For decades, our country’s love of football has crossed political, socioeconomic, and generational lines.
And by “football,” I mean the game played on a gridiron with a prolate spheroid inflated leather ball. The athletic contest that requires gladiatorial equipment to protect the players from gruesome injuries. The sport where the players incur gruesome injuries anyway when they’re hit by people in gladiatorial equipment. The spectacle that’s played in North America and literally nowhere else…except of course when we trot it overseas to play in front of wide-eyed people with no earthly clue as to what is happening on the field. The game George Will once perfectly described as “violence punctuated by committee meetings.”
Countless men have played football throughout the years. Most played just long enough to become unquestioned experts on professional level game management. For instance, my dad played for a few seasons growing up, and is now the volunteer offensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys organization isn’t aware of that fact, likely because they can’t hear him yelling at his TV from that far away.
And I played defensive end in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, which qualifies me to coach the Oakland Raiders. I’m joking, of course. I’m completely overqualified. Well, other than my severe lack of a bad haircut…but that’s only because I don’t have any hair to cut into a bowl shape.
America’s passion for the game runs deep. We have professional games three days a week. College games are played almost every day, except Sunday, which is not to be utilized in any part without the express written consent of the National Football League. My tiny hometown in Texas may not have a McDonald’s or a Walmart, but it does have a multi-million dollar football stadium for high school football.And I played defensive end in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade, which qualifies me to coach the Oakland Raiders. I’m joking, of course. I’m completely overqualified. Click To Tweet
Our culture takes football seriously. Go to any place where people are gathered to watch football. You’ll see old and young people jumping for joy when their favorite running back crosses the goal line. You’ll hear cries of fans’ frustration as teams choose the wrong half of the run-pass option. You’ll witness the poorest and richest Americans come together to angrily decry their team’s first round draft pick as a bust.
I mean, let’s face it: he’s a 22-year-old kid, struggling to adjust to a new level of competition with round-the-clock media attention. Just who the f&*k does this guy think he is?! My grandma can run better routes than that.
But in what has always been a hallmark of the game’s fandom, you’ll hear people deferentially agree on referees’ most obvious calls on the field. It doesn’t matter which team you support. When a player—mine or yours—steps out of bounds and it’s clear on the replay, even the staunchest supporters will say, “Okay yeah, he’s obviously out of bounds. Damn.” Or when a flag is thrown because my team’s cornerback is tackling your team’s wide receiver while the ball is in mid-flight. I may be wearing that cornerback’s jersey, but I will still laughingly admit my guy’s screw-up.
It’s fans’ version of sportsmanship. We hate your team for some reason (namely because your fan base is a bunch of degenerate battery chuckers), but we’ll still concede that your team has some outstanding athletes. And we’ll admit that the game is generally fair…even when that fairness goes against our team.
Of course, when calls are more judgment based, we all reserve the right to hurl insults (note for Philly: NOT batteries) at the referees. We will refuse to accept our team’s guilt.
That wasn’t a late hit. Their QB just dislocated his own shoulder to try to get 15 yards, and you fell for it! And our team’s choreographed, 11-minute end zone dance, complete with props, costumes, and an intermission? Yeah, that was well within the bounds of sportsmanship. Ask anyone. Okay, not literally anyone. Ask people wearing our team’s colors.
Still, give me a super slo-mo replay showing my #1 fantasy wide receiver’s right foot firmly planted on the white line, and I certainly won’t argue that what we are all seeing is not real. I won’t insult your intelligence. I won’t insult the game itself. Evidence is evidence.
And while I want my team to win, I want my team to win because they’re better than your team, not because the game is rigged in my team’s favor.
Sure, I’ll take a judgment call in our favor here and there. But if every call is slanted to benefit my team, everyone’s interest in the game fades. The outcome becomes irrelevant vis-à-vis the teams’ skill and competence. And like the classic episode of The Twilight Zone, a casino where you win every bet isn’t heaven; that’s hell.
Our love of football—and sports in general, for that matter—reflects the American psyche. We’re passionate. We’re competitive. We laud courage and grit. We are wildly delusional people, sustaining our egos via past glories. You know, like Cowboys fans.
And we prize fairness and justice as foundational concepts in our ideological republic’s existence. We’ve sucked at fully implementing those ideals along the way, but we’re getting better at it all the time. They’ve never stopped being our goal.Our love of football reflects the American psyche. We’re passionate. We’re competitive. We laud courage and grit. We are wildly delusional people, sustaining our egos via past glories. Just like Cowboys fans. Click To Tweet
Somewhere along the way, a sea change happened in America. That “reflection of our psyche” thing became more aspirational than factual. And football became the only venue in which an agreement to fair play by both teams was a prerequisite to investing in the outcome.
In our hyper-charged political environment, one fan base’s dedication to their “team” went from being an affinity to being tribal. Fairness is now relative for them. Facts that are unfavorable to the team’s image are supplanted with “alternative facts.” Cognitive dissonance creates space for blatant hypocrisy. Whataboutism trumps otherwise black-and-white rules.
Who won the Super Bowl last year? Well, the crooked media says it was the Philadelphia Eagles. And we all watched the game and saw the Eagles score more points than the New England Patriots. But that isn’t congruent with my preference, so screw it. It was a HUGE night for the Pats. No one has ever scored more points than they did, believe me. They crushed the Eagles. What, you don’t believe me? Well of course you don’t. It was broadcast on NBC, and everyone knows NBC is fake news.
The “game,” as it’s now played, has become frustrating for the average fan/citizen.
We’re all staring at replay after replay where their guy is literally standing out of bounds. His fans are watching the same replay, but they’ll loudly declare that the rest of us are blind.
The referees, rather than just calling it as they see it, are influenced by the cacophony of millions of his forever-angry tribesmen. The calls stop being about actual adherence to the agreed-upon rules. Instead, the calls become deferential to the opinions of each side, arbitrating between fact-believers and loud, insistent fact-ignorers.
The refs can’t just make the obvious calls and move on. Rather, they have to treat the purposefully delusional team as equal to the team whose view is based in reality. Both teams must have equal chances at being right, even when one is blatantly wrong. To do anything else guarantees a barrage of metaphorical batteries.
And when the call goes against the brazen partisans anyway? They’ll just accuse the referees of being paid by George Soros.
When the result of a victory is merely bragging rights for one set of millionaires over another, like in football, our fandom merely feels serious. Sure, there are trickle-down effects to the communities and businesses of the most (and least) successful teams. But for the most part, football is just a diversion. It’s a pastime. It’s a game.
Still, the NFL understands that fairness is critical to keeping the fans engaged. If the games were fixed, the referees were bought, and the players were taking dives, viewership would disintegrate…along with the League’s profits. The League knows that to delegitimize the integrity of the game is to erode the very stability of the League itself.
That’s why the league doesn’t tolerate players and coaches disparaging the referees. No sports league allows that. Talk smack about the zebras in your post-game presser? Expect to literally pay for that.
But there’s no immediate “fine” for lying about what you see or hear in American politics. Roger Goodell can’t suspend Kellyanne Conway for denying the veracity of video replay that shows Donald Trump saying something atrocious. There’s no ejection when the coach accuses the media of being “fake news.” No one gets waived for continually, flippantly breaking the rules.
As each of these realities is increasingly tested, everyone’s faith in the outcome’s meaning gets eroded.
This “game” has real life-and-death consequences.
The outcomes affect every one of us, whether you’re watching the game or not. Every play affects every human. In a country that is not based on genetics, but on common agreement to be bound by a set of rules, the rules themselves must be enshrined and protected at all costs. There’s no backstop, other than a collective agreement of “we the people” to place the law above everything and everyone.
And perhaps even more than that, the people have to prioritize respect for the rules over support for either team. Whether your team wins today’s game is important, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not as important as preserving the validity of the outcomes for posterity.In a country that is not based on genetics, but on common agreement to be bound by a set of rules, the rules themselves must be enshrined and protected at all costs. Click To Tweet
Any “fan” who purports to back their team no matter what—even when their players are breaking the rules, disparaging the refs, and disrespecting the lauded history of the sport—isn’t a true fan of the game.
Those of us who love our country more than “our guy” have to be focused and intense in our mission. We have to throw all of our effort into defending the game itself against those who would destroy it for a short-term partisan victory.
We can’t lower ourselves to their lying, cheating, whining, screaming methods just to chalk up a win today.
Rather, we have to take the longer view. We need to spend our energy repairing and strengthening the rules. We must invest heavily in protecting the referees—the media, our judges, our independent counsels—so no amount of angry ranting from either side will sway them from calling the game by the rules. We should marginalize those who would disparage truth-tellers, especially when we’re all looking at the same evidence.
And every time we get the chance, we should eject the unsportsmanlike people who undermine justice, fairness, and the game itself.
Need some more Hitting The Trifecta right now? Try this one: California Is Hella Stoked It’s Not Mississippi. Or how about this one? Bad Stuff Is Probably Happening Somewhere. I like this one, too: When In Doubt, Don’t Bark.