For NFL Fans, This Is the Worst Time of Year: Stephen L. Carter

Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- For the professional football fan, the playoffs are the most unhappy time of the year. One reason, obviously, is that most teams don’t even make the playoffs, and all but one of those that do end their seasons with defeats.

But the true cause of postseason depression -- especially for those of us whom the National Football League has successfully addicted to its product -- is that the playoffs mean the whole shebang is rushing toward its end. Soon a long dark will settle over the world of competitive football.

The playoffs are down to three games now -- a pair this weekend, to decide the champions of each conference, and then the Super Bowl itself two weeks later. Fans everywhere argue: Are these the four best teams? The four most exciting? It doesn’t matter. That is what is so fascinating about sport. All that matters is the outcome of the game.

In baseball, the World Series is played to the best of seven games, as are the league championship series before that. In the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, so many teams wind up in the playoffs, and play so many games in each round, that it is difficult to keep track of when the season ends and the postseason begins. But in football, each playoff is a single game. Win and move on, or lose and your season is over. It is always Game 7.

To those who do not follow professional sports, the passion of the fan (possibly a contraction, say the philologists, of “fantasy” rather than “fanatic”) is inexplicable. But let me try to unpack the mystery a bit.

Lurid Theories

Any number of theories have been propounded, some of them lurid, some of them gendered. Perhaps, as a popular book of the 1990s had it, the rise of sexual egalitarianism pushed men to celebrate the sports that are most punishing and brutal. Yet some 44 percent of football fans are women. So perhaps, in Joseph Campbell’s influential formulation, we are simply replaying, week by week, the Greek vision of the hero who, in order to meet the deadly challenge, must master his faculties and direct them to the necessary end; should his self-discipline be too weak, he is bound to fail.

Or maybe it is just good fun.

My own love affair with football has simple roots: First, my beloved Washington Senators baseball team absconded to Texas, leaving me nobody to root for, then my father started watching the color broadcasts (as we called them) of football. Sitting beside him set the first hooks into me. The addiction became complete after my family moved to Ithaca, N.Y., where my high school team completed three consecutive undefeated seasons, to which I contributed by sitting in the stands, screaming my head off with the others.

Learned scholars once insisted that sports helped prepare for life in a democracy -- learning to appreciate fair play, the importance of teamwork, the value of rooting for the home team, and so forth -- but the emphasis on victory has swamped the rest of whatever life lessons sports once taught. It is disconcerting indeed to see 20-something millionaires performing inane rituals when they score touchdowns, as though reaching the end zone is an unexpected surprise.

Rooting for the home side is fine, but it can go too far. Vin Scully, the great Dodgers play-by-play announcer, used to say that the fans see pitches with their hearts, booing umpires who call a ball when the fans need a strike, or vice versa. His implication was that not only umpires but also journalists have the responsibility to see pitches with their heads. Here there are lessons for our politics, too, and perhaps for the commentariat most of all: The airwaves, like the stadiums, are full of passionate rooters, for whom their side’s every pitch is in the strike zone.

Crowd Abuse

True, every sport can be enjoyed badly. Incidents of violence among fans are not uncommon. Even the most peaceable home crowd loves to visit abuse upon the opposition. Much of this is expected, but some of it is peculiar. Why, for example, in a professional sports world that includes men who have battered their partners or been involved in gun violence, have so many fans developed an unreasoning hatred of quarterback Tim Tebow? Is it for such sins as vowing to wait until marriage to have sex?

Of course, our obsessive attachment to our teams can be harmful to our civic life in more tangible ways. Although politicians (one sincerely hopes out of ignorance) continue to tout the supposed benefits for municipalities of using tax dollars to subsidize the construction of sports facilities, the theory that new stadiums create windfalls in jobs or spending has been as thoroughly debunked as a myth can be. The benefits flow mostly to the club owners, individuals of considerable wealth, who are no doubt grateful for the handouts of crony capitalism, although hardly in need of them. (The state of New Jersey opened a new stadium at the Meadowlands in 2010, but has not yet finished paying for the old Meadowlands stadium, since demolished.)

To be a true fan is to ignore such externalities. If baseball is, in John Updike’s fine coinage, the sport that is most “ornamented by a loner,” football is the sport in which the interaction of players on the same team is most complexly regimented, and where the precision of the choreography is of greatest import. If hitting the curveball is, by common consent, the most challenging of individual tasks in all of sports, throwing a football downfield may be the most delicate of team tasks.

Fans cheer the long pass their team completes on third-and-one. But purists know that the quarterback had to audible to the pass when he came up to the line and saw the stacked defenders in the box, that the back who stayed in to block had to pick up the linebacker blitzing the gap, that the crossing tight end had to lead the safety to the far side of the field, leaving the wide receiver one-on-one with the cornerback, and that the quarterback had to throw the ball 40 yards in the air, so that it would land in the spot where the receiver, running full tilt, would find himself when the ball reached the bottom of its arc, and would drop over the receiver’s outside not inside shoulder, without actually leading him out of bounds -- or else the pass would have fallen incomplete, a forgotten failure that would make no highlight reels.

Greek Wisdom

Epictetus, the first-century Greek Stoic, warned in “The Enchiridion” against being carried away by pleasure. Delay your pleasures, he taught, and if possible resist them, lest the time after they have passed be filled with regret and reproach. Alas, I am among those millions for whom it is too late; having taken my pleasure in watching professional sports, I am indeed carried away. Very soon, the greatest of them all, football, will go dark for the while, and I am filled with regret, just as Epictetus predicted.

Yet his reasons aren’t mine. What I regret is not that I yielded once more to temptation, but that it will be seven dreary months before temptation returns that I might yield again.

(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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