Football has become a sport of science fiction, one that inhabits a world that only exists on television.
When fall approaches, the type of people that get paid to say as much repeat, “Football is back.” But that’s not entirely accurate. The actual game of football comes back, yes, but even during the offseason the conversation in America about NFL football only ever recedes; it never entirely vanishes.
Such is the hold of football, the most popular and uniquely American of American sports, that the minutiae of off-season administrative procedures like the scouting combine, the draft, and the owners’ meeting are covered and consumed with a passion that surpasses that given to other sports leagues’ actual championships. The most viewed hockey game in the U.S. since 1973, the 2011 Stanley Cup Final between the Bruins and Canucks, brought in 8.3 million viewers on NBC. The first day of the 2014 NFL draft, broadcast on ESPN and the NFL Network, was watched by 32 million people.
What explains America’s relentless enthusiasm to consume every scrap from the football beast? In 1960, writing for a CBC documentary, Roland Barthes argued that a national sport is made out of the natural climate and soil of the country it represents. Of hockey, the national game of Canada, he says, “to play hockey is constantly to repeat that men have transformed motionless winter, the hard earth, and suspended life, and that precisely out of all this they have made a swift, vigorous passionate sport.”
As for the United States, Barthes named auto racing as the quintessential American sport, perhaps seeing in it, as in America, the closest union between man and machine, each pushing the other to the limits of performance, with the threat of spectacular violence haunting every possible mistake. Contemporary America, however, is no longer dominated by the machinery of industry but by the industry of media. Violence, of course, remains constant.
Football, as America’s de facto national game, is what best channels the substance of American culture, its mediated violence, into a single ritual. It systematizes technology, brute force, and drama into an event capable of creating beauty, boredom, spectacle, and catharsis. But stasis, under capitalism, is untenable, and therefore the size, spectacle and speed of football must be pushed beyond their limits and nature must be adapted to the service of the game. The NFL’s desire to grow and improve football by improving upon and surmounting nature has made the game’s recent history a story of hubris, wrapped in the themes of science fiction.
The first battle that football has fought against nature concerns temporality. The modern immersion of instant replay, available to television sports viewers since the 1960s, into the gameplay of football wins a victory over the passing of time, refuting the inaccessibility of the past while creating a hybrid of sport and spectatorship. Marshall McCluhan wrote that instant replay — for spectators, not participants — meant watching on TV was no longer a substitute for being at the game; it became better than being at the game. Now it has become part of the game.
Of course, being at the game is no longer an impediment to also watching it on TV. All modern stadiums include massive screens: Dallas’ AT&T Stadium contains a 1.2-million-pound, four-screened video cube, each face of which measures 72 x 160 feet. (The cube's screens were all tied for largest in the world upon their installation in 2009.) The cube hangs over the field and has already blocked two punts. The world’s largest video screen now — 14,549 square feet — is in NRG stadium in Houston.
But screens do more than block punts; they dictate how the game unfolds. Instant replay as a tool for NFL officials was introduced in 1986, using the same broadcast footage available to spectators at home to ensure that questionable rulings on the field squared with video evidence of the events. Though widespread frustration with a perceived slowing of the game led the NFL’s 32 franchises to vote the system out of existence in 1992, it returned for the 1999 season with an important difference. It was now deployable by coaches rather than officials as a means to challenge what they perceived to be questionable calls. If, in the window of time allotted for a challenge (before the next snap), a team catches a discrepancy between the call on the field and apparent evidence to the contrary on any of the replays available to the coaching staff, as seen on the on-field megascreens or on the TVs in their coaching boxes, they can call for a challenge.
At this point, the sport crosses a technological divide. Making the capability to replay and adjudicate the past a condition of the present reifies the chasm between producer and consumer, ensuring that the NFL’s brand of football can exist solely as a spectator sport. The mediated experience of football has become part of fabric of the game. As the mediated experience of watching football becomes an inseparable part of playing it, the game of football becomes further separated from traditional notions of play and the immediacy of lived experience, neither of which involve watching yourself on television.
Football has evolved beyond the stage where culture is packaged and sold back to the population that created it. It has become a sport of science fiction, one that inhabits a world that only exists on television and bears little resemblance to any nonprofessional activity.
Contrast American football with two of the most popular sports in the world: basketball and soccer. Fans of these sports can also play them much the same as they’re played professionally, with a minimum of equipment, technology, and outsize risk of permanent bodily damage. But as anybody who’s ever been tagged instead tackled knows that touch football bears little resemblance to the spectacle on the screen. It’s not football unless you might break your neck playing it.
Not only is the NFL’s brand of football technologically and physically beyond the reach of nonprofessionals; it’s also as authoritarian as any dystopian science-fiction scenario. The roots of instant replay as adjudicating tool are grounded in the assumption that officials will always be capable of making the right call, given sufficient documentation of what has transpired. In other words, total supervision is a necessary prerequisite of perfect justice.
In football, fantasies of perfect justice work in tandem with yearnings for spectacular violence. Football is perhaps the most litigious sport in existence; the NFL rulebook is more than a hundred pages long, and a game requires seven officials on the field plus another remote official who examines the replay footage. The officiating crews, with the assistance of video technology, act as a synthesis of police officers and judges. They organize the flow of the game, telling players when they can start and when they must stop, adjudicating the legality of violent contact and assessing penalties. The officials control and penalize in increments of time and space, yards or seconds; if the purpose of the infraction is to gain more time by gaming the clock, the perpetrators will be punished via deduction of time. Officials also retain the authority to grant that fantastical kind of justice that is impossible in real life — a do-over — the replaying of the down, the replenishing of one team’s lost opportunity due to the malfeasance of the other.
In David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of JG Ballard’s Crash, Vaughan, the leader of a group of fetishists who can only find true sexual pleasure by watching and participating in car crashes, describes their paraphilia as a project with the end goal of “reshaping of the human body through technology.” While only Vaughan and his small group of followers get off on car crashes, he sees all of society as “intimately involved” with using technology to reshape the human body. There are other science-fiction texts about the combination of human and machine, but none envision the intensity of the union to the same degree as the NFL.
The car is a robotic appendage to the human body, a method for the human body to exceed physical limits. Football, in the training and sculpting of bodies, pushes the same limit. The basic unit of football is the human body sheathed in armor that allows it to attack and withstand attacks. Unlike equipment in other sports — baseball bats, hockey sticks — football equipment is merely incidental to the goal of the game, moving the ball to the opponent’s end zone. With the exception of the ball, the game could theoretically be played without it. Football equipment is instead an accelerant, a way to make the collisions harder, faster, and more reckless. The overarmored and Under Armoured ™ football player is analogous to the militarized cop, the surgically enhanced beauty, the writer with an Internet connection: They could all be what they are without technology, but less so.
Like the characters in Crash, NFL football players share a bond, a brotherhood of excitement and risk gleaned from engaging in an unsustainable bloodsport with and against each other. The players have been trained since childhood to create these crashes, and clearly, in the moment when one crashes into another and comes out unquestionably victorious, it feels very good.
The counterpoint to the violence are the moments of grace: the long, parabolic passes and the emergence of individual, streaking acceleration from the militaristic discipline and prehistoric grappling at scrimmage produce the most valuable highlights. Yet fans lust for the chance to see that same grace and speed derailed, to see the dynamic of a violence that turns speed to stillness and reduces a scientifically optimized human form to a lump on the ground.
This sudden, violent deceleration feeds the same hunger as a crash in NASCAR, or a knockout blow in boxing. It’s a physical corollary to the process in which celebrities are built and destroyed in the tabloid press. Heroes must be sacrificed; those, like Icarus, who were once higher than the mass of spectators, must by virtue of the same strengths that propelled them, be brought lower than the rest of us. Football allows us to witness this moment multiple times a game. And watching it, while under the sway of seductive violence, creates a sensation of physical, vicarious joy that calls for the moment to replayed, over and over.