With the end of summer slowly but surely drifting into view, it might seem like the formerly massive influx of seasonal sport is gradually beginning to dry up. Kylie Minogue did an admirable job of scaring everyone out of Hampden Park so that the Commonwealth Games could wrap up, the World Cup is fading into memory, the Tour de France has drawn to a close, the F1 is taking an extended hiatus between Hungary and Belgium and I haven’t heard the dry, dulcet tones of Shane Warne vibrating through my radio in a while, which must mean the cricket isn’t doing anything.
So what does that leave us with? Well for me, the most exciting leg of the sports year is actually only just about to kick off, at the end of this week stadiums across the USA will light up in a storm of fireworks and gridiron as the National Football League preseason games officially begin.
…Wow. I think I actually heard my monitor groan as I typed that. I know that I’m far from alone in feeling like I have to apologize for or attempt to justify my love for American Football. Often it feels as if I’ve committed some kind of social faux pas by even mentioning it in public, like I’m talking about liking porn or Iggy Azalea. The thing is though, the international fan base for this gaudy, bombastic sport is growing exponentially every year, its credibility is rising and naysayers are becoming less the majority. So you know what? I’m just going to stand up and say it: my name is Callum Davies, I’m British, I love the NFL and I am proud to do so. You know what else? I think you’d all love it too if you gave it a chance.
Whilst stateside fans make no secret of their adoration for the game, the typecast point of view in the rest of the world (and Britain in particular) is that it’s just rugby for wusses, men too afraid of being tackled to step onto the field in anything less than space marine battle armor. I’m not going to make any attempt to argue that American football is better than rugby because it isn’t, what I will argue is that it’s just as good and it has its own merits. In truth the bare bones are the only things that connect the two, the scoring system, field yardage and full contact context; literally everything else is completely different. American football is a game of short, snappy bursts, heavy hitting and hard science and once you begin to grasp the strategies, it’s addictive. It seems to be almost hardwired for drama, in other sports seeing someone get launched into a death-defying backflip to score might happen once in a decade, in the NFL you see it once or twice every season.
There’s something weirdly compelling about the ridiculousness of it all; from the logos, team strips, cheerleaders and mascots to the players themselves, hulking behemoths who storm onto the field with all the aplomb of pro-wrestlers and none of the scripting. They can break you in two with their index fingers, jump like Spring-heeled Jack and run 100m in under 10 seconds. Nicknames like Beast Mode, The Slot Machine and Megatron sound as well suited to athletes as they might be to that guy from university who once downed an entire jug of Scrumpy Jack. Even off the field they retain their madness.
We might pretend to despair of the idiotic public antics of athletes but deep down there’s definitely some guilty pleasure to be drawn from it which the NFL doles out in spades. It’s hard not to laugh at the plight of former NY Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress (putting aside the fact that his first name sounds like it should belong to an unsuccessful rental car firm or some kind of designer laxative), who ended up in jail after dropping his gun through his jeans in a nightclub and shooting himself in the leg as he tried to retrieve it. Feel free to read that back a few times. In some ways it can feel like some overblown soap opera brimming with wacky cast members. You have your embarrassing old veterans like the uncomfortably lecherous Joe Namath (see for yourself), your would-be martyrs like the retirement happy Brett Favre, your superegos like the glorious Richard Sherman, who helped win the Seahawks their first Super Bowl last year and sheer lunatics like Terrell Owens. Then you have Ray Lewis. Ray Lewis frightens me.
That’s all window-dressing though; the sport itself is deeply enthralling. Despite the constant clock-stoppage, there’s an ever-present intensity thanks to the sheer unpredictability of it all. Any time the quarterback passes the ball it could be picked off, a particularly heavy tackle has every chance of leading to a fumble and a running back could just as easily weasel his way through five men the size of fridge-freezers as he could dash headlong into a gargantuan outstretched arm and get launched arse over ribcage. Even when there’s a punt or a field goal attempt some particularly ballsy player might decide to leap into the air and bat the ball back onto the turf and once that happens all bets are off. American football is a crucible of chaos.
Last year alone Peyton Manning shattered the record for the most passing yards in a single season, Broncos kicker Matt Prater booted a 64-yard field goal, the longest in NFL history and Kansas running back Jamaal Charles became the first player ever to get at least four receiving touchdowns and one running touchdown in a single game. Early into the season the Broncos and Cowboys played a monstrous high-scoring game that ended with a 51-48 Broncos win and shortly before the playoffs the Pittsburgh Steelers almost scored one of the greatest touchdowns of all time in the last few seconds of a crucial game against Miami, running a play consisting of 5 lateral passes and 79 yards of movement. Then there was the ‘Snow Bowl’, in which the Eagles and the Lions clashed in an honest-to-goodness blizzard, battling their way across a pitch covered by eight inches of snow.
This has gone far beyond being a shameful, nerdy vice in the UK. The Super Bowl is regularly the most watched sporting event of the year, the last one drew in a staggering 111.5 million views and Britain shares a substantial chunk of that figure. Despite the issues with time difference, games will often enjoy broadcasting in public places like the Hippodrome in London and Wembley stadium played host to two regular season games last year, this year we’re getting three and if the massive attendance is anything to go by, British NFL fandom is going to keep gaining momentum. There were even rumors that the Jacksonville Jaguars were set to be moved here and become the official British team of the NFL, rumors that have thankfully since been quashed, because that’s a stupid idea.
There’s a delightfully playful aspect to following a sport in which your home nation has no stake, when I started following the NFL at age 14 I spent a joyous evening excitedly trawling through team histories and game footage in order to decide which team I would back, ultimately settling on the Atlanta Falcons, who unfortunately at the moment seem like the NFL equivalent of Aston Villa. It felt a lot less weighted than my support of say, Chelsea, which I’m often called to defend, despite the fact that if memory serves I only picked them because when we talked about football in primary school they were the only team that hadn’t been subjected to a dirty rhyme. All of my friends support different teams and the Wembley events are a rainbow of different jerseys with no sense of rivalry. Those games are ridiculously good fun, with fans encouraged to spend the time in the run-up to the game ‘tailgating’ in the stadium grounds (drinking, eating burgers, meeting players and buying overpriced merch).
That’s not to say there aren’t some criticisms. Last December a popular sportscaster named Scott Van Pelt went on a shocking, unremitting tirade against UK NFL fans during a podcast. He suggested that it was unfair on the teams to ask them to play in the UK (oh woe is me, being paid inordinate amounts of money to take a 9 hour flight, the horror), that UK fans at large lacked a fundamental understanding of the game and that all we were really out to do was “‘put on some jerseys and get blind drunk and then go streaking’”. Whilst it’s fair to suggest that extending the reach of a national sport by transplanting a team to the UK to reel in more fan figures is pretty redundant, pigeonholing an entire nation’s worth of sports fans as moronic, glory-hunting pissheads is beyond offensive.
Here’s the thing, Scott: we’re not moving in on anyone’s territory, we didn’t demand the Wembley games, they were given to us and we greatly appreciate them, but we’d still be fans even if they were taken away. The sport is characteristically American, it always will be and that’s the whole point, it’s like watching Rollerball or pod racing; it’s overblown to the point of being unreal but that’s why we love it. We love the sometimes-disconcerting severity of the tackles, the banter we overhear players hurling at each other through their radio mics, the logic defying glory of the touchdowns and the pantomime flailing of the end zone dances.
Here’s to another massive season of absolute craziness.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.