these things, and don’t get exhausted near the end as far as I can tell. This takes a lot of tension out of the game, and also eliminates one form of extreme effort from the enjoyment of the game. Particularly in rugby and boxing the last 10 minutes are a test of endurance and will as much as anything else, and losing teams have the chance to win something back by ruthlessly capitalizing on mistakes that happen when people are exhausted. The game also has a natural sense of having run its course, as the players are completely done for at the end, rather than having come to a bitter end because a weird unbalanced and unnatural clock finally reached 0. I also don’t really feel like I’m there alongside the players when they aren’t even sweating. It makes all the drama seem manufactured and culturally mandated rather than arising from the game, an impression that is simply reinforced by the injection of high drama through the narrative efforts of the announcers rather than arising organically from the contest itself.

Put together these things make the game seem dry and sterile to me, a manufactured contest rather than a real game. It doesn’t help that there aren’t many teams and a short season, which just increases the sense that all the drama is manufactured. The crowd also doesn’t have anything resembling the passion of similarly-sized European soccer crowds. Also what’s going on with every player saying which university they’re from when they introduce themselves in the pre-game team review? That’s super weird.

So those are the reasons I can’t enjoy NFL. Apart from “dangerous by design” I don’t think any of them are objectively bad things – they’re just things I don’t like, and obviously you’re welcome to not not like them. I would be happy to hear explanations or alternative interpretations of some of these things (except “you’re dumb for not liking this thing you don’t like”), or other comments on things that stop you enjoying this game. Also, tips on how to enjoy it! (Except “drink more” because the games are broadcast in the morning here).

fn1: And he’s not even a millenial!

fn2: Because Japan doesn’t broadcast the American ads and doesn’t play its own (because Japanese tv isn’t as rapacious as American I guess) they fill the advertising breaks with a review of the previous week’s games, which is prepared by the NFL. I guess the NFL has to prepare this for its overseas affiliates because we aren’t used to intense advertising and need something to fill the space. Or maybe it’s some weekly show. Anyway, it features weird overblown narration with a mixture of faux-highbrow imagery and bad puns, and we also get to see a lot of the sideline behavior of the players, which is frankly fucking awful.

So, that festival of the boot is on again, and although since I moved to Europe my interest in soccer has waned considerably[1], I still watch the World Cup quite avidly. Of the 6 European soccer giants – Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France and Holland – only 4 made it to the round of 16, and in that round already another – England – has been knocked out in a match they lost 4-1 to a German team that beat Australia 4-0. This is the same England team that struggled to get through the group stage. The two finalists from 2006 went out in the group stage, and in such an ignominious fashion as hardly befits European minnows, let alone France or Italy. Italy was beaten comprehensively by Slovakia and only drew with tiny New Zealand after pulling a penalty with traditional Italian diving methods[2].

I noticed that the three European giants who have bombed so far all have quite old players. Italy and England particularly, but even France still has players like Thierry Henry. Holland has also been playing a little poorly – they really struggled against Japan – and they also have quite a few holdouts from previous cups. On the other hand, Germany has a very young team. This article in the Guardian makes the point that this is not a coincidence, and that the Germans have been putting a lot of work into developing local talent. It’s also the first German team to be representative of Germany’s multicultural modernity, with 5 or 6 players being of Arab/Turkish/Eastern European/latin American origin. I take this as a sign that the German FA has been searching far and wide for talent.

So what is with the old teams that bombed? I think that these three countries – the UK, France, Italy – have opened their football markets simultaneously[4] to easy foreign transfers and massive television marketing money in the last 20 years, and the consequence of this has been an easy-come-easy-go attitude by the clubs. Instead of doing the hard work of developing local talent, they’ve taken the low-risk approach of buying in talent from abroad. This makes FA Premier league games fun to watch, but it has had the dual effect of a) importing players from smaller countries and giving them exposure to world-class coaching and playing techniques and b) reducing the pool of talented local players. The consequence of this at the world cup is that these countries’ national teams not only have to select their line-up from a shallower pool of talent, and thus rely increasingly on has-beens like Rooney; but they also find themselves facing a wider pool of nations with quality players who have been groomed by these big football nations’ leagues. New Zealand, for example, has a line up whose entire transfer value was  a third that of one player on the Italian team (de Rossi, I think). They had one player from Blackburn in defense, another player from an English team in midfield, and another in offense, and they assembled around this spine a team that included several amateurs. In 1982 their team was entirely composed of amateurs. So while the available quality for NZ has increased considerably, England and Italy find themselves relying increasingly on old men, and in the washup of last night’s defeat the press are also claiming that the young players aren’t so great.

Make no mistake, this is good for football. Having an increasingly diverse pool of finals contenders, with 2 Asian teams through to the round of 16 (and one a favourite, I note, to go to the quarters!), an African team through to the quarters, and a selection of latin American teams, is good. But from the point of view of the football giants of Europe, something has gone wrong. Compare the British approach to football with the Australian or NZ approach to rugby. If a NZ player ever plays for a foreign club, they can never again play for NZ. So even though the foreign clubs pay vast sums more than the local clubs, NZ players wait until their world cup hopes are over before heading overseas – after their (shameful) 2008 World Cup loss, a whole stack of players who knew they wouldn’t be selected again headed to French and British clubs to earn the real money. As a result of this the All Blacks have players lined up 3 deep for most positions, and the lead players can’t guarantee selection in the next game if they don’t keep their act together – and this is the stated policy of the NZRB[5].

This should also be the case for the European soccer giants. There is no way that in a nation obsessed with football, as England is, a 30-something second-rate striker like Rooney should be able to even get in the squad, let alone onto the pitch. There should be a 28 year old and a couple of youngsters ahead of him – the same for Lampard, Cole, etc. Beckham stayed in long past his prime, and was a crap captain to boot. I think this is a result of market forces operating in England, and although one should rightly observe that although these market forces have had a good effect on the rest of the world game (and on the viewing public’s enjoyment of football), the British FA needs to think about some countervailing mechanisms to groom up a new generation of English players.

I suppose it could be argued that the Italian problem is not so much an effect of broadcast TV as the general corrupt and moribund nature of Italian institutions. But I think that Italy and France have similar broadcast models to the UK, and I wonder if the Northern European countries have (as is traditional up there) opted for a more genuinely social democratic approach to the game, that strikes a balance between the market model of “buy the best team you can” and the long-term good of the game. Because football is notable for its intense nationalism, I think that the long-term good of the game and national success are inextricably linked, as you can see from the excitement about soccer that is stirred up in rugby countries (like Australia) when we have international success. It strikes me as interesting that some of the European countries with the most intensely nationalistic fans – Italy and the UK – have managed to somehow water down their own national teams in a way that pours cold water on that nationalism. Transferring that national allegiance to clubs is not going to be  a good thing for social order at local soccer grounds, and the game isn’t going to maintain its populist appeal if it loses its nationalist appeal (not that it will ever be unpopular – soccer is a very very good game to play and to watch). But Associations like the FA have an important role to play in fostering local talent, otherwise why have them? And I’m sure there must be more than a few people in England and Italy and France this week thinking “why do we bother with an FA at all?” when their national teams perform so badly, their local leagues are essentially deregulated in every significant particular, and the FA doesn’t even properly monitor on-pitch referee or player behaviour.

The Italian captain made a comment last week to the effect that not beating NZ would be like the All Blacks failing to beat Italy in rugby. It’s noticeable that recently Italy have beaten England at Twickenham, and the IRB is moving to include Argentina in the Tri Nations. I wonder if this week a lot of Italian soccer fans are thinking of teaching themselves the rules of rugby, and diversifying their football interests? If Australians can do it[6], so can Italians.

fn1: Football culture in England (and probably much of Europe) is a horrible, macho and nationalist display of male tribal bonding that I just can’t get behind or support. From afar in Australia the Champions league was fun to watch, but in England it feels like you are participating in a form of ritualized abuse. The complete and total exclusion of women from all aspects of the sport, the hyper-macho posturing of the fans, their sudden exaggerated Englishness, it’s all horrible, as is the tense atmosphere the football areas, the armies of police, the dogs, the chanting aggressive dimwits wandering around in dangerous gangs, the implicit acceptance of this phenomenon as a side-effect of the game that has to be tolerated in order to enjoy its limited benefits. And, of course, there is the gender divide – with women thoroughly and completely uninterested and excluded. If you’re wondering why British women are so thoroughly unsporty, you don’t need to look any further than the crowd of a British football match, completely and utterly devoid of women. To people from outside Europe – or people from a rugby tradition inside Britain, for that matter – this all looks very strange.

fn2: Note as well that Italy had a particularly easy run, being drawn in a weak group and being given amazing referee favouritism – in their final game against Slovakia with 10 minutes to go their two strikers attacked the Slovakian keeper, kicking him and punching him, and the Slovakian keeper received a yellow card. The whole thing was caught on camera too – if it were Aussie Rules Football or Rugby those two men would have been sent packing immediately; and this came after another unprovoked attack in the first half. Italy should have finished that game with an 8 man team and a much less flattering scoreline[3].

fn3: In case you hadn’t noticed, I really hate the Italian national team. I have done ever since they beat Australia in the 2006 quarter finals with a shocking piece of diving. The sooner FIFA accepts the inevitable and introduces video refereeing and summary execution for diving, the better.

fn4: After that British player won a case in the European court, a case which ended up not benefiting him at all but completely changed the face of European football.

fn5: On a side note, I don’t much go in for the complaints of some in the British press that the English players are paid so much that they don’t care whether they win or lose internationally – I think they care very much, although I do think that injury-wise they probably assign their first loyalty to the club that pays them so much. But Southern hemisphere codes have a salary cap, which I think does have the consequence of reducing the prima donna element of player behaviour, and preventing the players form influencing the selectors as much. I also wonder if the greater respect rugby players show the referee compared to soccer has anything to do with their relative pay grades. At a rough guess, an Aussie football player is paid maybe 5 times as much as a referee, while an English star would be paid 50 times as much as a referee. Obviously institutional factors are the main driver of this, particularly the post-match judgements made in rugby which mean that you can’t just argue your way out of trouble on-pitch. But surely that pay grade differential makes a difference to on-pitch behaviour. As an example of down-to-earthness, when I did weights at the University of New South Wales I spotted bench press for a professsional rugby league player, who was doing rehabilitation weights during the summer break[7] in between contracts, before heading to Europe to play with a French team. I somehow doubt that your average premier league player ever has the misfortune of having to share training space with us mere mortals, let alone having a non-professional human being assist them with their weights.

fn6: Australia has 4 codes of football that we divide our attention between, and we’ve been world champions in three of them.

fn7: “rehabilitation weights” for a dislocated shoulder in this case meant doing 85-100kg bench press sets of 12, with clap push ups in between and 30 second rests; followed by dumbbell flies with 35 kg on each shoulder, and more clap push ups. The man himself probably weighed 100kg. That’s some rehabilitation!