overthinking the idiot box

July 17, 2006

Everything you ever wanted to know about sports on TV.

At the Buzzer
Portrait of the Artist as a Football Fan

by Whitney Cox

When my Beautiful and Talented Editor suggested that I, the one who writes That Gay Column, be the one to take the column about sports and television this week, my first (and still primary) thought was: "This means you want me to write about football, right?"

I mean, what else does one watch on television? Tennis? Well, maybe if they're having that U.S. Open thing or whatever they call the other big tennis events. Basketball? Best put on and left on in the background while doing something else — you don't watch basketball; it's furniture music, like Pink Floyd. Baseball? Well, maybe, but mostly you listen to baseball on the radio while driving around, and even then it's only really worth tuning in if the University of Texas is playing... Does that leave us any other sports? Nope, I think we've completely exhausted the list of sporting events one might see on a television screen. So football, right?

Then I remembered that I come from Texas, and perhaps it's different in the rest of the world.

Growing up in Texas and watching football go together sort of like queso and chips — there really is no escape. Football is what you do. Monday nights, there's Monday Night Football, which I remember watching as a child; I was allowed to stay up until You Make The Call — a little segment in the third quarter where the network presented a close play from years past, then showed a regular commercial break, then came back to see if you had made the call the referees of yore had — and then I had to go to bed, trusting that Providence would guide my teams to victory in my absence. Never did a Thanksgiving pass in my house that we did not turn on the requisite post-turkey games. In fact, I can remember spending many a Turkey Day in a little cabin (and when I say little, think one step up from a corrugated tin shack) up in the Texas hill country, where we'd pack up the leftovers and put them in the cooler outside, then play for hours with the rabbit ears on the five inch black-and-white TV, committing acts of tinfoil fung shui in order to secure the best reception at any given moment and cheer our teams on to victory — and I still remember the year the snow was not only on the television, but on the field. I knew who the Refrigerator was as a small person, and I remember fondly those years in middle school when the Dallas Cowboys (my home team) were football superstars.

And it's not just professional games: Until his health got bad, my grandfather, the oldest living UT letterman until he passed away last fall, never missed a home UT football game, excepting the ones while he was overseas in The War (you know, that one). When they played away, he'd be there Sunday afternoons, watching that old dial-knob thirteen-channel TV in the kitchen, cheering for the Longhorns as they won the day on whatever foreign field the lottery of college football had placed them. Even my mother, an ordinarily stalwart, professional woman, will call me and ask me if I had seen whatever spectacular play that UT made the day before.

For all this, I have seen exactly one stadium-style football game live, and it was UT, and it was dull as dirt. The afternoon was hot, I was young, and mostly what I remember are bouts of movement punctuated by long stretches of boredom. From our place in the stands, the action on the field looked like this: little coloured dots line up, little coloured dots all crash together, little coloured dots (joined by striped referee dots) take a long time to line up again. With obnoxious college kids and the smell of beer around little me, I decided at that moment that football is not a great watch-it-in-real-life sport.

Television directs my eyes, lets me know what I should be watching, slows certain things down for comprehension, repeats things in case I missed them the first time, adds handy commentary by people who know far more about what's going on than I do, and entertains me during the boring bits!
Football is, however, a great television sport. It would take some serious convincing to get me back out to an arena where I would be seated in a crush of humanity, with inconvenient restroom facilities and expensive refreshments, not even understanding the events unfolding before me. Invite me over to watch the game, however, and I'm good to go! Television directs my eyes, lets me know what I should be watching, slows certain things down for comprehension, repeats things in case I missed them the first time, adds handy commentary by people who know far more about what's going on than I do, and entertains me during the boring bits! (Side poll: Raise your hand if you can remember a Superbowl where the commercials were better than the game. Yeah, me too.)

I can't watch by myself, though. Football is like drinking — something only the true fanatic does alone. Football games on television provide a brilliant reason for folk to get together, give them something to keep them together for the couple of hours the match-ups take, and provide them with lovely intermittant pauses where they can actually talk to one another, should they so choose. Contrary to the stereotypes of the man ignoring his wife because he's watching the game, in my family, you hush up during the plays, but the rest is free for chatting. Post-holiday football-watching is equal parts exhorting at the screen and talking with one another — besides, if it's just another game, it frees up the men- and womenfolk who aren't so into it to go get other things (like shopping!) done.

Televised football gives us a reason to get together, and if we're already together, it gives us a reason to stay together past the point where we might otherwise have been searching desperately for something to talk about. If the team we like is winning, there is excitement! If the team we like is losing, well, there's always consolation chips and queso to be had. And if there's no team we like better than the other, it's a chance to applaud good efforts from both sides.

While these things are arguably true about most televised sports, the nature of football that makes it so boring to watch in person makes it great for gatherings. Watch the play, then turn and talk to your neighbour, get up, grab another beer or soda, nuke some more popcorn, do whatever you need to do so long as you're back in time for the next play, throwing your hopes behind some professionals playing a game that can only matter so much because it doesn't matter at all. After all, even the most crushing of defeats is only as real as ESPN can make it, and the most glorious of wins much the same, in the long run. Little victories that make us feel so right about the world, from the teams we love because they represent our geographic allegiances. Ridiculous? You'd better believe it. But I don't call it that when I'm talking about the Cowboys — who, by virtue of nothing more than calling home the same state I was born in, are one of my teams.

As a sixth-generation (at least) Texan, I am a football fan. I really don't know how I could have come out otherwise. I can't tell a tied end from a running back, don't know who's ahead and behind in the standings, couldn't interpret that crazy referee sign language if my life depended on it, and won't turn on a game myself — but if it's playing in a restaurant, or a friend's house, or a random TV I pass along the way, I will end up stopping and watching. It's almost instinctual by this point, a habit as old as my childhood. The men in helmets run the little brown oval around the green grass, and I'm transfixed. Pavlov would love me.

Just as the proverb goes about how you don't fish for the fish, you fish for the fishing, one does not watch football for the football — one watches for the watching.
You can say, 'I don't like sports' (which, for the most part, I don't), and still watch football. For me, it isn't a part of my life because I like it, so much as I like it because it's a part of my life. Just as the proverb goes about how you don't fish for the fish, you fish for the fishing, one does not watch football for the football — one watches for the watching.

At my grandfather's funeral this last October, his friend and hunting buddy, Parnell, gave an amazing eulogy that had us laughing and crying at once for the forty-five minutes that he spoke. As the service ended and we all headed to the reception, my father clapped him on the back and told him that he'd done a fine job, just a fine job, but that we all knew exactly what my grandfather's reaction to Parnell's going over his allotted time would have been: 'What took you so long? UT kicked off against Colorado half an hour ago!' To which we all laughed because it was funny, because it was true, because it was the truest thing he could have said right then.

It's silly, I know it's so silly, to feel some sort of great spiritual connection with a bunch of guys I'll never meet, running around on a field I've never seen, playing a game I don't even like. But as I got into the truck with my father and we drove away together, all I could think was how happy my grandfather would have been to be there, sitting next to us, listening as the radio sang us the cheers of the crowd and the voices of two very excitable men, narrating our team — our team — to victory.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 19.