By:  Andrew Ahern

Football is an American sport. One birthed, branded, and broadcasted as American. A sport, people in America pride themselves on. I can imagine a fanatic saying something like “the moon landing, the model-t, and football, the three greatest American accomplishments”. For five months every year, the NFL becomes our prized commodity, consuming millions of American lives each week. With around the clock analysis, ESPN’s prolific amount of TV channels, and a general fervor that matches something like Christianity, football and it’s consummate organization the NFL enter into our lives for better or for worse.  Football is a culture in the jerseys we buy, the hours we spend watching it, or how it can connect people as a common talking point in bars, on streets, or during your most awkward family gatherings. The athlete stands as our prized possession, the stadium our modern day coliseum. Football gives people the opportunity to be part of a community and football builds relationships among all its fans.

With the amount of community and passion there is for the sport, there are still questionable elements of football and especially the NFL. I would therefore like to use this essay to further examine football and why we love it so much. To examine my own relationship with football, along with others around me. What are it’s qualities that excite so much of the American people? Why do we dedicate so much time and analysis into it? Why chicken wings, Bud-light, and cheerleaders as football’s perfect kinship? As Super Bowl 51 grows nearer, there could not be a more appropriate time to analyze a whole countries dedication and fanatic obsession with football, and specifically the NFL.

My own personal relationship with the NFL is an ambivalent one. I grew up watching the sport, idolizing its stars and analyzing it for my own enjoyment. I even dreamt of one day being in the NFL as quarterback for the New England Patriots. Now I look at my younger self and we couldn’t be more different. I call football my “guilty pleasure” now because I truly feel guilty watching it. The NFL is an organization that could not be more disparate from my own political views, and with that in mind I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my own political beliefs and setting a hypocritical example by tuning in each Sunday.

My opinion and ambivalence was especially heightened after one of the most insightful experiences I’ve had at Salem State. Two years ago I went to a writer series event with author Steve Almond, promoting his new book Against Football, One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto in which Almond denounced football, and especially the NFL as a sport and organization built on greed, corruption, racism, sexism, and the well known health issues surrounding concussions and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)  that we ignore for entertainment value. My interest in the NFL and football was beginning to mitigate more and more as I got older, but Almond was able to open my eyes to all the corruption and politics inherent in the NFL that I was ignorant of before.

For example Almond discussed the gender roles of man and woman as anything but arbitrary, stating that the cheerleaders’ role are to praise the male players on the field. This could not be a better example of the totem-pole obsessed patriarchy we have and continue to live in today. Almond and I are not the only ones who agree. I asked my friend Taylor, a junior here at SSU what she thought of the roles between men and women are in football, her response was “The NFL is male dominated and although they do have a place for women, it is as cheerleaders in outfits that are barely there and cheering them on from the sidelines. There are glimpses that I would see of games when my family was watching and even in the harsh cold these women are still supposed to be sparsely dressed. If this was really about the game itself I don’t see the point for this at all.”

It’s also important to mention that cheerleaders do not make a living salary just by cheering. On top of the games, the practices, and charity events built into their contracts, most cheerleaders acquire second jobs in order to live with enough funds for themselves or families they provide for. Just because you work for the wealthy doesn’t mean you’re inherently wealthy yourself.

Almond also discussed how football stadiums are approved and produced. What many people may not know is that a football stadium doesn’t typically come out of just the billionaire’s hand who owns the team, but through taxes accumulated by the town or city where the stadium is being built. According to a Fox Sports article, the Sand Diego Chargers-before their decision to move to Los Angeles, proposed $350 million from the city of San Diego to build a $1 billion stadium. They were ultimately denied such a stipend (I wonder what could have influenced them to leave San Diego?). Another example is The Atlanta Falcons receiving $600 million from the public to build their $1.4 billion stadium which will open in 2017 (Fox Sports, “Taxpayers have spent a staggering amount on the NFL in the last twenty years). We think our tax dollars are going to education and infrastructure and policing, but instead it’s going to building sports stadiums for the billionaire owner to continue to augment his or her capital. My friend Jeff, a 2016 SSU grad. said, “The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on that stadium could’ve gone to better causes. The stadium itself is a mecca for unintelligent drunken squabble and serves to further dilute any semblance of culture we have left”. All I’ll say is that money could be better used for better ends, like education, health care, or infrastructure.

So why do people watch the sport? We’ll it’s damn entertaining to begin with. We’re witness to the most talented employees of their profession, duking it out (or headbutting it) for the crown. Football is fast, competitive, strategic,-a game of wits and talents between coach and coach, player and player. It exemplifies the importance of preparation, education, teamwork, and talent in order to reach goals that are higher than the individual, but are accomplished when a collective thrives for a common goal.

But besides the sheer talent and immanence of human capability exemplified by players and coaches, football has a history and a culture that lingers. Tucker, another friend of mine, who will graduate  in May, said he watched football after his dad prompted his interest. “I think it just goes back to the fact that my dad was a football fan and got me interested”. Football has sentimental value, and I can relate to my friend. I continue to watch football because I know it’s something I’ll discuss with my dad each time I see him during the Patriots’ season. We talk politics, he asks about my studies, we discuss music; but football is a way to build a bridge between two entirely different people, living in entirely different times. Many of us have certainly bought the NFL’s slogan “football is family”.

Another friend said he planned to watch the Super Bowl because “I’m a patriots fan. Every fan wants to see their team in the Super Bowl”. My friend equates his reasoning behind watching it as influenced by the culture, that this is what every fan wants. Football spreads itself wider than simply the game itself but what we want and desire out of it. Football is as much political as anything else whether we think so or not. There are rules, customs, social norms, influences and structures all manifest from the organization and how the sport is so widely disseminated. Football has an ideology in which we abide by our sentimental, fanatical, competitive, or financial reasons.

So when you’re watching the game this upcoming Sunday, maybe think outside of the confines of points and stats. Think of the social relations between player and fan, player and cheerleader; the fiscal restraints like tax increases, or what it says about our culture when entertainment supersedes human health. There are things to be examined, so don’t be a complacent viewer.

With all this said, still enjoy the game. Admire the athletes for their dedication, preparation, skill, and competitive drive. It shall be a good game. I predict the Patriots will beat the Falcons 38-34. Tom Brady will win MVP and deflate the trophy after Goodell hands it to him. Trump will abduct Brady via helicopter. The end.

Contributor’s Note:  Andrew Ahern is an English and Philosophy major, who will graduate in May of 2017.  He plans on making coconut shrimp to share with his roommates on game day.