Why American Football and the NFL are Weird

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I watch NFL games. Frankly, it’s fun. The athletes are incredible, and the drama can be riveting. But there are aspects about the United States’ most popular sport and biggest sports league that deserve criticism. From the game’s inaccurate name to its complexity, many Americans don’t like admitting how odd American football really is to the rest of the world. And for such a highly politicized, commercialized, and insular world, the National Football League doesn’t get scrutinized very deeply by major media outlets in the States.

This piece is a much needed look into what makes American football strange as a sport, and the NFL so troublesome as a league. Yes, I will continue to use the term ‘American football’ despite being an American.

To start, why is American football such an odd sport compared to other major team sports?

You can’t not be swole

Athletic prowess is a virtual prerequisite to excel in any major team sport. But relative to sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball, there isn’t much room for lacking in size or speed in American football.

  • World-class soccer players come in all shapes and sizes, even ones that play the same positions! But beyond muscle mass and height, players at the same position have the opportunity to do their jobs in vastly different ways. A striker can be 6’2″, 185 pounds and dominate the box with headers and strength (Mario Mandžukić), or a shifty 5’8″ player with crazy footwork and dogged drive to finish (Sergio Agüero). Taller strikers can also be masters of attack position and clinical finishing instead of being physically dominant (Thomas Müller).
  • Baseball players tend to be well-built, but there are so many ways to make up for lacking in arm strength or size. Position players like Dustin Pedroia and Jose Altuve can attest to being small yet effective hitters, and pitchers like Greg Maddux and Jered Weaver can also tell you about dominating without being physically dominant.
  • Mugsy Bogues, Isaiah Thomas (both the Knick and the active Celtic), and Chris Paul are among shorter yet highly effective NBA players. Smaller power forwards such as Julius Randle, Paul Millsap, and Draymond Green make size seem like a useless standard. Also take a look at Steph Curry, who’s late blossoming into an MVP was spurred by mastery of his handles and shooting, not an extra 5 inches on the vertical.

This is not to say that NFL players can’t differ in size or skill. But American football seems to emphasize the importance of pure athleticism, independent of game-specific skill, more than all other major team sports. Consider this: what other major sporting league has a pre-season showcase of physical trials that are nearly as hyped up as the NFL Combine? Sure, the combine isn’t everything, but would a potential draft pick even dare to miss it if invited? Despite the criticism it receives for not being indicative of future NFL success, everyone pays attention to it. People really do get concerned when a prized prospect runs a disappointing 40-yard dash, for instance.

No matter how you spin it, raw athletic ability means so much more in American football than it does in other sports. Admittedly, there are many finer qualities of the game people can appreciate. There are a number of physically unimpressive wide receivers (by NFL standards) that have made careers out of sure hands and brilliant route-running (i.e. Wes Welker, Danny Edelman, Eric Decker). And quarterbacks come in a wide range of physical ability and position-specific skill (e.g. compare pocket-master Tom Brady and highly-mobile Russell Wilson). But ultimately, American football just isn’t made to have as much room for variety in its athletes as other sports.

Time stops all the time

For a sport considered as intense and physical as American football, there’s an awful lot of time that nothing happens. Play reviews can happen for anything from a disputed touchdown call to an obnoxious check to make sure a kick returner’s knee was—very obviously—down before the ball came loose. Not to mention the commercial breaks.

Touchdown, extra point. Commercial. Kick-off, return. Commercial. Time-out. Commercial. A play was challenged. Commercial. Two-minute warning. Commercial.

FUCK. Are we actually going to watch the game?

In a group of studies on major team sports broadcasting between 2010 and 2013, it was found that NFL broadcasts show the highest number of commercials per hour, most 30-second commercials during airtime of a game, and the least amount of live action during airtime.

Here is the full table, courtesy of nationalarmsrace.com (link in above paragraph):

 

Even die-hard fans must get upset with the lack of actual gameplay on their tv screens.

The players are all from the same places

American football isn’t played nearly as widely as the other major team sports. So naturally, the talent pool is more limited. And even in this narrowed talent pool, almost half of all players on active NFL rosters are from three college football conferencesThree. Seven-hundred and seventy-two of the 1696 active NFL players are from the SEC, ACC, or Big-10.

It goes without saying this lack of diversity in talent sources is even worse when the scope is beyond the United States. The number of players who’s origins are beyond the States is minimal, let alone the number of non-American players we actually get to see on televised games. This is in large part due to how foreign American football is to other cultures. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer all have strong cultural footings outside of the United States. Not to mention, those games require less material and less knowledge of rules.

As foreign as the sport is to non-Americans, American football’s inability to spread is also due to the NFL’s awkwardness. This will be touched on later.

Maybe my criticism is a bit harsh, but so much of American football culture goes unchallenged because, well, it’s mainly talked about by Americans. We value freakish athletes, not thinking about the lack of diversity in how they’re built, or how they play. We’ve grown accustomed to stoppages of play, not thinking about how little gameplay we actually get out of the sport. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the next big NFL stars come from the University of Alabama, or FSU or some shit, not thinking about how it compares to the international array of talent in the NBA or MLB.

But not all of this points to deficiencies with American football itself. A lot of it has to do with how the heads of its greatest league treat the sport and its fans.

Next: why is the NFL such a strange league?

It has predictable results

We all know where the NFL’s top prospects are coming from. We all know who should be getting drafted in the first several rounds of fantasy football drafts. And, compared to many sports, we all know who’s going to win games in the NFL.

Scientists from Boston University and Los Alamos National Laboratory did a study on the probabilities of upsets in five different sports league’s based on each league’s history of games and team records. The English Football Association Challenge Cup (FA Cup), the MLB, NHL, NBA, and NFL were all studied. The research found that the probability of an upset was lowest in the NFL, and the highest in the MLB and the FA Cup.

 

This doesn’t take away from events like the Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl of the 2014-2015 season, or the NFC wild card New York Giants beating the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. However, it does say the NFL is less likely to produce shocking moments or hotly contested seasons than other team sports leagues.

Teams are “world” champions because the United States is the entire world, basically

A local news headline in Los Angeles after the Patriots beat the Seahawks to become “world” champions

It’s already irritating to know the MLB’s championship series is the “World” Series. And that NBA champions are declared “world” champions by announcers, especially considering how globalized basketball has become.

But who else plays American football, aside from Canada, for the title “world champion” to be taken seriously in the NFL? It’s a large-scale version of making up a recreational game in your backyard, then crowning whichever family member or neighbor wins it. Technically, yeah, you are a “world” champion, congratulations. It’s even more impressive seeing that people down the block don’t even know what the fuck you’re playing, let alone understand it. But hey, you’re the world’s greatest.

As touched on earlier, the NFL’s intense domestic focus really limits American football’s ability to become popular elsewhere. The NHL’s relationships with Canada and various European countries have been fostered for decades. The NBA and MLB have global ambassadors, and strong international broadcasting presences. Meanwhile, the NFL is still struggling to make their London exhibition games a popular thing. Roger Goodell is no David Stern, and the NFL isn’t diverse enough to have international athlete-ambassadors like Yao Ming, or one of the many Latino stars in the MLB.

The NFL is the America League

Not only is the NFL the most commercialized major sports league in North America, it’s also the most politicized. It’s not often you see personal conduct trends of a league’s athletes become a league issue, unless it has something to do with performance-enhancing like the MLB’s steroid-era.

For instance, the discussion about domestic violence in the NFL wouldn’t have plagued the league’s reputation so badly if it wasn’t for the Ray Rice video. Before that video, the NFL gave no fucks about the issue. Now, players with domestic violence convictions can’t get invited to the NFL Combine. Great, except the NFL only takes stances on things when they’re popular, hence its grimy political nature.

The national anthem is a big deal at NFL games these days. But what if I told you there was a time the league toned down the patriotism to avoid backlash?

According to Zack Beauchamp of Vox, the NFL has been observed to adjust its level of patriotic display based on the mood of the country at the time. Michael Oriard, former NFL lineman and current English professor at Oregon State University, wrote of these observations in his book Brand NFL. This appealing to the masses became very apparent to him during the league’s, “muting of patriotic display,” in 2006 and 2007 at the height of public disapproval of the Iraq War.

At this point, I’m using ‘NFL’ as a euphemism for Roger Goodell, the man behind all of this fuckery. Let’s go ahead and give him the final category in this article.

Commissioner Roger Goodell

Providing more proof of Michael Oriard’s pont is the recent bullshit that is Roger Goodell’s response to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Not only does it come two weeks after the fact, the clear pandering to those upset about their poor American flag being “disrespected” is gross. Goodell knows veterans nationwide support Colin Kaepernick. He also knows it is not required for any player to stand for the anthem. But, as Oriard wrote, the NFL is deathly afraid of alienating any part of its fanbase. That would mean losing its reach, therefore losing potential advertising money.

These are all important things for us, and that moment is a very important moment. So, I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing. We encourage our players to be respectful in that time and I like to think of it as a moment where we can unite as a country. And that’s what we need more, and that’s what I think football does—it unites our country. So I would like to see us focusing on our similarities and trying to bring people together.

Players have a platform, and it’s his right do do that. We encourage them to be respectful and it’s important for them to do that.

*Full statement can be read at USA Today via the link in the paragraph prior to the quote*

What kind of out-of-touch shit is this? Do I need to say more about this line of thinking than I already have? Two weeks of thought and all you can say is, “Let’s be respectful and unite people with football!”? He didn’t even use the terms ‘race’, ‘racial’, or ‘Black’. He didn’t even mention Colin Kaepernick by name! I could go in further on the failures of this commissioner, but that has already been done by a number of outlets.

Ben Collins of The Daily Beast wrote a great piece explaining why Goodell handles league scandals the way he does. According to Collins, Goodell’s job is simply, “to sit on a pile of money.” Investing time into issues such as Tom Brady’s deflated footballs is meant to steer conversation away from issues like concussions, domestic violence, and definitely racism, all of which threaten the NFL’s television deals. Even the smallest investigation into Goodell’s moves—as told by Chad Finn, Boston Globe sports columnist quoted in that Daily Beast article— reveal an alarming amount of deceit for the sake of NFL owners’ commercial interests.

The NFL’s leadership is the most visibly corrupted of any major sports league you know of. When a commissioner is as controlled by other people’s money as Goodell is, it’s not surprising how predictable, political, and commercial the NFL has become. And despite its flaws, negative aspects of American football have more to do with the NFL’s treatment of the sport than of the sport itself.


I don’t apologize if I ruined your mood heading into the NFL’s opening weekend. But as heavy as this criticism of American football and its beloved NFL is, it is necessary.

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