An Intellectual's Defense of Football


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Every intellectual who loves football has faced a moment like it.

Suppose you are out tonight at some sort of highbrow cultural event—a gallery opening, a book signing. Maybe even hanging around the local boho-friendly coffee shop. You may mention that the Monday Night Football regular season premier is tonight and kicks off with an unprecedented and absurd doubleheader. And suddenly, you might find yourself chatting with a person who doesn't like football. Not someone who merely ignores the sport, but truly believes that the game is a malevolent force in American life.

Most often, they will only be snobs—mere cynics who think popular culture itself is an oxymoron. For them, following football is indistinguishable from a larger lifestyle that includes eating fast-food, shopping at Wal-Mart, driving an SUV, and wearing unstylish clothing—all mortal sins.

What's more appalling about football for the cynic, though, isn't the game itself, but the unabashed affection hardcore fans have for it. Truly loving a football team—living and dying with every snap, getting decked out for games, hugging strangers after touchdowns—demands a sincerity and unaffected passion that's as painful to the cynic as daylight is to a vampire.

If the football-basher is an academic, the rhetoric tends to get much more specific, and more politicized. Words like "patriarchy" and "sexist" are tossed around. Almost inevitably the cheerleading squad is denounced as "exploiting" women's bodies—nevermind the men's bodies exploited on the field. Then comes a complaint about college football supposedly robbing resources from serious educational pursuits—apparently on the theory that those 80,000 people who show up for Crimson Tide games would otherwise be attending lectures on French Symbolist poetry.

But even reasonable people can have qualms about the game—the rampant commercialism, the slightly seedy, very intimate relationship with gambling. For the NFL, the very success of the league makes it hard to identify with the players. That is, unless you also happen to be a highly paid, oversized, world-class athlete who's been given special treatment since grade school.

Whatever form, and whoever makes them, the arguments against football boil down to one of two basic objections. First, the games simply don't matter—not in the grand scheme of things. Does anybody lose their house because of those 22 guys running after a little brown ball? Does anybody die because some kicker misses a field-goal that would have won a game for the home team?

Yes on both counts. First, if the kick was missed in Oakland or Philly, the kicker himself would be in deep water. And, given the aforementioned relationship between football and gambling, you can also be pretty sure that someone's life—or at least their thumbs and kneecaps—is riding on every point.

The larger idea—that football games aren't life-or-death for most fans—is true, but couldn't be more irrelevant. Of course, the games don't matter. That's the whole idea. Life is serious, confusing, and scary. Sports are a refuge from real-world problems—and a place to release all the angst they cause. To be a football fan is to enter a world where you can paint your face, whoop and holler, and wear the silliest hat you can find—provided it's in team colors. You can be primal, tribal in a way that's simply not socially acceptable in any other context. If life-and-death issues were at stake, it wouldn't be entertainment.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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