At just after 11 pm London time, in about half an hour or so as I begin to compose this posting, NFL Super Bowl XXXVII will blast off, in San Diego, Southern California – and I will be watching it on British Channel 5 TV. In the last few years, Channel 5 have shown lots of American football, but not the Super Bowl itself. Sky TV would nip in and buy the Super Bowl, leaving Channel 5 with a stupid little highlights show the day after, and I eventually stopped bothering about any American football. But this year, probably because Sky has finally devoured all its adversaries in the shark tank that is British pay TV and doesn’t need to spend money on such things any more, regular Channel 5 is showing the Super Bowl as well as having shown lots of the preceding games. They of course flagged this up loudly beforehand, which means that this time around I’ve been paying attention to the entire NFL season.
Something similar has happened with rugby. All of the Six Nations games this year are about to be shown by the BBC. For the last few years regular TV only showed highlights of the England home games at Twickenham, but now I’ll be able to see all the England games in their entirety. Deep joy.
I don’t much care who wins the Super Bowl. I’ll be watching for the Americanness of it all, for Shania Twain at half time (although ST’s recent album is a huge disappointment to my ear), for the astonishing skill of one guy chucking a ball forty yards, and another guy running full tilt and catching it without breaking his stride, which means that the ball must have been thrown exactly right, several seconds earlier, at a completely blank piece of pre-selected grass. Being a successful NFL quarterback must be about as easy as being a First World War fighter ace. Amazing. And I’ll be watching because I like it when the people I hated at school inflict pain on each other instead of on me. The crowds that watch these games are exuberant, but not psychotic. The commentary is expert, but good humoured. The game itself combines immense intellectual complexity with raw human muscle power. The dancing girls on the touchline are great, as is the aerial photography of the stadium and its surrounding localities. Channel 5 TV reception in my home is very bad, but I don’t care.
I do, however, have my criticisms of American football, most of them centred on what is called “parity”, and when rootling around for a website link to include here I discovered that my doubts are shared by some Americans. Here’s what a certain Tony Hawley of News Tribune has to say about parity:
The NFL thinks it’s the best pro sport because any team can win a championship in any given year. While that’s an admirable trait in a league, it also makes it tougher to care about who wins the Super Bowl.
Since there are no superpowers any more, there are no teams you can count on rooting against. Since there are no perennial doormats, there are no underdogs to root for. Because any team can win a Super Bowl in any given season, it no longer seems like a great accomplishment when you pull it off.
Parity is achieved by such devices as imposing a “salary cap” on all the teams, so that they must basically all spend the same amount on player salaries, and by giving the worst teams last year the pick of the following year’s best new players.
I don’t like this. As Hawley says, it drains the meaning out of things.
Maybe Americans are religious. Maybe that’s it. If God can’t fix life, he can at least, in the person of the NFL, be made to fix American football to give everyone an equal chance. Maybe that’s what is going on.
In English football (“soccer” – which, I learned the other day, is because our football is As-SOC-iation Football) the rule is: to them that have shall be given. If you get to be Manchester United, or Arsenal, or Liverpool, it’s because you are based in a great and ancient city with a past glorious enough to have assembled a decent number of people to buy the season tickets and the shirts and the merchandise, and because with that foundation you also did everything else right as well. You built a good stadium. You bought good players and not just overpriced big names. You gelled your team of multi-national internationals into a team of team players, and when you got to the top you didn’t get complacent but kept on improving. You have a good youth set-up. You find a really good manager, and you stick by him through bad patches.
Over here, God definitely takes sides. Currently He swithers between supporting Manchester United and supporting the current best team in London, Arsenal. So if some small town team knocks Manchester United out of the FA Cup, that’s a miracle which, on those rare occasions when it happens, will be fondly remembered for decades. And if some non-major city team wins the Premier League, ditto.
What actually happened today was that Man U thrashed one of the lesser London sides, West Ham United, who are currently bottom of the Premier League and looking like being relegated, 6-0 in the Cup. And Shrewsbury (from a far lower division – total team cost £90 thousand) were beaten 4-0 in the Cup by Chelsea of the Premier League (total cost of team £80 million). Which of course is the way these things usually work out. It isn’t fair. It is like life. But occasionally, just occasionally, and again like life, the game doesn’t go with the form book. The big battalions and the big money don’t always win the day.
(Oh-my-god! Celine Dion is singing an anthem. Did any of you see the send-up The Simpsons did of American football anthem-singing? Well, of course you did. Actually, God Bless America wasn’t too bad. Now it’s the National Anthem sung by … The Dixie Chicks! With jet airplanes! God bless America!)
They’re off. The players are reading their names and alma maters to camera, and Oakland, all in white, look like they’re going to open the scoring. Yep. Gannon gets sacked but Janikowski kicks the field goal.
I always have to wait until the game starts before I find out which team I want to win. And this year I find that I am supporting: the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That’s in Florida, right?