Why the Super Bowl is super

Rob Tornoe, Philadelphia Inquirer

“For nothing can seem foul to those who win.” – William Shakespeare, King Henry IV, Part 1

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Vince Lombardi, Legendary US Football Coach

“All we do is play to win.” – Bill Belichick, New England Patriots Coach

I love American football, or gridiron, as it is known in Australia, and it has always been about winning, as the coaches above would agree (the Bard of Avon knew a fair bit about winning, too!).

I played it in the streets of Philadelphia, in the playground and on the football field in the eighth and ninth grades, and tried out for the varsity, but decided to become a soda fountain assistant (in American parlance – a soda jerk!) at a chemist to have pocket money for my senior year in high school. I even played touch football in a park in a Sydney suburb.

So my ire grows higher when I hear criticism of the National Football League, not that it doesn’t deserve it, based on national stereotypes.

Mike Seccombe, a veteran writer about politics for the SMH whose work I have long admired, has written a sports piece for a new not-for-profit news and features website, The Global Mail, which looks very promising in its first week of operation  http://www.theglobalmail.org/  His well-written feature is called “Why the Super Bowl is a super bore.” (Here’s a link: http://bit.ly/xpVwyW )

He spent five years in Massachusetts, the home state of the Boston Celtics basketball team and the New England Patriots, and claims not to have been culturally compatible with American sports, and then asks: “Who, outside the United States takes American sports seriously?” Mike, you’ve been away a long time, and American football, baseball, basketball, and to a certain degree, ice hockey, are played in Australia.

And, in fact, many Australian football, baseball and basketball players are being signed to contracts in America, in professional sports, and given scholarships to play in colleges and universities. There were two Australians in the BCS National College Championship game played between Alabama and LSU last month, and the story was featured in the Australian media. Brad Wing is a punter for Louisiana State University – his Aussie Rules background helped him kick long distances – and Jesse Williams is a defensive lineman for Alabama – with a Rugby League background. Both have a good shot at the pros.

Just this week, a 17-year-old Australian pitcher, Daniel McGrath, signed a contract with the Boston Red Sox baseball team, and Andrew Bogut, although having severe injury problems for the second year in a row, is a star centre for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. They are two of quite a few Aussies who’ve made it in the big time. In New York, Australian Graeme Lloyd once pitched for the Yankees, and if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, can’t you?

Seccombe is critical of basketball for the over-involvement of coaches – fair point (I used to coach  basketball in Australia) — and baseball for a slow rate of scoring, and a lack of artfulness about the way runs are scored – not fair as the art of hitting a ball pitched at different speeds and twists and turns and curves is one of the most exquisite in any sport. But Seccombe saves his venom for American football, calling it a bad game, because it “reflects several distinctive American traits.”

He goes on to sum up those traits: the love of technology and equipment; deference to the chain of command; specialisation; lots of officialdom, and deference to it; and last but not least, a preference for power over subtlety.

Balderdash! I offer my rebuttal here:

The love of technology and equipment: Technology is being employed in nearly every sport these days, and lots of protective armour is necessary when a 150kg lineman is about to hit you with the force of a Mack truck.

Deference to the chain of command: This is not exercised all the time – coaches call plays from the sidelines and upstairs, but quarterbacks can change their mind on the field before the ball is snapped – and they can deviate from the playbook, if necessary.

Specialisation: In the good old days, footballers did play both ways – some linemen switched from offence to defence and played the full 60 minutes. (Chuck Bednarik of my beloved Philadelphia Eagles was an example.) That doesn’t happen anymore because the game is much quicker than it was 50 or 60 years ago. And it’s tougher: lineman smash into each other with tremendous force, and there are myriad injuries. Players have to be super fit.

Lots of officialdom, and deference to it: Has Mike noticed how many umpires officiate at an AFL game these days: 2 goal umpires, 2 boundary umpires and 4 field umpires. And yes, the players do not defer to the umpires, but it doesn’t do them any good, nor does it do fans any good either! And the fans at NFL games make up for any deference by the players.  Aside from being offensive to the officials, Philadelphia Eagles supporters have thrown snowballs at Santa Claus and booed the families of players on the field at functions! And let’s face it, if gridiron players were allowed to front umpires the way AFL players do, there would be murders at the stadium! A push from some of the Abominable Linemen in the NFL could kill an official. In baseball, the expression “Kill the umpire” is still de rigueur at Major League games!

A preference for power over subtlety: Seccombe says football, and other American sports, exercise this preference.  Well, that’s how you win games, and yet, there is subtlety in football tactics: kicking the ball out of bounds to avoid run backs at kickoffs, using timeouts and sideline passes to save time to score, and having intricate, trick plays to confound the opposition. The subtlety was lost on the New York Giants player in this week’s Super Bowl, when he tried not to score a touchdown to give his team more time to keep the ball away from the New England Patriots. He fell over the line anyway. The Patriots defence would have pushed him over the line – and Coach Belichick would have blown him into the end zone with a blood-curdling scream. Now that’s power over subtlety!

Seccombe also complains that in “those rare moments when something actually happens, it all happens at once.” That’s the point, it can all happen at once, and it keeps the spectators on the edge of their seats – well, most spectators, except the odd Australian or two it seems.

And Seccombe says baseballers almost always go for the slog. Hasn’t he ever seen the bunt? A neatly placed push with the bat can move a runner around the bases, and even score a run. It is a very subtle push of the ball from anywhere from 3 to ten metres from home plate. And fielding and base running are also done with finesse and grace. I think immediately of Joe DiMaggio, The Yankee Clipper, who ran like a gazelle and hit like a Bradman.  Joltin’ Joe still holds the Major League record of getting a hit in 56 straight games.

Okay, back to football.  And I’ll try to keep it short as I tend to go on a bit about my favourite sport.

American football, especially the Super Bowl, is a social sport. People watch it at the pub or at home parties, and talk about the game, and politics and commercials and a hundred other things. The key plays and touchdowns are replayed at least ten times during the game, from every conceivable angle, so you don’t miss anything if you’re discussing rocket science with a mate in the kitchen.

If you take the time to learn more about the sport, as I did with cricket, you will see it does have its subtle moments. I spent an entire day at the SCG in 1975 watching the first day of a Test between Australia and England, being tutored by a friend who was an assistant sports editor at the Sunday Telegraph, and the crowd joined in the tutorial, telling the Yank what was going on. I felt it important that I learn about cricket because it reflects Australian culture – as Seccombe points out – and I wanted to know as much about Australia as I could. Five years later, I was able to teach a visiting Canadian ministerial media adviser all he needed to know about cricket. We met in a pub, of course, and about an hour or two into the session, he said: “Who would believe this: a Canadian being taught about cricket in Australia by an American!”

Whenever an Australian tells me he doesn’t understand what American football is all about, I tell him or her to watch a game with me, and I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible. So far, I haven’t had an unsatisfied customer.

I have been here nearly 41 years and Australia is my home now (I still think of Philly as my spiritual home). And if I had a chance to go back to the U.S. and watch the Super Bowl in person, with the Philadelphia Eagles as one of the participants, I’d do it in a New York minute.

The American novelist, Thomas Wolfe, once wrote: “You Can’t Go Home Again.” But a return to my native land for a sporting event watched this year by 111.3 million people – the largest US audience in television history – and a growing global viewership, would be a homecoming I would never forget.

And if NFL players would just stop those silly, over-the-top celebrations after scoring a touchdown, I could recommend the game as the perfect spectator sport.

PS I could care less about the half-time show. For me, it’s all about football. And as for commercials during the Super Bowl, I prefer Clint Eastwood’s stirring ad about “job growth and the spirit of America,” called “It’s half-time in America.” Anything that angers the Republicans makes me happy! (Here’s a link if you haven’t seen the ad yet! http://nyti.ms/xVNu2p )

2 thoughts on “Why the Super Bowl is super

  1. Nice piece Tom. As a former keen NSW softballer I appreciate the references to the art of the bunt, and trying to hit the ball as it curved, dropped, rose or came at off-speed! Needless to say I liked calling the play from behind the plate (as a catcher).
    I love your passion for the NFL. I like American football. Sometimes (like you with cricket) I need a bit of explanation, but I like watching the strategy and tactics unfold.
    Although, as you know I’m an Aussie Rules girl through and through. See you at the Swannies.

    • Thanks, Ellie. I used to be a baseball catcher, too, in high school. It was like being a quarterback in American football. And, as you know, I love Aussie Rules … and the Sydney Swans. I can’t wait for the season to start. It will be interesting to see how popular the new Fox Footy Channel is — it’s launched today at 5pm.

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