Toss Around the Ol' Pigskin?
"I don't like pork rinds. Oh, you meant football..."
By Paula Marantz Cohen
Making too much of the gender divide is outmoded nowadays, and yet there are areas where the division still holds. One is the area of narrative. Women like it; men don’t. Granted, if you walk into a random funeral, you’re going to hear a narrative when they give the eulogy, whether the person in the casket is a man or a woman. But I’m talking about a tolerance for narrative beyond the bare bones (or dead body) variety. When it comes to that, women want more, men less. It’s the old foreplay-versus-sex-act thing, and it translates into other diversions — like fine dining (women like the ambience, men the food) and movies (women like character-delving plots — i.e. French movies; men like action films — i.e. anything with weapons or, barring that, anything not French). The whole thing can be boiled down to a simple dichotomy: Women like stories, men like games.*
And yet, life gets boring doing what one has always done and remaining ensconced within one’s own gender preoccupations; one wants to mix things up. This is all by way of prelude to my recent determination to give more credence to things I had previously disdained. Like football.
Let me begin by explaining that I have never had an interest in spectator sport — I do remember lolling on the couch watching a golf tournament once, but I had a high fever at the time. The watching of sports events by certain men in my family has always seemed to me a pathetic exercise in vicarious pushing and shoving and an excuse for guzzling beer and eating potato chips. When someone close to me decides to watch “the game,” I go off to read a three-decker Victorian novel or rifle the racks at Marshalls. But with a new 50-inch plasma TV (see earlier column), and a postmodern desire to cross-dress, metaphorically speaking, I was ready to give football a chance.
So I invited my friend Rosemary over to watch the first game of the season: the Philadelphia Eagles versus the Carolina Panthers. Rosemary knows about as much about football as Andy Reid knows about Montaigne (forgive me, Andy, if I have impugned you and you are conversant in “On Cannibals”). But ignorance was the point here. Rosemary is the sine qua non of the narrative-addicted woman. I mean she can get a story out of a tree or, for that matter, out of the guy with a chainsaw who trims her trees (note: He is looking for someone to understand his deepest needs, especially now that he is out of rehab).
So Rosemary came over to give me moral support in my entree into sports spectatorship. She brought her dog Olivia with her, and we spent a little time adjusting the volume so Olivia wouldn’t get too excited and pee on the rug. Da-da-da-daa, da-da-da-daa, da-da-da-daaa da daaaa! The teams ran out to a blast of warrior music, and we were quick to note their “outfits,” as Rosemary referred to them. I liked the bright blue and white of the Panthers, but Rosemary said that the Eagles’ dark green was “more manly.” Already, narrative tendencies were kicking in, and we were deep into discussing the tattoos on the players — what their mothers thought about them, and how the players would feel when they were 80 and had stuff all over their bodies that was expensive to remove, not to mention painful, and even if you try, hard to obliterate entirely — when the game began.
Someone (my husband?) suggested that maybe we should watch rather than postulate about the little black bathing caps the guys were wearing under their helmets, and so we directed our attention to the screen. What was going on? It was hard to figure out, what with everyone wearing the same outfits running around and piling on top of each other. And it was all happening so fast. It reminded us of reading a map, which we both had problems with, too. No sooner did we get our bearings and figure out where New Jersey was than we’d passed the rest stop and our husbands had grabbed the map out of our hands and crumbled it up against the steering wheel, trying to read it while driving, which is dangerous. We agreed that practice might make us faster at figuring out which team had the ball (a prerequisite we vaguely understood for figuring out which player had it), but then again, our map-reading skills hadn’t improved despite numerous car trips to Massachusetts.
Commercials intervened. Cars. Auto insurance. Cars. Reinforcing our sense that football-watching and map-reading are related skills.
Back to the game where the Eagles, despite a slow start, had now begun to, as they say, “kick some butt.” The phrase seemed apt, as so many of the guys were being presented to us from this angle. At one point, for reasons that we didn’t understand but that Rosemary noted were not exactly respectful, a yellow circle was drawn around one guy’s butt,. “Couldn’t they wait until he was in a better position before they drew attention to him?” We had detoured into a discussion of the tightness of these guys’ pants — and whether spandex gave them room to breath, how often they did a wash, and how stinky those locker rooms must be, with some giggling about the designation of a tight end for one of the positions when indeed all of them had tight ends as far as we could see — when a roar came up from the crowd and our husbands. The Eagles had gotten the ball when it wasn’t their turn (a “turnover”, as Rosemary, who had caught this from the commentator, sagely informed me) and had made a touchdown.
We watched the player responsible for this dramatic maneuver take high-stepping, sprightly strides to advertise that he’d done something pretty impressive. “It’s not nice to rub it in their faces like that,” noted Rosemary, who has a keen sense of social justice and works several days a week at a hotline for depressed people, extracting, as can be imagined, very extensive and pathetic stories from these sad souls. It didn’t seem to me that feelings were very important in football, but Rosemary may have been onto something because the high-stepper was given a penalty for “excessive celebration.” Our husbands postulated that this might refer to an obscene hand gesture made while he was high-stepping, but Rosemary held to the idea that the player was being punished for making the other team feel bad.
“Who’s that guy?” asked Rosemary, pointing to a fat man on the sidelines to whom the camera had moved for a reaction shot.
Even I knew this was Andy Reid, the Eagles coach, and we ruminated on the irony that the coach for a team in which the players are as muscled as mountain cats resembles the children’s TV character Barney. “Why does he look so miserable?” noted Rosemary. We then went on to discuss his home life (of which I had read something) and Rosemary clucked to hear the problems he had had with his two boys. “No wonder he can’t get any real pleasure from his work — he’s distracted by problems at home,” she noted.
A youngish woman in a little black dress delivered some commentary at this point, shouting over the din behind her in a fetching sort of way, but not addressing any of the issues that we were interested in (like how Andy Reid and his sons were getting along these days, what the players thought about the colors of their uniforms, and how their mothers could have let them get so many tattoos).
Halftime came and Rosemary and I were intrigued by the panel of commentators, all ex-football players and hence a kind of memento mori on what becomes of you after you throw yourself around for a few years kicking butt. From what we could tell, these guys seemed to serve the primary purpose of demonstrating that they were still alive. They all looked pretty good, but we guessed they were the best preserved out there and heavily made up for television, and that there were lots of other guys who had gone to seed or lost mental capacity due to serious head injury. The question now under discussion seemed to be why the Eagles were kicking so much butt: Was it because they were really good or because the Panthers were really bad? The ex-football players batted this question around for a while in a fashion worthy of Plato’s symposium.
Second half — Donovan McNabb (“a mellifluous name,” noted Rosemary) scored a touchdown. Then the other team jumped on top of him. You’d think he’d be dead with so many people piled on top, but from what we’d seen so far, it didn’t really hurt that much when you were 250 pounds of pure muscle, and even if you lay there for a few seconds as though you were dead, soon you sprung up and got going again, as good as new — like those birds that bash into glass windows and lie on the grass in momentary shock and then suddenly fly away. But sometimes, apparently, not. Because McNabb was lying there for quite a while, and the commentators were getting worried and starting to babble about what his injury would mean for the season, etc. etc.
Finally, however, he did spring up, smiling and waving, but not as good as new. Broken ribs, it was reported. My husband broke some ribs two years ago and had trouble walking up stairs for three months, but football players are different from ordinary people, so broken ribs, it seems, are unfortunate but not a really big deal. Donovan McNabb, we learned, would be out a few weeks, tops, which was a shame but not a disaster. We all breathed a sigh of relief. Then the commentators swung the camera to the booth where the infamous Michael Vick, the dog torturer, waited in the wings. Rosemary and I had discussed Vick and found his actions appalling. But now, with our new-found investment in the game, we felt he should be allowed to save the Eagles if this were necessary — apologies to Rosemary’s dog Olivia.
So that was the lesson of getting invested in football. Things like dog torture and broken ribs get subordinated to the larger story: making sure the Eagles kick some serious butt. The whole thing, to tell you the truth, was an ordeal. Just watching one game had tired us out and put us in the mood for a French movie. • 27 October 2009
*Some men I know like narrative, even very long examples of it like Anna Karenina (some even write narrative). And some women I know like spectacle and won't miss Monday Night Football. So please take this in the spirit of gross generalization in which it is written.
Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is author of the bestselling novels Jane Austen in Boca, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale Review, The American Scholar, The Hudson Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.