Friday, February 3, 2012

The National Pastime

NFL Hall of Fame great, Fran Tarkenton, writes a succinct piece on why, in his opinion, football has replaced baseball as the national pastime.  In his opinion, this is due to football's balanced competition, and personnel decisions that are based purely on a survival-of-the-fittest ethos.
The foundation of the league's success is a system of financial parity among teams and ruthless meritocracy among its players. 
At the team level, this all goes back to the vision of Pete Rozelle, the league's commissioner from 1960 to 1989. Before the 1962 season, he convinced the owners of the teams in the biggest markets—such as the Mara family in New York City and George Preston Marshall in Washington, D.C.—that every team in the league should split television revenues equally. The teams in the megamarkets would get the same check as a team in Green Bay, Wis. 
The competitiveness that was fostered by financial parity would have all been for naught had not the league and the union—the NFL Players Association—agreed on a meritocratic system for the athletes. In the NFL, the best players get paid handsomely. But if you can't play anymore, then you'll find yourself out of a job, no matter what your name is.
That sounds reasonable, but not too thoughtful.  I doubt that he's articulated a universal principle even within the world of sports, let alone one applicable beyond it.

All sports thrive on the principle of survival of the fittest, not just football.  So, that fails to distinguish football's success.  

There is no affirmative action in sports, which is why fans appreciate it so much.  The game is not handicapped to force high achievers to underperform.  It's all "may the best man win."  The result is thrilling competition in all sports.

Should a player produce a championship, or some unforgettable thrill, he will never again have to buy a beer in that city, e.g., Cody Ross in San Francisco.  But, his spot on the team is not assured, viz., Cody Ross in Boston next year.

I have mixed feelings about this, being able to recall a time when your team's players were yours.  You could bond with them emotionally.

Every player was a project, a long-term investment.  Team owners were more like investors, and less like traders.  So were fans.

Now every player is a free agent.  That can't be healthy for the human heart--either the players' or the fans.  I am convinced that the loss of loyalty in sports, and business, is symbiotic with its earlier loss in marriage.

If there is no permanence in the bond between a man, woman and their children--despite their having made public promises, or vows, to remain together until death do them part, and having brought new people (with their mixed DNA) into the world--then there is nothing on earth that's stable.  Sports has merely evolved to give people a transitory cast of actors more in agreement with their devalued expectations.

But, I digress.  With respect to Tarkenton's thesis, his other point about the NFL's much vaunted parity equally fails to persuade.

In the rest of the world, soccer is king.  And club soccer gets by very well with just a couple of dominant teams in each country mopping up on inferior opponents week after week: e.g., Barca and Madrid in Spain; Celtic and Rangers in Scotland.

Moreover, a nearly invariant group of teams constitutes the great clubs of soccer the world through: Manchester United, Barca, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Ajax of Amsterdam, Bayern of Munich, Flamengo of Brazil, Boca Jr's of Argentina.  That's just the way soccer fans the world over like it.

Baseball also gets by with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs and a periodic interloper-or-two.  True, it's a fan's bitter pill to swallow knowing that his team's super-stars will likely someday be wearing pin stripes or baby blue.

But, the fact that I would prefer to see Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and others retire as San Francisco Giants, doesn't make the NFL model a superior model.  I do like it more, however, as long as my team wins.  (Go 49ers in 2012!)

College basketball; international rugby; the NBA; NCAA football: all have their royalty.  All thrive.

Sports thrive, generally, because they are time-capsuled doses of catharsis.  They are more like movies than like novels.  And, in a world pressed for time, they are just what the MD ordered: quick drama on the cheap.

An alternative explanation to the NFL's peculiar success is precisely what keeps it from being the national pastime.  Not only is it drama on the cheap; it is week-after-week, which provides a long period of time between games for fans to work up passions.

There is plenty of great action, lots of thrills, exhilarating highs and crushing lows, and then it's over.  Next week's opponent becomes the focus of anxiety.

The action gets dissected for several days.  Fans can savor their team's victory all week, or bury their misery from a loss quickly in order to focus on other things.  It's not always with you.

Baseball is still the national pastime and always will be because of its leisurely pace--no clock to dominate its action--and daily rhythm.  It's with you when you wake up, and turn in for the night, everyday throughout the long, hot summer.

In sum, I disagree with Fran-the-man, which is not to deny that his scrambling in Minnesota and New York was really fun to watch.  He was a great performer and competitor.  It's a pity about all those Super Bowl losses.

No comments:

Post a Comment