The Super Bowl: the biggest event in American sports, the culminating competition for "American" football, and a thoroughly depressing time for American supporters of the "other" sport that bears its namesake.
Year after year, we have to swallow news reports about how this year's Super Bowl was the "most-watched television event ever" (or at least, the third-most). Umm, ever heard of the those pesky World Cup finals? The last of which drew an audience of nearly 10 times the size of the biggest Super Bowl audience? How quickly the American media—and collective consciousness—forget.
And by the way, no one watched Spain vs. Netherlands for the Budweiser commercials. Or the halftime show. Just sayin'.
Aside from annoyance with misleading media attention (though there's plenty of that to go around!), the burning question remains: How could so many people—and not just any people, but my fellow countrymen—prefer to watch that game to a match of true footy?
The answer is surely equal parts tradition, ignorance and a misplaced sense of American exceptionalism, because it can't possibly rest in the quality of the game itself.
For despite its popularity, the problems with American football are many—it's violent, it's arbitrary and it's slow as molasses, to name just a few. But above all it suffers from a lack of collective creativity and improvisation when compared with its European-born counterpart.
After all, in the American version, the offensive players memorize and execute a series of pre-written plays devised by their coordinating superiors. Coaches don't just take control of "tactics," or general strategies of on-field behavior; they play a supreme and ultimately micro-managing role in every five-second burst of activity that constitutes a play. The players are largely executing pawns in a chess match being waged at a higher level.
Now, that's not to say there's no decision-making going on in American football. Once an offensive player receives the ball, he has to decide what path to take down the field. Unlike their offensive counterparts, the defending players are largely "off-book." And of course, the quarterback has enormous decision-making power in deciding where the ball will go.
There's still a crucial difference between these types of decisions—at least on the offensive side—and those that go on in a match of football-football.
The decisions made by offensive players in American football occur largely in sequence, from one player to the next, rather than simultaneously, with cross-player coordination. And there are typically only one or two decision-makers per play.
In other words, while the quarterback decides whom to throw to (or hand off to), the other players are merely executing their routes. Once a new player has the ball, everyone is either blocking his path down the field or trying like hell to stop him. The complexity of the process has broken down, and entropy has taken over.
Because of this extremely modular nature—one handoff or throw per play—there's no general process by which American football can build or gather complexity as the game progresses.
Compare that to a passing sequence in soccer—or hockey, or rugby, or basketball, for that matter—and the aesthetic difference is obvious. In these games the players are—to a greater or lesser extent—constantly adjusting their positions in the flow of play based on the movements and simultaneous decisions of their teammates and opponents.
An intricate, elaborate offensive play never springs from a coach's consciousness, but rather depends on the unlikely coordination of multiple players in outwitting their opponents.
Even a brilliant dribble from the incomparable Lionel Messi, while undoubtedly the product of individual genius, depends crucially on the unpredictable positioning and movement of teammates whom he uses for decoys. Without the constant threat of the pass, his danger going forward would be seriously undermined.
Maybe that's not what some people are looking for in a game. And football, after all, has its problems too. But luckily, the rest of the world seems to understand what's important in sport. I hope, for our sake as a nation, that some day we Americans do too.
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