Every four years when the World Cup rolls around, to increasing American interest each time, certain corners of the right-wing press work themselves into predictable despair over the matter. Predictable is the timing, and predictable are the arguments. Soccer, they say, is low-scoring, and therefore socialist. Soccer is popular in Europe, and therefore socialist. There’s an offside rule. Socialist! Injury time is somehow socialist, as are national teams—never mind that avid soccer fans care far more about club play than international play, and never mind the implications for the Dream Team or the Miracle on Ice team. Anyway, they say, there’s no such thing as genuine American interest but only manufactured hype from a left-wing media pushing a socialist, One World agenda. Thus far unmentioned is that both soccer and socialism start with the letter s, but there’s every reason to think this guilt by association has been noted.
(That these insult merchants sometimes claim satiric intent indicates that they’re no more engaged with the idea of satire than they are with the idea of socialism. These pieces are as satiric as a Bronx cheer, though nowhere near as witty.)
Having found soccer contemptibly socialist, the writers then hold up American football as a paragon of excitement, of free-market risk and reward in action. This is where the (self-) satire really begins. True, few are so obtuse as to leave the National Football League’s socialist revenue-sharing arrangements unremarked. Some even acknowledge the NFL’s socialist rewarding of failure in how it allocates draft positioning, and how American sports leagues in general are very socialist in not relegating poor-performing teams to lower-tier leagues, from which they promote the better teams in exchange, as top European leagues do. And if you want to work yourself into a state of apoplexy over the NFL’s bogus nonprofit status and its further abuse of public monies—how it essentially socializes its infrastructural costs while privatizing its earnings, in a classic “what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine” scheme—read Chapter 3 of Gregg Easterbrook’s The King of Sports.
If the oft-stated aversion to socialism has any substance, and isn’t just a Don Rickles-style put-down whose meaning is entirely in the delivery, shouldn’t it have something to do with overregulation, with excess litigation sapping the vigor of competition, with bureaucracies—however well-meaning their intent—imposing sluggishness on free exchange? If the preference for small government, for deregulation, is a deeply held conviction and not just a brainless incantation, how can anyone watch an NFL broadcast and be anything but acutely aggravated?
Never mind the mere 11 minutes of action per 60 minutes on the game clock and per three-plus-hour broadcast. It’s bad enough that a third of that time is spent watching advertisements. What’s worse are the evidentiary proceedings that increasingly masquerade as “action”: replays from every angle, zoomed-in and shown in ultra-slow-mo, complete with rabbinical rule interpretations from the broadcast booth pertaining to the matter under adjudication, followed by some requisite ads while the referee watches closed-circuit TV for a few minutes before announcing the verdict, after all of which the crowd cheers or groans for a sports moment now far in the past.
This is entertaining? It’s like watching a short film stretched out to the length of a BBC miniseries only because the video stream keeps buffering. And accordingly it makes me pound on my TV while yelling vainly for the pace to accelerate. But it won’t. It’ll only retard, for at least two main reasons. First, the game of pro football has been made entirely subservient to the NFL brand and its multiple revenue streams. All the stoppages are monetized in two ways: as occasions to run ads, of which there are about 100 per broadcast, and as occasions to scrutinize the officiating, in hopes of sanctifying the statistics on which fantasy football relies, which—fantasy football—helps feed interest back into the game and the broadcasts, which further shores up ad rates, which makes the NFL’s in-game focus on weights and measures even more of a priority, ad infinitum.
Fantasy football, once just a game-within-a-game, is in fact starting to seem more and more like the main event, or at least the main consideration. Hence the very lucrative but almost perpetual-lack-of-motion machine that is the modern-day game of pro football. I say nothing of gambling, which the NFL takes no official part in but of which it tacitly approves and from which it certainly benefits, for the same reasons as with fantasy football, further necessitating all those Court TV moments that obtrude into an ostensible athletic competition.
(Talking of the sentimentalizing tendencies of sportswriters, the novelist Richard Ford once wrote that “to make sport be more than itself threatens to make it boring,” yet that’s precisely what the NFL has done to the game of football, in actual and not just sentimental ways.)
But the second reason there’s little hope for change is that the NFL is a classic bureaucracy run amok with its own noble intentions. It perfectly reflects an abiding faith in good government, in justice applied through the passage of ever more elaborate legislation, complete with on-field appeals and burdens of proof, all of which presumes to anticipate an infinitude of experiences, to establish a rationalized set of standards for the outcomes, and thereby to ensure clarity and fairness.
And I’m not just talking about rules pertaining to actual play, which themselves are too elaborate by half. Here’s the NFL on socks:
(f) Stockings must cover the entire area from the shoe to the bottom of the pants, and must meet the pants below the knee. Players are permitted to wear as many layers of stockings and tape on the lower leg as they prefer, provided the exterior is a one-piece stocking that includes solid white from the top of the shoe to the mid-point of the lower leg, and approved team color or colors (non-white) from that point to the top of the stocking. Uniform stockings may not be altered (e.g., over-stretched, cut at the toes, or sewn short) in order to bring the line between solid white and team colors lower or higher than the mid-point of the lower leg. No other stockings and/or opaque tape may be worn over the one piece, two-color uniform stocking. Barefoot punters and placekickers may omit the stocking of the kicking foot in preparation for and during kicking plays.
The House of Windsor takes a more casual interest in Kate Middleton’s pantyhose than Roger Goodell takes in Vince Wilfork’s sweat socks. FIFA, on the other hand, says only that you must wear stockings and that any tape you apply must be the same color as the stocking. As for the in-game ball supply, here again is the NFL rulebook:
Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements. The home team will also make 12 backup balls available for testing in all stadiums. In addition, the visitors, at their discretion, may bring 12 backup balls to be tested by the Referee for games held in outdoor stadiums. For all games, eight new footballs, sealed in a special box and shipped by the manufacturer to the Referee, will be opened in the officials’ locker room two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game. These balls are to be specially marked by the Referee and used exclusively for the kicking game. …
In the event a home team ball does not conform to specifications, or its supply is exhausted, the Referee shall secure a proper ball from the visitors and, failing that, use the best available ball. Any such circumstances must be reported to the Commissioner.
There’s nothing simple the NFL can’t make complicated. FIFA, by comparison, says this: “Additional balls may be placed around the field of play for use during a match provided that they meet the requirements of Law 2 [i.e., basic circumference, weight, and pressure specs] and their use is under the control of the referee.”
Given that the league expends hundreds of words merely on socks and balls—to say nothing of the exquisite protocol surrounding the coin toss—one can imagine the absurd verbiage applied to actual play. If you’re anything like me, a foray into the NFL rulebook will quickly leave you punchy and abstracted, giggling at all the talk of touching and muffing the prolate spheroid.
Yet despite the NFL’s flair for codification and its increasingly judicial in-game focus, hardly a game goes by without a (perceived, by some) blown call, or a (perceived, by some) bad call left standing by an imperfect and—what’s more—un-perfectible appeals process, all of which only confirms the NFL bureaucracy in its belief that flawed governing can be fixed only with more governing. New regulations come into play, usually just as ornate and therefore just as open to interpretation and dispute as those they replaced or emended. Play slows even further in the quest for perfectibility—more appeals, reviews, replays, scriptural interpretations, and ads—and watching a football game becomes ever more like a Zeno’s paradox of incrementalism and unfulfillment, in which the proportion of football to broadcast approaches zero, even if it never quite gets there.
But what do I know? The NFL has parlayed its nonprofit status into $9 billion in earnings and has so successfully hyped its brand that Americans tune in not only to football games but to the NFL draft and combine as well. The brand has cultivated a loyal viewership that is the envy of most other sports leagues. And now the brand wants to go global, with London foremost in mind. But the question remains, can anyone but Americans possibly take an interest in our brand of football?
Crossing the English Channel in 1992, while the Summer Games were underway in Barcelona, I got to talking with a Finn about the Dream Team while watching Olympic coverage in a bar on the boat. I struck apologetic tones, being truly embarrassed that America’s collective ego was so fragile, after the men’s basketball squad captured only bronze in 1988, that Team USA would resort to Soviet-style maneuvers in order to ensure gold. It seemed to profane everything we celebrated in the Miracle on Ice. But my shipmate had none of it. He loved the Dream Team, for the opportunity to see the greats play a game he was genuinely enthusiastic about. In fact, I quickly realized he knew more about basketball than I did, and enjoyed it all the more despite how little of the NBA he ever got to see at home—mostly in occasional, middle-of-the-night broadcasts.
Years later, in Sydney, I got into an improbably detailed discussion about the 1991 Minnesota Twins with an Aussie who knew as much about Kirby Puckett and “Grand Slammin’” Dan Gladden as I did. The guy even played in an American-baseball city league. But I’ve hardly met a foreigner who found American football to be anything but stupefyingly dull. I do have a friend from London living Stateside who’s married to an American and who takes a bloke-ish interest in all the local sports. They’ve even had me over for a couple of Super Bowls. But his enthusiasm is not much more than anthropological and is certainly nowhere near as rabid as it is for his beloved Chelsea.
It’s true that the NFL manages to pack Wembley Stadium a couple of times a year for mega-hyped NFL games. But Americans likewise fill stadiums for occasional big-name soccer matches, and the soccer harrumphers never fail to note that this hardly proves any ongoing, genuine level of engagement with the sport or its leagues. And they may have a point, one that doesn’t bode well for the NFL’s international plans.
The ranks of Major League Baseball are now upwards of 25 percent foreign-born. A recent snapshot of 40-man rosters showed more than 150 players from the Caribbean, 90 South Americans, almost 20 players from the Pacific Rim, 16 from Mexico and Central America, 12 Canadians, several Europeans, and even a couple of Aussies. And foreign-born baseball players have long been superstars in the MLB—Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki, Panama’s Mariano Rivera, and the Dominican Republic’s David Ortiz are among the many whose names come up in Hall of Fame discussions.
Not far behind is the National Basketball Association, whose ranks are currently 23 percent foreign-born, with players drawn from nearly every corner of the globe, and—again—superstars among them. The best example is the defending-champion San Antonio Spurs, whose roster contains the league all-stars Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands), Tony Parker (Belgium), and Manu Ginobili (Argentina) playing alongside Brazil’s Tiago Splitter, Australia’s Patty Mills, Canada’s Cory Joseph, France’s Boris Diaw, Italy’s Marco Belinelli, and New Zealand’s Aron Baynes, all of whom were on last year’s championship squad. Incidentally, the Spurs’ coach, Gregg Popovich, was born of Serbian and Croatian parents. The NBA is such a crazy quilt of nationalities that the Milwaukee Bucks have even managed to fit a Greek and a Turk on the same 15-man roster.
For its part, the National Hockey League is largely foreign-born, with almost 80 percent of the players hailing from elsewhere (Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, Germany, the Czech Republic). None of which is to rhapsodize about One World diversity, but rather to show that these sports are so popular both at home and abroad that kids the world over grow up playing the games, at various levels, with a consistent few (or more) cultivating talent worthy of the greatest leagues in their respective sports. Little did I know when crossing the Channel in ’92 that I was glimpsing the shape of sports enthusiasm to come.
Just about every sport, that is, but football, which remains thoroughly American, with an NFL foreign-born contingent that at the time of this writing reaches only 2.6 percent—a number so small that it almost falls within the military-brat margin of error (think of Okinawa’s own Robert Griffin III); so small that it isn’t even twice that of the American contingent that has seen action in the most recent season of the English Premier League (EPL) of soccer. There’s nothing wrong—there’s even something very gratifying—with an entertainment being intensely local. It’s been convincingly argued, for instance, that American movies were better back in the days when they were made primarily for American audiences and that part of what makes too much contemporary Hollywood fare so low-grade is that it’s tailored to international audiences, with dialogue so basic and cultural references so generic that they achieve an international one-size-fits-all thematic simplicity, hence the overreliance on superheroes and monsters. That’s real One Worldism.
But none of this is reassuring for NFL honchos looking to grow beyond an American market that might already be saturated. American football’s pace and patterns do not easily fit with foreign norms. It’s almost inconceivable to foreign audiences that you’d have to commit to more than three hours of viewing in exchange for only 11 minutes of action. One half of a soccer match is 45 minutes of near nonstop action. You’d have to broadcast NFL football for 12 hours to reach that quota, and 24 hours to equal the action in a complete soccer match. Football fans might counter that at least their game is high-scoring, even though a 21–7 score in football is no different from a 3–1 score in soccer. (An especially bold retort to which would be, “Yeah, but we do all that scoring in only 11 minutes!”)
Regardless, to pepper a broadcast with advertisements is just not the done thing in Europe, where commercial breaks are far less frequent in any television broadcast. Some countries limit advertisements to the interval between programs, meaning both an unbroken viewing experience and, incidentally, more creative and entertaining advertisements since the companies pushing products and services can’t assume a semi-hostage viewership and must therefore compete more for your attention, making it worth your while to sit and watch their commercials. (Leave it to Europe to show how giving people—viewers—more freedom actually improves product quality, the product in this case being TV advertisements.)
But as inconceivable as it is that large numbers of Europeans will cotton to American football’s halting, glacial pace, it’s even more inconceivable that the NFL will contrive ways to accelerate the tempo of games at the expense of those 100 or so advertising moments that encrust each pro-football broadcast, the revenue from which is too great to forgo. And with the NFL’s existing audience, it’s not even a remotely necessary consideration. We’ve assimilated football’s rhythms and hardly notice that what might strike us as well-paced excitement seems, to outsiders, like a Dadaist mix of bombast and inaction. Whether we played the game or not (I did, albeit at a very small-town high school), and whether we like it or not (I did; less so now), it is a central part of our culture, something we all grew up with. But until kids in other countries grow up with it too, it’ll remain a peculiarly local taste, like vegemite to Aussies, or kvass to Russians, or for that matter like peanut butter to Yanks—something the rest of the world will find curiously unpalatable.
The NFL thinks it can gin up American football’s popularity in Europe through a top-down strategy. But jersey sales and brand hype and Wembley spectacles aren’t nearly as telling as is the paucity of European talent in the NFL. It’s considered boffo stuff that at the time of this writing there are four Germans playing professional American football, in a league that suits up almost 1,700 players per week. There are only 40-odd foreign-born players in the entire NFL, three-fourths of them either down linemen or special-teams players: kickers, punters, and one long snapper. Very few play in the more marquee positions, and the only foreign-born quarterback is the all-American RGIII. The days when the NFL might have its own Fernando Valenzuela or Jari Kurri or Vlade Divac still seem a long way off, and those three players retired years ago from their respective leagues.
And again, seven Americans have seen action in the current season of the EPL, a league that has fewer teams (20), with smaller rosters (25 players), and that is arguably the pinnacle of professional soccer. Whether that modest involvement will grow and will trail with it increasing American interest remains to be seen. It’s the sort of everyday accomplishment that isn’t nearly as hyped in the American sports media as the soccer refusniks somewhat rightly claim the World Cup is.
As for hype and media coverage, when the NFL sold out Wembley Stadium last season for a 49ers–Jaguars game, local coverage ranged from a few lines of type to, at most, one column, the latter of which sat beside a much bigger article on a rugby match. American football is still strictly sidebar stuff in London. As the Independent noted a couple of years ago, it ranks in popularity right up there with darts.
In any event, the health of a sport is measured more in player enthusiasm, whereas the health of a league is measured more in fan enthusiasm. There’s overlap, obviously, since organized sport is a form of entertainment, and entertainment must have fans. But as sports, baseball, basketball, hockey, and certainly soccer are doing far better than American football, with viable professional-level leagues around the world, which—with the exception of soccer—often feed into the premier North American leagues and which in any event constitute a vast and varied marketplace for talent: a place for talent to go; a place for talent to be found. It’s almost as if competition is a good thing, among leagues no less than in sports.
I hope the monopolistic, scandalously tax-exempt NFL isn’t too big to fail. American-style professional football would be better off if it did.
Jon Zobenica’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Scholar, and The New York Times Book Review.