The San Francisco Giants just won the World Series, and as I stopped by a bar after work to catch the game (alongside some Monday Night Football), I thought about how baseball is the one sport in which a “perfect game” is one in which literally nothing happens (I also thought about how I missed PacBell Park or SBC Park or whatever they call it now). In any other sport, a game in which neither side scores would be described as “ugly,” “a bad ambassador to the sport,” or “an unmitigated disaster.” But tonight, watching the wonderful duel between Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee, this sort of nothingness is a taut, tense exposition on control.
The contrast on the screens of the sports bar in Fort Greene that I stopped by on the way home from work was interesting–on the left: baseball (the most nostalgic of sports), on the right: American football (the most complex, interesting, and metaphorical of sports). It’s hard to imagine describing a single game of any other sport as “perfect,” as baseball does–what is a perfect soccer game? Perfect football game? The corollary for tennis, I suppose, would be what we called a “bagel” when I was a young tennis player: 6-0, 6-0. It was ugly and you didn’t want to watch it. But tennis is an individual sport. Baseball, ostensibly a team sport, is not quite an individual sport, yet not quite a true team sport. It’s more of an aggregation of individual actions. Just as how the Davis Cup or Ryder Cup ostensibly has teams, all three are essentially just a simple sum of individual results. They have nothing of the complex planning, coordination, and hierarchy, mixed with a hearty dose of controlled randomness, of American football–essentially, all the components of life in a modern, developed world. In contrast, soccer, I believe, will never catch on in America because it’s too Third World–the structure of the game is a continual flow of accreted improvisations across a field of undifferentiated actors with an absolute minimum of oversight and quantification. Planning, strategy, coaching, and analysis are second to the coherence and cooperation of all eleven players on the field per side. Very un-American.
The best reason to watch American football, however, is as a supplement to reading the work of best young writers who are working in America today. There is a long history of American sports writing, from George Plimpton to Norman Mailer, and it often seems that the only sporting events of any cultural significance are the ones that are being written about by the best writers. A while ago, boxing captured the imaginations of a generation’s best writers. Today, I believe it is American football that has the attention of the brightest. My favorite writers, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman, write extensively about American football, and are continual points of imaginative and inspiring writing.