It really wasn't all that long ago -- I was a football fan. The kind of guy who went on a three-day toot when the Jets skunked the Colts in the Super Bowl. Who sat in the distant upper reaches of the Orange Bowl and howled into the night as the mighty Dolphins rolled to yet another triumph. Who revered Lance Alworth, cheered George Blanda and chuckled at the Danderoo.
That's history. Just in time for the players' strike, I've said my fare-thee-well to any passionate involvement with the game that's as American as corporate takeover wars and gunboat diplomacy. While others grieve as the grass grows tall on 50-yard lines from Foxboro to San Diego, I find myself oddly unmoved -- indeed, if anything rather pleased and amused by this turn of events. The spectacle of open rebellion and rampant disarray in Pete Rozelle's smug little empire is not, from where I sit, an unpleasant one.
To be sure, football can be a marvelous game. A screen pass, a broken-field run, a timely interception, a goal-line stand -- these can be stirring performances, possessed of a certain rough beauty that is not without allure. The pleasures of a suspenseful game played out against the clock are undeniable, as anyone who watched last season's brilliant playoff contest between Miami and San Diego will testify. And football's place in American mythology is large; Amos Alonzo Stagg, Red Grange, George Halas, Doak Walker, Jim Brown, John Unitas, O.J. Simpson -- the list of the game's evocative names is long and honorable.
Further, like anyone whose misspent life has included countless hours watching young men thump each other back and forth across the gridiron, I have my full share of happy football memories: a defensive back for the New York Jets returning a blocked field-goal attempt 97 yards for a touchdown in that team's inaugural game; a stranger-than-fiction comeback in which Harvard scored 16 points in a matter of seconds to "beat" Yale, 29-29; a couple of tense Army-Navy games in the mid-'50s, when those games still meant something; dozens of bright autumn afternoons at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, to my mind the loveliest imaginable setting in which to play any game of any kind.
Yet my most agreeable and enduring memories have less to do with the game of football than with the rituals and surroundings attendant to it. I can't remember a single play from all those North Carolina afternoons -- not even a single final score -- but I recall with absolute clarity the friendships renewed over pre-game picnics and post-game drinks, and the deep green of the pine trees that ring the stadium, and the strains of the school song in the cool air of dusk. The bands, the cheerleaders, the mascots, the noisily good-humored crowds -- these seemingly peripheral sides of football are in point of fact far more appealing than the game itself.
What's in the game? Gratuitous violence and persistent boredom. I'm not one of those who loathes football because it's a metaphor for American imperialism or the dark side of the national character or whatever conspiracy theory it suits one's political convenience to invent; but the pleasures the game offers, to participant and spectator alike, simply do not strike me as great enough to justify the constant risk of physical injury it entails. And though playing it can be plenty of fun, watching it is a made-to-order snooze, by contrast with which baseball is a thrill a minute, what with all those huddles and penalties and first-down measurements and dropped passes and three-yard plunges; tightly edited television "highlights" can make for an amusing diversion, but they are hardly an accurate representation of the monotony that is football's reality.
Football has always been violent and boring, but up until a few years ago it had the trappings of sport; even figures as tyrannical and driven as Rockne and Halas and Lombardi honored the values of sport. But these days, at least at the major-college and professional levels, it's a business that happens to take place on a playing field, a business that exists to collect the billions of dollars handed over to it by television; rooting for the Rams against the Cowboys is equivalent to rooting for Bendix against Martin Marietta, if on the whole rather less exciting.
My complaint isn't that so much money is involved, or even that the participants chase after it with so much naked greed; it's that money now seems to be the only thing involved. The business of football, like the business of America, is business. The National Collegiate Athletic Association exists solely, once its various public-relations veneers have been stripped away, to negotiate television contracts. The same goes for the commissioner's office of the National Football League. Where's the sport in all this, the fun, the joy?
Beyond that, why is it that the so-called "ordinary fan" cares so intensely about a game that doesn't give a moment's thought to him or his interests? Big-time intercollegiate football exists for the fat-cat alumni who fill the rolls of "booster clubs" and "educational foundations"; pro football exists for the corporate fat cats who gobble up seats in sky boxes and turn the Super Bowl into an annual convention of robber barons. The devotion of the so-called "ordinary fan" to these teams passeth understanding, inasmuch as he is to them nothing more than a consumer of beer and auto advertising.
All the talk these days about "putting the fan's interests first" is poppycock, because football never concerns itself with "the fan's interests." If it did, Al Davis wouldn't have glommed the Oakland Raiders away from the fans who loved the team so deeply and inexplicably; Robert Irsay wouldn't be intermittently lobbying the state of Maryland for funds to put sky boxes in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium; Pete Rozelle wouldn't be hiding in his office, just the way baseball's Bowie Kuhn did last year, while the owners' representative declines to involve himself in serious negotiations. Football talks about the fan when it serves football's purposes, but when it closes the door and gets down to business the fan is nowhere to be seen. Pete Rozelle wouldn't recognize a fan if one bumped right into him on the street.