Finally Falling for America’s Game

Stuart Anderson-Davis eventually comes round to the all-American sport

There’s much to mock about American Football.

From the misleading name (you barely kick the ball) to the hubristic crowning of the best domestic team as “World Champions”, America’s favourite sport has always left me cold. Rugby after a visit from the Health & Safety inspectors, the game is barely recognisable from a British sporting perspective – helmets and body armour bringing it closer to ITV’s Gladiators than any “football” played on Hackney Marshes.

The pace is glacial. Four 15-minute quarters are stretched out to well over three hours, while the ball may only be live for about 11 minutes in total. The game is built for advertising, with incessant breaks delivering hundreds of opportunities for sponsor “messages”. This is sport at its commercial zenith. It’s not uncommon to see pundits discussing a game while sat behind a generous Burger King spread. In-game analysis comes courtesy of Amazon and Microsoft. Even college football – the self-described “amateur” edition – is riddled with product placement. Take the end-of-season “bowl games”, where the nation’s finest colleges battle for prestigious titles at the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl, Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. My favourite is the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, in which victors lift a trophy filled with potatoes and the winning coach has a bin of French Fries dumped on his head. Truly the pinnacle of athletic glory.

These are characteristics of a sport that I always felt deserved my ridicule. Indeed, when living in London it was entirely possible to maintain a stance of distant superiority. Of course, self-appointed experts emerged in time for the Super Bowl – bringing farfetched claims to “know all the rules” and copy-paste analysis. But on those occasions when I attempted to watch “the greatest show on Earth” the tedium saw me reliably asleep before the ludicrous “Halftime Performance”. In the morning I’d wake up and forget about NFL for another year.

However, I soon discovered that this superior aloofness was absolutely impossible when actually living in the United States. American Football is everywhere. This is largely because here you cannot escape television – from decent restaurants to barber shops and even the local library – but also because the game is ingrained in popular national culture. Today, I overhear more conversations about Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady than Qassem Soleimani or impeachment. The sport is inescapable.

And so I conceded defeat: taking the decision to immerse myself in “American’s Game” by watching every game I could, but also by committing to one “franchise” from this season until my dying day. Of course, selecting my team was no easy task. I was particularly aware of avoiding anyone too good (like serial winners, the New England Patriots) – the social stigma of glory-hunting was the very last thing I needed. No, I wanted a proper team from the gritty heartland – virtue signalling as an authentic fan, not some Johnny-come-lately Brit bluffing his way into the conversation.

Inspiration struck. I remembered that back in 2012 I’d interned on a political campaign in the great state of Ohio – about as “Real America” as it comes. There, I found myself staying with a supporter who had turned her basement into a shrine to her favourite team. And that’s how I ended up with the Cleveland Browns – a once-great name now firmly established as the biggest basket-case in the NFL, synonymous with spectacular failure and a fanatical fanbase starved of success.

To say the Cleveland “Clowns” have lived up to their reputation would be an understatement. As I write, the team has sacked its coach and its General Manager after another disastrous season – the nadir coming when “our” best defensive player ripped off an opponent’s helmet and smacked him round the head with it. Apparently this behaviour is frowned upon in American Football, and the offender remains indefinitely suspended. No matter, I was hooked and (armed with intel from the team’s 90-minute daily podcast) was soon chatting away knowledgeably about “pass interference” and “dual threat quarterbacks”.

I also noticed my weekend moods darkening every time the Browns lost – a true sign of conversion. This development went down rather badly with my wife, who had implored me not to “support another crap team”. To be fair, I had underestimated the state of the team’s national reputation, with my Browns beanie eliciting daily expressions of sympathy from Princeton passers-by. Regardless, I’m calling it a social touchdown!

I also started going to games. I concede that my first taste of action (Princeton Tigers vs Harvard Crimson) wasn’t the most representative sample – I’ve not yet seen straw boaters and cheeseboards in the NFL. But while I haven’t yet made the pilgrimage to “Believeland”, I twice visited MetLife Stadium – a desolate 82,000 seater home to both the New York Giants and Jets, handily located in marshland infamous for mafia body disposal. Although not helped by the weather and poor teams on display, I nevertheless found the experience of attending an NFL game surprisingly underwhelming.

As someone raised on the raucous atmosphere of South London’s Selhurst Park, the whole thing felt flat – despite the best efforts of the hyperactive resident DJ. Fans sit down throughout the match; clad in ponchos and giant replica shirts, stuffing themselves with exorbitantly overpriced junk food and ‘Light’ beer. The chants ventured were utterly humourless and even the cheerleaders proved incapable of sustaining the crowd’s attention during the interminable breaks. The best entertainment came when the unsegregated rival fans somehow got sufficiently intoxicated to threaten to kick each other’s “asses”.

Of course, American Football has much more serious issues than a lack of atmosphere. Particularly prevalent are fears about the game’s short and long term health impacts on its participants, especially brain injuries that debilitate long after a player has hung up his helmet for the last time.

Another concern raised is connected to one of the sport’s perceived strengths – the link between college and professional systems. On the surface, there’s much to be admired about a structure which requires the vast majority of professional players to collect a college degree before advancing to the NFL. This approach should theoretically help those young men who don’t make the final leap to become professional, whilst better preparing those who do to handle their success and build post-football careers. However, there is growing unease at the positioning of American Football as an aspirational path to college – especially for young black men – given the concerns about the health impact of playing. Furthermore, the attrition rate in college and the NFL is extremely high and job security is minimal. Every season, tragic stories emerge of players who lost their way once cut adrift from the sport to which they’d devoted their lives.

But for all the negatives, it’s undeniable that this sport delivers unrivalled drama and entertainment to millions of Americans every single week. Yes, the matches take hours, but many come down to a last-second field goal or an audacious play that turns defeat into victory. The NFL salary cap and Draft system (whereby the worst performing teams get first pick from the next cohort of college stars) help keep the teams closely matched. The group of teams who make the end-of-year playoffs differs every season and the NFL feels less predictable than rivals like the Premier League, where resources too often dictate who wins.

As with other fiendishly complicated sports, American Football also rewards those who make the effort to penetrate its nuances. The more you watch, the more you understand – whether it’s spotting intricate running routes or appreciating coaching masterstrokes. “America’s Game” mixes detailed tactical play with simple physical brutality in a way that’s completely unique.

So, as we approach this season’s Super Bowl (ahem) “World Championship” I intend to remain conscious to the bitter end. That should provide plenty of conversation-fodder until the new season starts in September. If not, I might have to do something really drastic to save my social life – like watching ice hockey.