Letter from America: Sports, Tradition and Courage
By David Fedo
If you have ever wondered which American holiday or day of celebration is most universally anticipated by its citizens, and thought it is perhaps the Fourth of July (Independence Day), Thanksgiving Day in November, or Christmas, you would have been mistaken.
That honour now appears to go to the Super Bowl. The most important calendar date in American football, the Super Bowl is an outrageously-hyped competition in late January or early February between the top two professional teams from the National and American conferences of the National Football League (NFL). The game, held each year on a Sunday (this year it's on February 1, with the opposing teams being the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks), brings nearly everything else in the US to a halt. Last year, an extraordinary 115 million people watched the extravaganza on television.
I know, I know! Singaporeans, by and large, don't care about this puzzling and violent game played on a distant continent – and clearly, those who do, often don't fully understand it. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the American basketball superstars, Singaporeans know; but about Peyton Manning (of the Denver Broncos) and Tom Brady (of the New England Patriots), both hugely successful celebrity quarterbacks (more on quarterbacks later), they don't.
Wikipedia reports that American football is now "the most popular sport in America", with over one million high school and 70,000 college and university students playing the game each autumn. Professional football is organised by 32 teams in two leagues; the teams represent many of the major cities of the country, and some of the smaller markets too (Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Buffalo, New York). My favoured team, the New England Patriots, located in a nearby Boston suburb called Foxboro, has been one of the top franchises over the last decade. The Gillette Stadium in Foxboro is filled on game days or nights with rabid fans who live and die by the team's performance. Even when the wintry weather brings snow and freezing temperatures to New England, pre-game cookouts and barbecues in the stadium's parking lots are extremely popular in Foxboro and at most other venues.
This is the 49th straight year that the Super Bowl has been showcased to millions, and it has become glitzier every year. But American football goes back at least to 1869, when the universities of Rutgers and Princeton competed in what football historians report was the first official game of the sport. The early rules made the game seem more like an unruly combination of rugby and soccer, but in 1880, Walter Camp, "the father of American football", modernised the rules. A simple and unheralded game slowly ascended in glory.
The game of cricket is complicated to most Americans, but American football may be even more bewildering to foreigners. When I lived and worked in Singapore (2007–2012), my local friends mostly found the game's back-and-forth and starts-and-stops unfathomable. "It's a mystery," was often the complaint. "How can you tell what's going on?"
Thus the following brief primer in this normally non-sports column from America might help, and it is based upon this simple premise: The goal is for your team to score more points than the other team. If you do, you win!
Each team puts 11 players on the playing field at any one time. The field extends lengthwise for 100 yards (91.4m), marked out in stripes every 10 yards. Both teams try to advance the oval football by running with the ball or "passing" the ball to a teammate, and at the same time avoid being "tackled" in doing so, with the objective of making what is called a "first down" after 10 yards, or a "touchdown" (worth six points) by crossing the defender's goal line. The team with the ball (the offence) must make at least a first down in four attempts; otherwise it gives up the ball to the other team (the defence). The defence attempts to stop the advance of the team on offence by tackling the player with the ball, and if and when it succeeds, it obtains control of the ball and becomes the team on offence.
American football is played over four quarters. Unlike soccer (our name for international football), teams may substitute liberally. After each play by the offence, normally the teams "huddle" to prepare for the next play. The teams' quarterbacks are the keys to the offence. They usually tell their teammates what the next planned play will be; likewise someone heading the defence will tell his teammates what formation they will arrange themselves in preparation. Quarterbacks are the highly-skilled players who also throw ("pass") the ball to players who are called "receivers".
Kicking the football also plays an important role in the game, although certainly not as constant and crucial as in international football. A "punter" kicks the ball when it has become clear that the team will likely not "make" a first down. Teams also employ "placekickers" to attempt kicks directed to cross between the goalposts. The intention is to make the kick accurately and thereby score a three-point field goal.
All well and good.
But the caveat is that American football is a very physical and even violent game. Players get hurt, sometimes badly. This year, more than ever, serious concerns have been raised about injuries suffered by players at all levels. The one injury that has received the most critical attention is concussions, caused by repeated blows to the head. All players wear helmets on the field, but helmets and other protective padding do not necessarily stop big bodies from colliding dangerously with one another. But if violence is removed from the game, will Americans continue to watch football with such passion? This is not at all clear.
This year, professional football and, to some extent, even college and university non-professional football have also been plagued by the unseemly and ugly off-field behaviour of some of their players. This behaviour has included some flagrant incidents involving sexual and physical abuse. But with some exceptions, talk show hosts and many in the media, not to mention the NFL itself, are seemingly more worried about the deleterious impact of these incidents on the game itself, rather than on the suffering of the victims. This attitude must change.
And just 10 days before the Super Bowl, there was a controversy over the alleged "deflation" of game balls (ie. they were found to be underinflated, below the NFL's requirements) by the New England Patriots in its previous conference victory against the Indianapolis Colts. That contention caught the attention of most Americans.
But football is now not just a game; it's an unstoppable industry. The teams in the NFL bring in a collective annual income of over US$10 billion. Katy Perry, the global superstar, will be the half-time entertainer to add to the hoopla at this year's Super Bowl. There will also be fireworks in the skies over Phoenix, Arizona, where the game is being played. It's all a gigantic and sometimes overdone enterprise.
Still, despite some misgivings, and after all is said and done, I must admit that I will watch the game again this year. It's an addictive entertainment for Americans, and not just for fans of professional athletics. On that Sunday night, I'll be sitting with friends in front of the television set (the game will be broadcast internationally) and cheering for my favourite team. It's a ritual that, after many years, I am loath to give up.
In his poem 'To an Athlete Dying Young', the English poet A.E. Housman eulogised a prize-winning champion runner who, having slipped "betimes away", was borne home to his grave by the same townsmen who cheered him after his success on the track.
I thought of that poem recently while attending the funeral of my high school and university classmate and long-time friend, Tom Andrew (1943–2014), in the Midwest city of Duluth, in the state of Minnesota; he died this past Christmas Eve day after a gallant struggle with pancreatic cancer. He could no longer be called young, but at age 71 he was not exactly old either.
Tom was a superb lawyer who, among a wide miscellany of cases, defended union workers and liberal causes, but he was also an indefatigable marathon runner (he entered races all over the world, including the famous one in Boston, near where I now live), and maintained his spirit and a high level of energy until a few days before he died, in a hospice in his hometown. He fought the disease all the way with his usual feistiness and humour, living far longer than the doctors said he could, facing the end with resilience and bravery. Throughout his life, even after his cancer diagnosis, he travelled widely, read voraciously, attended sporting events and theatre performances with equal enthusiasm, hunted and fished throughout the northern Minnesota and Wisconsin wilderness, and was a beloved husband and engaged father to his four children and a grandfather to 21 others. He somehow seemed to connect with them all. Tom's funeral was appropriately a celebration and decidedly not a dirge. There were more smiles and laughter than tears in the crowded church.
Tom and I grew up in Duluth, a scenic city of some 85,000 people, sometimes called the San Francisco of the Northland because it sits on a rugged but splendid hill that slopes down to the shores of a vast Lake Superior, the largest freshwater body in the world. We graduated together from Central High School and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but because we ended up living so far apart, in the intervening years we saw each other only periodically. The last time was some five months ago, when my wife Susan and I visited Tom and his wife Jeanne in their home in Superior, Wisconsin, located just across the St Louis Bay from Duluth; they had visited us at our home in Medford, Massachusetts, during the preceding October. The photos we exchanged of those times together will be part of what keeps our memories alive.
In an article in The Boston Globe just two days after Tom's death, writer Joanna Weiss, referring to Atul Gawande's new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, reports that we as humans are culturally "stubbornly reluctant to confront our own mortality". My friend Tom Andrew was not perfect (who is?), but it can be said that he did not shirk from confronting his inevitable death, and I will always remember his grace and courage in doing so.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 1 Jan 2015