Yes, I admit it, I watched it! I started watching American Football back in 1986 I think. Around that time I and a former partner, and still good friend, watched bits of three rather odd international sports: American Football, Australian Rules Football and Sumo. We both worked hard with full time jobs and more on top. My partner had psychotherapy training activities and I was doing research work that would take me way beyond 40 hours a week. As a result I think we liked the sense we could collapse in front of the TV and watch things which were engrossing, clearly foci of absolutely passionate devotion to their local followers, but really very alien for us. Neither of us were particularly sports players or sports watchers, though I would watch what was then the five nations rugby at least if Wales were playing.
Those were days before domestic internet or satellite TV and I think we had four terrestrial TV channels. I’m pretty sure we got all three sports courtesy of “Channel 4” which was quite interestingly experimental then. The Aussie rules stopped quite soon I think and the combination of, as I remember it, an oval pitch, inner rugby posts with lateral additional posts, and officials in lab coats and white fedoras on the goals was bizarre and interesting. The sumo lasted a bit longer but again Channel 4 stopped covering it (as I remember it now). Again, the shinto elements and huge thread of genuinely old ritual, with the brute physicality but also huge nibbleness of the vast men, and all the psychology were fascinating and I felt that both Aussie rules and sumo said much about the cultures of Australia and Japan.
The one that survived was American Football, initially on Channel 4 and then moving around, now on BBC. I stopped watching regularly after a year or two as my life got more busy (and I think the coverage perhaps stopped or thinned out heavily for a while) but most years the superbowl was broadcast to the UK and for quite a few years back then I would watch it live. I went through more than a decade when I didn’t watch at all but took up again perhaps 10 years back, though only the superbowl each year as a sort of bizarre orgy of some beers and a strange solitary experience (J has zero interest in sport on TV: exposed to too much in her childhood she pleads).
It is solitary for me here in the UK but in another way it’s not: there’s a particularly chatty format to the US commentary on games, with two old wisecrackers swapping thoughts, reminiscences and gossip about the game and of course there are the reminders of a few (thousands) of people who have turned up to watch live often with placards and strange garb. One is never truly alone watching NFL games I think! Over the last few years first ITV (one of our terrestrial commercial channels) and now BBC have also created two very British commentary teams. When it stopped I missed the duo ITV used, a Brit and a UK resident American expert: Gary Imlach and Mike Carlson and was sceptical about the trio of Mark Chapman (Brit, not an American footballer) with Jason Bell (US, ex-player) and Osi Umenyiora (British nationality(?) ex-superbowl winner twice) but they have become a wonderful, sometimes extremely funny, commentary team.
Anyway, I confess that I did stay up until 04.00 Sunday night. I watch partly because it is a simply amazing spectacle and shows superhuman athletes playing a fantastically complex team game demanding not only incredible athletic skills of many sorts, but also enormous game intelligence to remember the huge team playbooks and the Byzantine rules. However, I also watch because it can be enormously exciting but I know I watch partly because it gives me an insight into the USA.
And I need those just now! One thing that intrigues me is that the US seems in some way so much in favour of a neocon interpretation of free trade and to have a deep mistrust of any levelling of the playing field by, for example, state funded health care making things better for those who are ill or disabled. However, its NFL is built around very carefully structured rules that try to rebalance things so the team with the worst record at the end of the season gets the first “draft pick” of new players coming available and the superbowl winner and loser get the last and second last pick respectively. Now that seems much better to me than the nakedly capitalist trading of players in football (at least in the UK) and in the cricket in the Indian Premier League where it seems that money wins with no re-levelling built in. I think that does speak to a very different thread of thought and emotion in US culture. How can that be encouraged and the horrifying glorification of spending (half-time show adverts anyone?) and hyper-wealth discouraged, particularly in its effect on US political campaigning?
Talking of the half-time show, I’m not really a Lady Gaga enthusiast but hooray for her for giving us part of Woody Guthrie’s anthem for collective commons “This land is your land“, I think Bruce Sprinsteen does it better than Lady Gaga but I am glad made her statement.