TUESDAY AFTERNOON, WHILE LOOKING FOR ways to waste time before getting actual work done, I stopped by Clikit or Tikit, the podcast of longtime friends Pete, Nick, and (returning soon) Glenn. I clicked on Episode 112, the newest for me at the time, and 26 minutes in I got quite a surprise.
I’ll explain what that was shortly. First, a story.
Last September, I was down in New Orleans for pre-production on a movie. I didn’t know the city yet or anyone in it, with two exceptions: the first, a gelato place that also served amazing paninis; second, the girl who worked there. Our film’s location manager took us there on a lunch break during a scout, I went back on my own that Friday, and that’s when we met.
Because it was the South, she struck up a conversation while she made my panini. “What brought you down to New Orleans?” she asked. I told her I’d written a movie. Then she said, “Really? I’m training to be an actress!”
Now, the correct thing to do in that situation is offer her a bit part in exchange for dirty sex. I didn’t do that. I’m not that quick on my feet. But we talked for over an hour, a conversation interrupted constantly by other customers, yet one which she kept starting back up every chance she got, laughing and smiling the whole time. She seemed genuinely sweet and I left that night kicking myself for not asking her out. Next time, I decided.
One week later, I went back to try their house specialty panini. Or so I claimed. She was even more flirtatious than before, but there were too many customers there for her to talk. If I wanted to keep things rolling, I’d have to order more food.
Later, while scooping my Guinness-flavored gelato into a cup, she asked, “So, do you have to do work this weekend?”
“No, I’ll probably just watch football all day,” I said.
I left. But instead of returning to my car, I walked half a mile in the other direction eating gelato and thinking, “Wait, did she just ask what I was doing this weekend?” Like I said, I’m not that quick on my feet. While I struggled to work up the courage to go back, I accidentally dropped a spoonful of Guinness gelato on the front of my shirt. It was just the opening I needed.
I went back. The place was empty except for my soon-to-be-girlfriend. I walked up to the counter and said, cheerfully, “Hey, I just dropped a bunch of gelato on my shirt.”
“Oh my goodness!” she said, and wet a napkin at the sink.
“Actually, that’s not why I came back. You asked what I was doing this weekend and it totally went over my head. Do you want to go out sometime?”
“Oh no! I’m married,” she said. She couldn’t have been older than 27, but apparently she’d been happily married for a long time already. Because it was the South.
That was the first real attempt I made to meet someone after my last relationship ended. It reminded me why. Then I remembered my plans for the weekend: “I’ll probably just watch football all day.”
Oh yeah. Football. Not only did I have a Plan B if I got turned down, it was better than my Plan A.
That weekend, Gameday Saturday through Sunday Night Football, I watched every game and wrote a 3000-word essay called “Why Football.” As the season began precisely the weekend I needed football’s support the most, I wrote that football was not only great but the greatest. I added a caveat at the end that the opinions expressed were strictly my own and that I’m very open-minded about the opinions of others, but my overall tone suggested that all other sports are stupid and their fans are idiots.
Not everyone appreciated that.
Friends who love football did, of course, but friends who prefer baseball did not. I only have two — to my knowledge — but those two have a podcast. 26 minutes into Episode 112, my reckoning finally arrived. During a lull in the conversation about the fantasy football league we’re all in, Nick says, “…Oh yeah! Critelli wrote this long essay about American football being ‘the best sport…”” Pete then groans loudly, and things get ugly.
Or so I assumed. When I got to that point in the podcast, I turned it off. It was Tuesday, I had work to do, and I didn’t want to get into some serious shit right then and there.
Instead, I used it as motivation; if I got my work done, I’d be able to listen to it today — Thursday — and draft a proper response. I didn’t know what their arguments were but I began crafting some needlessly hateful quips anyway, like, “The reason people think they like baseball is because their dads made them watch it growing up, similar to how people who get kidnapped fall in love with their captors because of Stockholm Syndrome.”
When I finally listened to the podcast, however, I had a completely different reaction. Admittedly, it was an off-the-cuff conversation in response to something I’d written 3000 words on, so it wouldn’t be fair to start quoting and then trying to discredit or attack each talking point bit by bit. I was afraid that’s what they’d do to me, and thankfully they didn’t. Instead, I’m going to see if I can take them up on their challenge to be a guest on their show and have a no-holds-barred, WWE-style cagematch showdown on this very topic.
I don’t know how far that would get us, though. Here’s why…
First, as Pete says on the ‘cast, “Why Football” is basically the only non-comedy piece on this site. I guess it has to do with the subject matter. Things like anxiety and depression, sexual humiliation, and religious disillusionment are light and silly. Football is more important to me than those things. This piece probably won’t be funny either. In fact, this is about to get extremely abstract and heady. Sorry.
I’m a different person now than I was at the start of the 2010 season (football is also how I measure time). One of the things I believe, now more than ever, is that everyone’s opinions are “true.” We use the word “opinion” and say opinions are subjective, but reality is subjective. Each person is the center of his or her own reality, and one’s perspective — and “opinions” — not only explain their reality but shape everything in it. People develop beliefs either from what they’re told to believe or what they discover through firsthand experience, and however those beliefs initially form, they then spend the rest of their lives gathering information that supports their worldview, and ignoring information that does not. By “ignoring,” I mean they either dismiss arguments to the contrary or literally don’t see them despite their being in plain sight, unless something happens to force them to reevaluate everything. This happens not just with individuals but whole societies (20th century philosopher Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe this occurrence).
Here’s a concrete example: children who are taught that talent is the most important factor for their success will respond worse to failure than children who are taught that hard work is most important, because the former believe their fate is based on something innate and out of their control, and they therefore cede control over their fate. One more: an adult who encounters obstacles on the way to a goal can view them either as motivating challenges or reasons to quit, and whatever he decides they are, that’s what they become.
It might seem like I’m laying the groundwork for a massive beatdown of Pete and Nick, not just for their opinions on baseball but their entire philosophies on life. That would be cool, but I’m not. Because as I listened to why they preferred baseball to football, I realized we were both working from the same set of facts, but our beliefs — both on what makes sports compelling and what actually takes place in any given moment of our sport of choice — are completely different.
Everything we are saying is true. To us.
One of the reasons Pete and Nick prefer baseball is that it’s better to talk about, because you know what’s going on at any given moment. You can see all of the important players on a given play, know what they’re doing and how they affect one another. You can isolate individual performance and quantify it with a wide array of different statistical measures. With a large enough sample size — 162 games, let’s say — you can detect measurable trends.
Compare that to football, where there are only 16 games — 12 or 13 for college — and the players are part of units (defensive secondary, offensive line, etc.) which mask individual performance. It’s difficult to isolate standout individuals and explain why things are happening on the field. You can’t even see the whole field most of the time; the wide shots used on most football plays don’t go wide enough to show where the players in the defensive secondary are located, so you don’t know what a play looks like when it begins.
I say football’s better to talk about not in spite of but because of its unknowable nature. If people can come up with different explanations for the same thing and no one can definitively be proven correct, it’s a better discussion — assuming you buy into my philosophy of “everyone is right, to themselves.” Which I do.
Here’s an interesting NFL Fact: “Through 2010, Ben Roethlisberger is 7-2 as a starter against the Ravens during the regular season, with both losses occurring in 2006 [note: this is the year the Steelers won the Superbowl]. He also has a 2-0 record in the postseason versus Baltimore.” Why do I find this interesting? Throughout Ben Roethlisberger’s time in the NFL, the Baltimore Ravens have had one of the best defenses in the NFL, and their record overall is fairly similar to that of the Steelers. So why is Ben Roethlisberger — one of the most inconsistent “elite” quarterbacks in the NFL — so good against the Ravens? Is the Ravens defense not suited to the types of schemes the Steelers run? Is Ben Roesthlisberger “in the Ravens’ head” as some analysts claim? Do the Steelers get up for the Ravens more because it’s a divisional rivalry game? That these questions exist without answers means they’re worth discussing. To me.
There’s a weekly column on ESPN that’s unlike anything else on ESPN called Tuesday Morning Quarterback. It’s about fifteen pages long and much of it has nothing to do with football, though every week there’s a list of bizarre, noteworthy NFL stats. Here’s the list from November 30, 2010:
Stats of the Week No. 1: Atlanta and Pittsburgh, which did not make the playoffs last season, are on a combined 23-5 streak.
Stats of the Week No. 2: Cincinnati, Dallas and Minnesota, which did make the playoffs last season, are on a combined 9-28 streak.
Stats of the Week No. 3: Matt Ryan is 19-1 as a starter at home.
Stats of the Week No. 4: The Broncos won their first six games under Josh McDaniels and are 5-16 since.
Stats of the Week No. 5: Playing in Seattle, Kansas City outrushed Seattle by 250 yards.
Stats of the Week No. 6: All NFC West teams have losing records.
Stats of the Week No. 7: Detroit has lost seven consecutive Thanksgiving Day home contests and been outscored 258-98 in the process.
Stats of the Week No. 8: David Garrard’s passer rating game by game has either been above 122 (excellent) or below 65 (awful). Noted by reader Andy Iverson of Kansas City.
Stats of the Week No. 9: (College bonus.) Oregon has outscored its opponents 101-14 in the fourth quarter.
Stats of the Week No. 10: December is about to begin, and Philip Rivers is 19-0 as a starter in December.
Football is full of fluky statistics. I enjoy it. Nick and Pete appear not to. Nick on the podcast mentions another interesting statistic: all together, the amount of time Peyton Manning handles the ball during a given season of football is about fifteen minutes total. On a given play, he either hands it off to a running back or throws it to a wide receiver immediately after the play starts, and then the rest is up to them. It begs the question, again, how can you quantify an individual performance in football? Most of a game has nothing to do with any one given player.
That’s never been a problem for me. I think I can explain why, for me, but maybe you’ll disagree, for you.
Most people see sport in terms of narrative. Pete and Nick refer to this derisively as the ESPN way of discussing sports, but I would argue ESPN’s dominance is due to their recognition of a universal need. Why do we watch sports? The success or failure of people that have nothing to do with us playing a game that has no intrinsic stakes should not be compelling on its own terms. I find it hard to believe that sports fans do not — consciously or unconsciously — use sports as a metaphor for something bigger than what it actually is. I believe most fans, on some level, use sports as a way to find the meaning of life.
For that purpose, I think football is better. But that requires you to see football the way I do. Also, life.
One of the central tenets of both Buddhism and Hinduism is that the source of suffering is attachment: to possessions, to people, and, especially, to outcomes. What we hope will happen rarely happens, or not the way we plan, and that can be a source of profound disappointment. If we allow it to be. The reason our expectations differ from reality isn’t chaos or random chance, but a confluence of an infinite number of individual forces that are fairly predictable on their own, but, combined together, become impossible for the human mind to comprehend. Because we cannot predict what will happen, we can only play our limited role to the best of our ability and be ready to respond to circumstances that arise, whatever they may be.
In other words, if the girl at the gelato place turns out to be married, you can either sulk about it or write an essay on football that continues to piss people off a full season later.
That’s the life narrative that makes sense to me. Baseball doesn’t fit that. To me. Most sports don’t. To me. Football does. I can give examples why or why not, but doing so would imply that my examples would be understood the way I understand them, which they most certainly would not. Someone else could use them to advance the opposite theory. Everything “true” is true to whomever decides it to be.
The exception to this kind of thinking is, apparently, baseball, where everything can be explained concretely and backed up with statistics. That’s why baseball sucks. Or, it doesn’t. It all depends on who you ask.