It doesn’t matter if you’re a football fan. I’m not. I can appreciate a long pass caught midstride, but mostly I just read my book and look up occasionally to enjoy a hard-(for me)-to-pronounce player name (Wisniewski, Kpassagnon, Succop!) or a comically obvious announcer comment (I’d say if they’re going to win this thing, they’re going to have to put some points on the board).
I don’t have a rooting interest on Sunday, but I will be watching for the good of the country. Football — and sports in general — is the one place where the differences among Americans, red and blue, urban and rural, MAGA and #Resistance, give way to a kind of unity.
Obviously, sports are not removed from politics; nothing is. They can spark all kinds of disagreements outside the field of play. In football alone, we argue about the once and future name of the Washington Football Team, Kansas City’s tomahawk chop, players kneeling during the national anthem and Bill Belichick’s declining the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And, of course, we may be hoping for different outcomes.
But when we watch the game, we at least share a single reality.
Shared reality — remember that? It doesn’t mean agreeing; it means having a set of facts in common over which to disagree. It seems a quaint notion now, when a large percentage of us don’t accept the results of a presidential election that wasn’t even close and a sizable number think covid-19 was invented in a Chinese lab, or question whether it even exists at all.
Maybe only one member of Congress believes that the victims of the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Parkland, Fla., were actors and that space lasers caused California’s forest fires, but her party has been slow to disavow her. And she’s far from alone in embracing what have come to be known as “alternative facts.” A growing number of Americans are getting their “news” from reality-bending sources that bear as much resemblance to news organizations as do cheerleading squads.
That’s why President Biden’s inaugural plea for unity felt both far-fetched and old-fashioned: How can we unite as a country when so many of us think real news is fake and fake news is real?
We can’t have unity if we don’t share a reality.
And so, to football. After a game, we might disagree about who should be the MVP or whether a team should have risked a fourth-down conversion. We might question a coach’s strategy or a ref’s call. But we never dispute who won or by how many points. We all agree on what happened.
When we watch football, we’re watching the events as they take place, according to a 94-page book of rules. There are seven referees on the field in every NFL game, and even that’s not enough: We accord such importance to exactly matching the facts on the field to the rules of the game that we have a whole system of instant replay and review for the close calls. I love those moments:
Yes, that’s it … zoom in a little closer, slow down that motion a little more so I, leaning forward on my couch, can see if he had both feet in bounds when he caught the ball. Okay … now show me that four more times. It’s important we get this right.
That’s some deep need for a shared reality.
Meanwhile, the on-air commentators might express differing opinions on the game in progress, but they aren’t calling a different game from the one we’re watching. There’s no MAGA-world equivalent in the announcers’ booth. No a lot of people are saying that field goal was fraudulent. And no accusations in the form of disingenuous questions, such as: How do we know for sure it was the Buccaneers who scored that last touchdown and not the Chiefs in disguise?
They just chat strategy and state for the record the most deliciously obvious, universally agreed-upon facts. It’s bliss.