Last night featured one of the most uninspired displays of championship sports to which America has ever been subjected. Last October, we saw games, including multiple extra innings affairs, played with and end in pure joy. The football-watching public are gluttons for punishment.
If the American dream–with apologies to the late, great Dusty Rhodes–is a good home, loving family, bills that are paid, with some left over, by a position that rewards time and effort with promotions and upward mobility, why were millions of us watching a game Sunday night that looked less like The Dick Van Dyke Show and more akin to All in the Family?
The Super Bowl is not so much the clash of the last titans from opposing conferences as it is whoever is left remaining from a concentrated, four-month war of attrition. The game last night was a soulless, joyless slog through four quarters of poorly-executed offenses and two teams so apparently afraid of making a mistake that, at least in the first half, they refused to even try. At the watch party my wife and I attended, I can use one hand with digits to spare for the number of times there was cheering for in-game action. Even the commercials, the usual cop-out for people who don’t like football who end up watching the Super Bowl, seemed mostly non-descript.
Our general aspirations are upward while our fandom apparently operates in the converse. We dream to be middle class and beyond while spending our Sundays in front of sporting events watching downward toward the struggles of the those who fight to get by. To wit, we like our battles to be won in the trenches by guys who bring their lunchpails.
With our admittedly bourgeois and by confession, reach-exceeds-our-grasp spread across the room, everyone was there; no one really knew why.
And thus it is with tradition: sacred things only remain sacred insofar as those who hold those things to be sacred understand why they are sacred in the first place. Championship games–contests with real consequence–should be the best games with the best teams playing at their best. Rooting for the Patriots is like rooting for Google. (No one roots for the Rams, so we’ll just leave it at that.)
By way of contrast, after a sprawling, six-month affair many people claim to be too much of an investment, Major League Baseball enjoyed one of its most compelling postseasons last October. Every team that made it to that point deserved to be there: for us fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, we felt much as fans of the Kansas City Chiefs did two weeks ago (and definitely this morning.) We came so close to a shot at the biggest prize and would have relished our chance to claim it. Both even boast our leagues’ respective MVP.
But for those who have been there before and those newly (re-)acquainted with the final leg toward a baseball championship, there was nothing but joy in victory and pain in defeat. The Brewers and Dodgers went 13 innings for a LA winner in mid-October, a grinding game that was no less dramatic or exciting to watch. Those same Dodgers and Red Sox went 18 innings in what will be known as the Nathan Eovaldi game and he lost! That victory was Pyrrhic, as the team from New England went on to take the World Series, 4-1. The Red Sox played seven full months of baseball and did not finish the season relieved, as though Frodo finally rid himself of the One Ring; they celebrated. The Brewers clinched a postseason berth–they hadn’t even won anything yet!–and this is what we got from their beloved octagenarian.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady, less than half Ueck’s age, looked like he needed a good, long nap after Zuerlein’s kick ended up nowhere near the uprights and hitting a Chick-fil-A storefront in the concourse.
The easy rejoinder is that ‘FOOTBALL IS A GRIND, BRUH’ and it is; but it is four months, played once a week and these Super Bowls are played either in climate-controlled venues or in cities with accommodating climes. Baseball is no less taxing (ask a catcher) and demands as much if not more mentally than football will. Basketball is more physically-demanding and requires players to play both ends of the court. A similar claim can be made for hockey.
Yet, millions of people watched a consensus aesthetically-displeasing football game last night while the World Series last October sputtered to an 8.2 rating and no one knows where the Stanley Cup Finals are going to be later this spring. It’s the NHL on OWN!
We are gluttons for punishment.
Give me the game that passes time, that reminds us of childhood and embraces the naive joie de vivre that comes with playing a child’s game for the balance of one’s youthful life. The game that ends not in the relief which is only known on the other side of conflict, but in the pure exuberation concomitant with victory, be it a walk-off in May or a pennant-clinching strikeout in October. Let’s turn our aspirations downward yet, toward our children, and the life we want them to lead. That life is more likely to be found with a bat and glove than shoulder pads and a helmet, for those aspirations of youth are the same as those whose lives are autumnal.
It is then no surprise that our passion is football, when the dreams of comfortable retirement are threatened by spasmodic markets or geopolitical instability. The militaristic order of football engenders a kind of thrust reserved for populist or nationalist movements and thirst for dominance that placates those for whom the future is not so rosy. (We get the government we deserve; so, too, is it the case with sport.) Watching the gladiator class make thousands of dollars bashing in their brains dulls us from the existential malaise that plagues our lives. Football becomes a metaphor for our own time: a gilded age when we speak not of wins but glory, not of stats but of war heroes that we hope in vain are avatars for our own feeble lives.
Saturdays and Sundays lost to the anesthetic of bread and circuses. There’s a reason people watch all weekend long; why Super Bowl coverage lasts from the end of conference championship weekend through the yammering chunderheads on sports cable networks today.
On the other hand, we watch baseball to compliment life, not to absolve ourselves from it. In just over a week’s time, pitchers and catchers report to camp, bringing us the hope that comes in mid-winter: spring is coming, the radio will crackle with familiar voices and the commentary of a game of innings will punctuate our lives once more. There is joy that comes with spring training that football can never begin to imitate. One lends itself to celebrates toil and drudgery; the other, life itself.
Give me baseball.
(And Baseball, don’t ruin these good vibes by screwing up the next round of labor negotiations.)
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.