I’ve come a long way (forwards or backwards, I’m not sure) since my high school days of when I knew the score of every single NFL game over the weekend. I don’t follow sports nearly as closely anymore as my journey of self-absorption continues in earnest.
Yes, yes, of course, the problems surrounding football are real. But in this post, I choose to focus on the positive. Here are the top ten reasons football is the best sport in the country:
1. It’s the Ultimate Team Sport, Part I: This is just sheer numbers. There are 11 men on the field vs. 9 in baseball, 7 in hockey, and 5 in basketball. For the vast majority of the plays in baseball, most of the players aren’t involved. Every single one of the 11 men in football is important. Even when one player does go coast-to-coast for a touchdown, there are so many moving parts that come together to make that happen. And when it does, it’s one of the most exciting moments in sports. I can just hear soccer fans quoting This Is Spinal Tap: “These go to 11.” True, there are 11 players in soccer, as well. Well, I did say football is the best in the country, not the world. But, to quote The Naked Gun:
2. It’s the Ultimate Team Sport, Part II: It’s exceedingly difficult for one player to dominate football. That’s not true for other team sports. In baseball, if a pitcher is just on fire, it’s game over. In basketball… I think that argument starts and ends with Michael Jordan. Or Magic Johnson. Oscar Robertson. Larry Bird. LeBron James. Kobe Bryant. The point is that when the superstar gets hot, Jordan’s claim that the rest of the team was just his “supporting cast” is true. In football, even if you have a legit running back, he still needs the quarterback to hand him the ball and his blockers to give him room to maneuver. Nobody is just born to run. Well, besides Bruce Springsteen.
3. Complexity, Part I: There are three ways to score vs. one for all other sports. There’s a safety (2 points), a field goal (3 points), and a touchdown (6 points). Moreover, after a touchdown, the team can opt for the extra point or the two-point conversion. Think of the strategy that goes with this. Yes, all sports are nuanced games-of-inches, but how hard are the decisions in baseball? “I know what we should do — we’ll get a run here.” In basketball… “Guys, I’ve got it: get the ball in the hoop.” Granted, one can go for a 3-pointer in basketball but it’s still basically the same method of scoring. Football offers far more permutations than any other sport. To add yet another element, football’s overtime, like hockey’s, is sudden death. (In fairness, golf’s can be.) All other sports’ OTs can be terribly anticlimactic: the home team in baseball may simply not score a run; a tennis player has to break serve and then hold or vice versa (meaning there’s never a winner-takes-all point); finally, in soccer, one team can also, in a way, “break serve” during penalty kicks, but honestly, penalty kicks have to be the most depressing end to any sport in the history of man. Because they’re so different from the rest of the game, they do nothing to prove which team is truly better.
4. Complexity, Part II: Football is the only non-continuous motion sport with a clock. Baseball, tennis, and golf have no clock. A clock adds an entire dimension to anything. It layers on urgency. It builds excitement. It raises the stakes. Normally, if there’s a clock, the ball (or puck) is constantly moving. In soccer, the clock keeps moving but they tack on injury time and you have no idea when it’s ending, which is like New Year’s Eve without a countdown. In hockey and basketball, when the puck/ball stops, the clock stops. That it doesn’t in football means that the coach has to determine when to call timeouts. Again, strategy.
5. Complexity, Part III: Downs, baby. Downs. OK, so tennis gets a bit of a mention here. The scoring system in tennis was originally based on degrees, with 15, 30, 45, and 60 representing the four angles. Later, they shortened 45 to 40 as it was easier to say. Nobody ever says, “60,” but that’s what a game is. However, you basically hit a ball over a net. In football, a viewer needs to grasp the concept of advancing the ball at least ten yards to comprehend what’s happening. With this sport, even spectators have to earn their keep.
6. Complexity, Part IV: The shape of the football is key. It’s like the stock market:
“#1 rule of Wall Street: Nobody — I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or if you’re Jimmy Buffet — nobody knows if a stock is gonna go up, down, sideways, or in f*cking circles, least of all stockbrokers.”
— Mark Hanna, The Wolf of Wall Street.
Dude, it’s so fun watching players try to figure out which way the ball is gonna bounce and then have to make up for it when they guess wrong. It just adds another element to the game. (In fairness, I got this from here.) If anything, Deflate-Gate only helped underline how important this aspect of the game is. Besides, all that Deflate-Gate stuff came out of thin air.
7. Complexity, Part V: On every play, there’s so much happening. If you want to follow how the big play is unfolding, you can keep your eye on the quarterback and the running backs or wide receivers. Or you can watch where the game is actually won or lost — the trenches, the line-of-scrimmage. It’s like True Detective on HBO: you could follow the murder mystery, the personal lives of the detectives, and/or the crazy musings of Rust Cohle. (Clearly, I like Matthew McConaughey.)
8. Scarcity, Part I: There are only ~12 games in the regular season for the NCAA and 16 for the NFL. As much as we want to say that every game counts in every sport, in football, it’s the most true. It’s just math, son: 1/16 NFL > 1/82 NBA > 1/162 MLB.
9. Scarcity, Part II: The other team leagues have a best-of-seven series. Football comes down to one day: Super Bowl Sunday. And yet it almost always determines the best team. Why? Because stringing together a touchdown drive is just such a tremendous feat. So, if you can consistently do this more than your opponent, you should win.
10. Skill: It’s home to the most difficult job in all of sports: quarterbacking. Why? He’s moving and his target is moving. That’s it. Furthermore, it’s probable (not just possible) that he’s going to get leveled by men considerably larger than he — time and time again. That’s not true for other sports: in baseball, the hitter is stationary. In basketball, hockey, and soccer, the goal is stationary. In tennis, you’re moving but you’ve got half the court that serves (pun intended) as the goal, which is also not moving. In golf, you and the target are both stationary, which helps explain why it’s so boring. (Even though, for some inexplicable reason, I used to watch it on TV when I was four.) When ESPN shows highlights of the day, I love watching soccer announcers yell, “GGGOOOOOOOAAAAAAALLL!” A home run in the bottom of the ninth. A three-pointer at the buzzer. A hole-in-one. A puck sliced across the ice into the net. A cross-court winner to take home the Wimbledon crown. But the sheer beauty of watching a QB stay in the pocket created by his offensive linemen holding back their zippy defensive counterparts, find his receiver downfield, thread the needle, and place this “oblong ball made of pigskin” into the hands of a wide receiver who spins and dodges his way out of double coverage and dives into the end zone? NOTHING tops that.
And yes, that last quote was from Coming to America. So, on a funny note, I’ll leave you with comedian George Carlin’s bit about football and baseball.
Rajiv Satyal is a standup comedian. He resides in Los Angeles, home to zero football teams.