I’ve been thinking a bit about football lately—specifically about the sport’s immense popularity. Millions of Americans devote hours and hours and hours to the dramas, great and small, of the gridiron. I want to know why. What’s the appeal?
I should clarify immediately that I’m one of those millions; I watch at least part of a game every weekend, and I’m the proud-if-relatively-unsuccessful owner of two fantasy football teams. I’m investigating my own compulsion here, not some odd behavior I’ve noted in others.
So here’s the question: how does football work?
People call it entertainment; theater is also, at least in part, entertainment. Is there anything we can learn by comparing the two? Why should football be so wildly popular, after all, and not theater?
Watching Monday Night Football this week, I briefly turned off the sound so that I could watch a video on my laptop. The video complete, I left the sound off briefly on the television. The screen was filled with mighty bodies, crushing against each other, an ocean of purple-and-green-clad muscle waving first one way, then another… and it suddenly seemed nearly as meaningless as churning water (and far less beautiful as well).
Without the words of the announcers, in other words, it was boring. Yes, it was momentarily fun to interpret what I was seeing for myself, but it felt as if the story was incomplete… because, of course, it was.
A play is composed of dialogue and action; a play without dialogue is a dance. If a football game is a kind of play, without commentary, it too is just a dance.
I prefer theater to dance.
So, my question: why do people prefer football to theater? I’m thinking that in some ways, it has to be the simplicity of the game. By the end of four or five acts—um, I mean quarters—there’s a winner and a loser. Depending on who you root for, that makes the drama either a comedy or a tragedy. There are villains and heroes, too, and there are obstacles those heroes have to overcome. There’s very little complexity.
Or is there? In the game I watched most recently, the first play of the game was a fumble; the quarterback seemed haunted by his error the rest of the game. There was a critical injury early as well; immediately a sub-plot emerged surrounding whether the player would return for the game, for the season, or never again. Key players and coaches on one team used to play for the other, so there are questions of loyalty and friendship and betrayal. It’s a regular Shakespearean plot.
How do I gather all that information, though? It’s not from the action: nothing in the way the offensive line blocks for the running back conveys it; nothing in the way the defensive backs drop into coverage suggests deeper meaning. It’s the announcers: their semi-improvised dialogue tells the entire story.
I shouldn’t call it dialogue; it’s patter, pure and simple. It’s not at all profound, and it’s not personal—it’s more like a voiced-over expression of the will of the players and the thoughts of the coaches, or as near to those contents as any limited-omniscient narrator could get.
So is this what works for people? Improvised voice overs, multiple story lines, and clearly-identified heroes?
Should theater be more like this? Would that be a good thing? I don’t know… but I think these are good questions to ask.