I think America is great. I prefer ketchup to tomato sauce. I think basketball is the best sport on the planet and I think three transcendent seasons of Arrested Development completely makes up for the nine soul-destroying years of Everybody Loves Raymond.
But American Football, golden-child of the US sport scene, is hands-down the stupidest sport that attracts mainstream popularity anywhere in the world.
Granted, outside of the US the best it hopes for is a “small but devoted” fan base. But I think I am doing the world a favour if I can help to discourage anyone else from paying attention to this ridiculous league.
Fair warning – this is a long-ish rant.
First and foremost, I should clarify that the NFL does get a few things right:
- Its video refereeing system incorporating challenges is absolutely perfect, and should be used by every major sport on contentious decisions (and that includes diving for free kicks in other codes).
- It has some truly world-class athletes, freaks of nature capable of superhuman speed and strength. Capable. More on this later.
- It has spectacle.
I think that about sums it up for the good points.
The sport itself suffers from a couple of major problems that are completely irreversible, like the fact that it is not as tough as they want you to believe, and that the nature of the game stifles creative flair, moments of inspired genius or versatility.
You might think I’m crazy in asserting that the sport itself is not tough. Haven’t I typed ‘NFL’s Biggest Hits’ into YouTube? Haven’t I seen how many players end up with brain damage? Don’t I realise how large these pro players are?
The answers to those questions are yes, yes and yes. The players are large. In too many tragic cases they end up with severe brain injury. Their exploits that appear on YouTube to a Rage Against The Machine track certainly give the impression of the toughest sport going around. But it’s not even close to being the toughest sport going around. And here’s why:
Helmets. Body Armour. Thigh Guards. Comically oversized shoulder-pads. The predictable anti-American Football rant would rip into them for wearing such gear. Personally I wonder how much the helmets actually contribute to brain injury, even if they have cracked down on helmet-first contact. I also recognise that 120kg of muscle tackling another 120kg of muscle at full speed would hurt. A lot. Regardless of padding. But here is the central point: Once it’s done… it’s done. Whistle blows. Time to rest. Time to recover. Maybe even head to the sidelines for ten minutes while the defence takes over.
A brutal shirt-front in the AFL will likely lead to a free kick and (if there are no melees) about 10 seconds of downtime before you have to get up and get back to exhibiting world-class stamina. In rugby league the most crushing tackle stops play for all of 3 seconds before you have to get up and keep running. In Union, a pulverising tackle or all-in maul stops play for… oh wait… it doesn’t stop play at all!
That’s how I define tough. It’s not just how hard you hit. Toughness = (How Hard) + (How Often) + (What you do in between)
The nature of American Football, as a sport, means that you get absolutely brutal hits, infrequently and with considerable down-time in between.
Aussie Rules has hard hits, with no padding, more often and with the world’s most impressive displays of field-sport stamina and running in between.
Rugby League has very hard hits, with virtually no padding, much more often, and with very little downtime.
Rugby Union has very hard hits, with virtually no padding, almost constantly and with zero downtime.
I guess it boils down to how you define ‘toughness,’ but for my money Union gets the nod, with American Football trailing the three I’ve mentioned.
Another problem with the sport itself is the way it stifles creativity or versatility.
I’m not even talking about the ridiculous way each team has an ‘offence’ and ‘defence’ that have as much to do with one another as (mandatory pop culture reference alert!) Lindsay Lohan has to do with her AA sponsor. Never mind that Michael Jordan was a defensive beast, that Ricky Ponting might be the greatest fielder of all time, or that defensive forwards like Max Rooke have redefined how AFL teams are structured.
I mean that the positions are so rigid and unyielding that creativity is nearly impossible. A running back is generally fast, agile and strong. A fantastic combination. Chances are good they’re coordinated, have great vision and would excel in a number of roles. What does this sport ask them to do? Get handed the ball, run in a line, gain a yard or two before you’re tackled. Players on the line of scrimmage have one skill set precisely – push, grab, tackle. That’s all they’re asked to do. Heaven forbid if one of them is capable of more than that! This rejection of versatility might be a little annoying down at the local park, but in the big leagues it’s completely insane!
The NFL is a professional league that contains players who would walk into Olympic squads with their pure physical abilities. Speed, power, balance, sheer strength. And yet they play a role on a team so one-dimensional that we have a right to feel cheated. Even the players with the most ‘free rein’ such as the Quarter-Backs, Tight-Ends, Wide Receivers or Running Backs essentially do the same things over and over. I have no doubt the NFL contains some amazingly versatile athletes – but we don’t get to see them. They are capable, but shackled!
It is such a waste of talent, and the worst part is that NFL fans have been brainwashed into thinking versatility is rare. When a running back throws a touchdown pass, the fans nearly pass out from delerium! When a Quarter-Back can break out of a casual jog and actually sprint with the ball, the fans lose their collective minds!
Sorry, but these are elite athletes, right? Shouldn’t we expect them to be capable of these things?
And, finally, I come to the most frustrating and absolutely insane element of the NFL league and the sport itself. The timing.
According to recent studies, an average NFL game consists of 11 minutes of actual play. The ball is “live” for, on average, four seconds at a time before everyone takes a “well-earned” rest. In any given NFL broadcast there are 17 minutes of replays, and 75 minutes of players standing in huddles or waiting to hike the ball. There is over an hour of commercials. If we applied the same action/downtime proportions to an AFL match, the broadcast would take over 13 hours. It would be patently absurd.
When a Quarterback kneels down with the ball, the play stops but the clock keeps running. In essence, this means that a team may conceivably “kneel” its way through the last plays of a game, clinging to a one-point lead, and avoiding any element of competitive engagement. This runs counter to the entire premise of sporting competition. A well-taken timeout or crafty knee can end a stellar game in the most disgusting of ways… with the players giving up.
So to summarise three central points:
In the NFL there is only 11 minutes of actual play per match. Since each team is actually two separate teams (offense and defense) an individual player will, on average, spend only 5 minutes and 30 seconds per week (accumulated in 4 second bursts) in competitive action.
They engage in a hugely physical contest, with huge amounts of padding and unfathomably long rest-breaks between plays.
When called into action, their role in the team is so pre-determined and so rigid that all moments of inspiration are essentially ended before they can even materialise.
These three points either reject or stifle the best things about sport:
Sport is about competitively pitting your best against the team opposite you. As a sport, American Football minimises this to the smallest time possible.
Sport is about pushing your body to the limit and testing your mettle. As a sport, NFL does this more one-dimensionally than any major football code.
Sport is about moments. Moments of genius. Moments of outside-the-box action. Moments of adaptation and adjustment in the face of your opponent. Moments allowing the physical gifts, afforded to a blessed few, the chance to shine. The NFL as a league is so obsessed with Xs and Os and executing plays within the rigid system, that it crushes this.
And without moments, all you have left is large men in pads running a choreographed path into one another for 11 minutes a week. Those very large men are probably great athletes, too. It’s a shame we never get to see it.