The Classical is a special place for the airing of irregular, unpopular opinions about sports, so I figure this is a fine time and place to promote the following irregular, half-baked, unpopular sports opinion: The NFL is shitty and I should stop watching it.
This has nothing to do with the community hernia that everyone is suffering because of replacement referees, but it does have something to do with communities. I love football, even shitty football, because it is a community that brings me closer to my fellow human beings and even some pets. Sports fandom is one share of stock in a joint venture that ties you to the experiences, attitudes, company, licensed apparel lifestyle choices, etc of others. It gives you something to talk about with male relatives that doesn’t involve actual feelings or anything inappropriate like that. Community in general is a fine thing. Without any community, you feel like shit. There are more rewarding, more specific, more reliable kinds of community than football fandom. Love or volunteerism or neighborhood kinships. But fandom is especially great, because it’s a community organized around something powerful, unifying, and wonderfully entertaining.
Fandom delivers exciting narratives of perseverance and eventual triumph, or underdog striving capped with honorable defeat. These narratives function as portable emotional currency, with little illustrations of mythological scenes printed on them, legal tender that you can swap with other people in conversation over beverages or phone wires, across class and race and age boundaries. Do we always use fandom for self-embiggenment? No. Mostly fandom means we yell at the TV. That's a kind of community too, though, and it gets the job done, surprisingly often.
Pro football is a really good variation on portable emotional currency. It is as emotionally compelling as a war, but no one gets killed (yet). It has physical complexity and nuance on par with Balanchine. There are lots of different teams with different tribal or stylistic identities to latch on to in a given season, even if your chosen team sucks. Football, as a very well-conceived legal tender, even allows you to bypass rooting for a whole team and instead make your own, choosing individual guys for your imaginary squad and rooting for those specific guys in their make-believe game against another person's imaginary team. You can bet non-imaginary money on games, in a thousand different ways, to make watching even more exciting.
If you wish to die without experiencing a single second devoid of direct stimulation via moving images, there is a special channel that only shows the exciting parts of games, quietly fileting out the boring parts, zooming from city to city to cherry-pick only the thrilling moments. The special channel is like a slot machine where each slot is another slot machine. They don't all pay out, but the possibilities are so many as to make a jackpot seem inevitable. There are runaway-train fumble returns and rainbow Hail Marys and rib-loosening hits and grass stains and mud and weirdly rigid-looking cheerleader decolletages.
There is also Terry Bradshaw's hair and entire above-the-neck situation. There are endless, effortlessly hateful and misogynistic beer commercials. There is the rasping, sad voice that may or may not belong to Denis Leary screaming at you about truck-related consumer imperatives, while giant 3D-animated transcriptions of his truck soliloquy plunge across your television screen. If you are at the game, there are friendly tailgates and endless TV timeouts and an adult man dressed like a firefighter for unclear reasons yelling the same four letters over and over, or a guy dressed like a Star Wars stormtrooper but in Cincinnati Bengals tiger-stripe pattern. There are lumpy people in orange fleece pullovers wearing dog masks and gesticulating with plastic femur bones. There is everything.
I am not a particularly sanguine or even replacement-level attentive fan of the Cleveland Browns, for a handful of reasons. First of all, I don’t know a lot of other Browns fans, despite being from the suburbs of Cleveland, because I haven’t lived in the Cleveland area since the day after the new Browns played and lost their first game. Sometimes I watch Browns games with a friend from home who lives where I live. My dad and I usually briefly recap recent Cleveland sports events when talking on the phone. Otherwise I am a Browns fan in the same sense that I am a fan of being bald or right-handed. I can’t really change these facts, but I am not running away from them either.
Another reason I try not to care very much about the Browns: They are awful, in a tepid, lingering-fart-in-an-elevator way. Since returning the NFL in 1999, the Browns are 68–143 (.322). When I added the records up, I was actually surprised the Browns’ winning percentage was that high—it’s mostly the result product of a 10-win, no-playoff aberration in 2007. It pains me to admit that the Detroit Lions, more a trope representing a badly run football team than an actual football team for most of this sample, are 67–144, just one game worse. Wait three weeks and the Browns will have slumped below the Lions, whose past 13 years include five seasons of three or fewer wins, including a season of zero or fewer wins.
In winning less than one out of every three games for a decade-plus, the Browns have used many bad offensive schemes, suffered many injuries, had a bunch of lumpy, frightened-looking coaches, and made a series of amusingly bad draft picks, most of whom go on to have respectable careers for other teams not laboring under the burden of being the Browns.
You know what, though? I don’t like the Browns because they make me feel good. I like them because they’re the Browns. The franchise is highly guilty of lacking the exalted, trebly end of bathos, but they’re not evil or a scam, they’re just shitty—just like me and lots of other people. It sucked when they moved to Baltimore in 1995—it sucked so much that Susan Faludi has a chapter in one of her books about the feelings of betrayal and loss that it inspired in Browns fans. We watched the press conference where Art Modell formally announced the move on a TV set in the middle of my 9th grade biology class. The new Browns are shittier than the old Browns, but it’s still a perfectly good football team. I was never happier in my football-watching life than when Eric Metcalf returned his second punt of the game for a TD against Pittsburgh in 1993, but when William Green, who later missed time when his fiancée stabbed him with a kitchen knife, uncorked a 64-yard TD against Atlanta in 2002 to clinch a playoff spot, the new Browns were the real Browns as far as I was concerned. Even though I dance around the dumpster fire and mutter about abandoning the Browns a few times every year, I’m never going to leave. No amount of losing or cutaway shots to Pat Shurmur looking like Beaker from The Muppets made flesh, no bad draft picks, no anything can make me not a Browns fan.
Except for the NFL itself. If football is a portable emotional currency, the NFL in 2012 is a deranged financial instrument, a shitty stock sold back to clients too dumb to know it. The NFL still works as a medium of exchange, but just barely. We huddle around the shared irritation of the replacement refs, try to scrub our souls clean of the filmy residue of Coors Light commercials, share holistic remedies for the incessant, mechanized corporate branding that pounds away at our sense organs for about 12 hours a week. The three-plus hours that a standard game lasts is 50 percent advertising, 25 percent weirdly protracted replay reviews, 20 percent Phil Simms ritually murdering the idea of communication, and 5 percent football.
Alternatives to capitalism inevitably run aground on idealism and naivete, and I don’t have any expectation (nor have I even remotely made a good argument) that I can escape the NFL. I want to go watch football at the next possible opportunity. I settle for the NFL’s bullshit because they get me high enough not to mind. But during the ample non-football interludes caused by players getting carted off the field, TV timeouts, Chris Berman, replay delays, and other incessant reminders of shittiness, I think more and more about how I spend one of the two days I get off work every week, for a third of the calendar, watching something shitty, just because it reminds me of football.