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How to Watch Football if You Hate It.

February 3, 2012

Here our family's Dip tries to tip an All-Conference Tackle from Johns Hopkins

This Sunday you, along with over 100 million Americans, and perhaps hundreds of millions worldwide, will likely be in a room with a TV screen in it while grown men run around and crash into each other. I refer to American Football. Of course I am talking about the Super Bowl.

All of us have sung a song, drawn a picture in art class and most of us have acted in a skit or a play. So when we watch a concert, see an art exhibit or go to a movie we have a hint of what we are watching came to be. But with a few exceptions half of us (the female half) have never put on pads and banged into another human. A small minority of the remaining male half has actually done that act on any level as well.

As one who has played, coached and spawned a college player, watching a football game when you have never played is like trying to understand how something tastes if you have never eaten it. You get the idea by association, but you are, finally, just guessing.

For a nation of guessers, those who watch football can be dramatically judgmental. ”Experts” abound because American football is just arcane enough that knowing the jargon and the rules simulates understanding. In this era of video gaming anyone who has played any Madden game thinks they “know” strategy.

However if you ask someone who has actually played, or seriously coached, that level of understanding has the street cred of someone who has watched “Saving Private Ryan” telling a vet what a hellish experience  war is.

Even more problematically, many, if not most people (including my wife and other son) have almost zero desire to watch football on any level. They do not pretend to like it, let alone understand it. But on this huge national cultural holiday those people feel obligated to watch this one game, just as most of us resign ourselves to eating turkey on Thanksgiving.

How can these victims of our country’s 4 hour mass hype disorder find fun beyond the commercials? Here are 2 very simple ways anyone can enjoy watching the craziness on the field without reading a single article, watching a minute of pregame analysis, or begging your 12 year old nephew to give you a clue.

The first approach is to follow a player that is in the middle of the screen, any player at all (he could have your favorite number, the name of your high school geometry teacher, or just nice thighs). It can be any player, but it’s most fun to pick one of the dozen or so right in the middle of everything because the camera usually has them right in front of you in every play.

Every time the play starts a tiny drama will unfold of what he does and what is done to him. He will do things (and have things done to him) you have never noticed before. He will move unbelievably fast on some plays, be blasted off his feet on others, knock someone off theirs on others. But you have to watch for 10 straight plays – if he is on the field that long.

Then the trick is to pick one player from each team on offense and defense and one or two of them will almost always be on the screen. (Unless there is kicking involved – get a chicken wing during those interludes.)

The second technique is to watch the players completely away from the middle of the screen – the two or 3 players far away from all those big squatting lugs at the middle of the screen. They are virtually dancing a wild ballet running up, back, pirouetting, leaping and sprinting. It is an extreme dance of extraordinary co-ordination between those far away from the middle pile up.

These two approaches are counterintuitive. Strategy is not important. Star players are meaningless. The video game is not being followed. These approaches bring the game down to the level of those who have played it.  If you follow these two methods of observing the game you will be watching the game at the level of one man dealing with other men in an extreme and dramatic set of conditions. Violent, yes. But exquisitely human.

Football has all of the coarse, tribal, loutish and thuggish aspects that make it disgusting to many. Additionally, football is full of inscrutable language, trivia, rituals and cultish internal meanings that can put anyone off- even avowed “fans”.

But you can reject all of that. You can focus on the undeniable human acts of courage, grace, athleticism and self-sacrifice that happen on every single play – not by teams with strategies and game plans and hyped personas. The most meaningful part of football, whether at the Super Bowl or a freshman high school scrimmage is the young men giving themselves up in full devotion to their effort, travail and triumph. It can move you deeply if you let it in.

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