The New York Giants will play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis this Sunday. While I have strong connections to both New York and Boston, I am rather ambivalent about who wins (I may have a slight preference for the Patriots because I don't want to put up with the gloating of Giants fans in Manhattan where I live).
Nonetheless, after living in this country for many years, I have embraced many American traditions and institutions, including sports. I love sports history, watched many games in person (and, of course, on TV); read scores of sports-related books and biographies; devoured literally thousands of newspaper and magazine articles; had many discussions and arguments over various sports topics; and enjoyed every second of it.
However, I have never been enamored with the NFL.
I am fully aware that pro football is (by a wide margin) the most popular U.S. sport -- if one goes by TV ratings, at least. Indeed, the Super Bowl typically attracts gargantuan audiences – often the biggest ratings-grabbers of the year.
I also acknowledge that in some parts of the country – particularly the Midwest and the South – football is practically a “religion” of sorts.
Still, the pigskin has never appealed to me the way that the three “B's” have: baseball, basketball and boxing – with baseball ranking number one.
The three aforementioned sports are blessed with glorious histories, gripping story-lines, spectacular heroes, grim villains; drama and tragedy.
I suppose football also has some of those same qualities – and yet, it doesn't have the same 'hold' over me.
I will admit that I have been fascinated by certain 'episodes' of pro football history – most notably, the Vince Lombardi-led Green Bay Packers of the 1960s, the unforgettable 1985 Chicago Bears of Mike Ditka; and the scandalous Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s (i.e., the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson soap opera).
I thought about why I like baseball so much better than football, and here are some of the reasons I came up with:
*Baseball, whose history stretches as far back to the Civil War to a more pastoral period, has closely served as a parallel proxy for the social changes in the U.S.
In the late 19th-century, most ballplayers either came from Southern farms or from the Irish ghettoes of the northeast. Reflecting immigration patterns of the early 20th century, more and more Italians and Eastern Europeans entered the game. After the introduction of Jackie Robinson in 1947, baseball gradually expanded its rosters to include blacks and Hispanics. By the 1990s, Asians began trickling into the game.
In contrast, football, which used to be all-white, is now predominantly black – not much “diversity” at all.
*Baseball is far more appealing on a purely aesthetic basis – the green fields, the uniforms, the wooden dugouts, the warm sunshine that graces over the games, etc. The ideal baseball player is tall, slender and handsome (in keeping with the ancient Greek ideals of what an athlete should look like).
To be blunt, a great many football players are grotesque to look at – especially the linemen, some of whom tip the scales at 300 pounds. I'm sorry, but a bloated, overweight, slow-moving sloth-like creature like that is simply not an “athlete” in my book.
*Because baseball has such a long season – stretching basically from mid-winter to late autumn, fans become intimately familiar with the players and can follow their day-to-day activities almost like they were close friends. This creates a kind of “emotional bond” between fan and player.
Part of this has to do with the fact that baseball players wear no masks – we know their faces, and even their personalities (at least those players on the teams we obsessively follow).
Thus, baseball players become more like “real three-dimensional people” to us – we get to know them, their backgrounds, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their very personalities.
A devoted fan of a particular baseball club knows what every single player (and even the coaches) look like and develop an attachment (or aversion) to.
In stark contrast, football players (covered by a fearsome mask and layers upon layers of padding) are mostly anonymous figures. The only exceptions to this rule are the handful of elite high-profile players who (for various reasons) attract reams and reams of media coverage. Almost everyone knows what Tom Brady looks like and is even familiar with his personal life – but how many fans (even those who follow Patriots) can name and identify the second-string punter?
The average football roster has up to 60 players – most of whom are faceless robots that the public knows or cares nothing about. They can walk around their local cities and most people would not even recognize them.
Meanwhile, the dedicated Phillies fan not only knows details of the 25th player, but even the top prospects in the minor leagues.
The average NFL career lasts only a few years – they are largely obscure to the local fan-base because of the extremely high turnover. For every Peyton Manning, there are dozens of Colts that even the good people in Indianapolis never get to know, nor even care about.
Some baseball careers last as long as 20 years – assuming the player stays on the same club; he becomes deeply embedded in the fabric of the local culture.
When you think of Boston, one immediately conjures up images of Ted Williams or maybe Carl Yastrzemski. In St, Louis, Stan Musial and Bob Gibson remain the dominant athletic figures. In Los Angeles, Sandy Koufax (who retired 45 years ago) is just as big as Magic Johnson and obliterates any Ram of Raider you can name.
And in New York City, is any sporting figure more dominant than Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle?
*I recall reading somewhere that Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics, fell asleep while watching a football game – it bored him to tears.
I can sympathize with old Red.
When people say baseball is “boring,” I counter that 99 percent of a football game comprises 3-yard runs and watching 22 people standing around doing nothing.
Yes, baseball is slow-moving and requires a lot of patience – but the game is also more hypnotic, involving and interesting than football can ever hope to be.
*In football when a key player goes down with injury – say, the starting quarterback or prominent running back (a common occurrence, given the game's violence) -- the season is often ruined. In baseball, when a front-line pitcher or slugger is hurt, there are always other players to pick up the slack. The “team concept” seems stronger on the baseball diamond.
Moreover, the football season is so short, a 0-5 beginning typically dooms the club. In baseball, a five-game losing streak means nothing in the grand scheme of the marathon season.
*A great deal of the NFL's appeal appears to be based on gambling (both in Las Vegas and in illegal forms). I have friends who bet on every game -- the Super Bowl alone attracts hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions in wagers across the country.
Yes, I know people bet on baseball games, but the magnitude seems much smaller. Baseball fans are apparently more geared to the ebbs and flows of the very game, rather than the spreads and odds provided by the bookies.
If gambling were truly illegalized and eliminated, would anybody care about the NFL? I doubt it.
*I fully realize that Major League Baseball is riddled with serious problems – steroids, the obstacles faced by small-market clubs; games that go on too long; excessive salaries even for mediocre players; a weak and feeble commissioner; players jumping from team to team, thereby destroying team unity and fan loyalty – but most of these problems have damaged all the major sports as well.
Moreover, baseball somehow survives – and it is the most beautiful and uplifting game America has ever known.