I’m in such a foul mood this month that I’ve actually been watching preseason football.
Maybe it’s the heat, or the impending election, or the fact that the ointment I’ve been putting on that gash in my arm doesn’t appear to be helping—I should probably see a doctor—but something is making me more eager than usual to watch twenty-two grown men trample one another like frenzied musk oxen.
I love football. I look forward to the new season every year the way a rice farmer in Uttar Pradesh anticipates the life-giving monsoon. I love the game’s violence, its athleticism, its marriage of subtle tactics with primitive savagery. I even like the inherent idiocy of expending so much energy and aggression to move a pointy ball over a white line. It’s like a war where the civilians who would normally be bombed into oblivion are allowed to watch the battle instead, plus they get beer and nachos. It’s not civilized, exactly, but it may the best that humans can do.
Nonetheless, the preseason typically bores me stiff. Teams are still settling down, everyone wants to avoid injuries, and hardly anyone even looks at the scoreboard. I want the real thing, damn it, not a dress rehearsal. And yet this year, I found myself planning an early dinner for the entire family so I wouldn’t miss a minute of the Cowboys’ first preseason game against the Oakland Raiders.
Oakland? The fuck do I care about Oakland? Yes, I miss Al Davis, but his team’s terrible defense will likely be even worse this season because their best players were too expensive for them to keep (with the notable exception of linebacker Rolando McClain, who is still on the roster but currently in jail for assault, reckless endangerment, and firing a gun within the city limits of Decatur, Alabama). No one cares about the poor Raiders these days, least of all me.
Ah, but Dallas—a team whose players I am dispassionate about but whose owner Jerry Jones I loathe with a white-hot intensity that only Texans can understand—Dallas needs a beating. For the space of those three preseason hours I was the most ardent Raiders fan you could ever hope to meet. Dallas won, but they looked awful, and I have high hopes for Jones’s systematic humiliation over the next four months of regular season play.
Such pointless antagonism is part of the game, and the heat and exhaustion of late August have been incubating everyone’s sense of empty anger—the players’ just as much as the fans’. The New York Jets, for example, have been prepping for their upcoming season with a rigorous series of training camp fights, including a free-for-all a few days ago that was triggered when cornerback D’Anton Lynn shoved running back Joe McKnight, and McKnight retaliated by throwing a football at Lynch. Shoving people and throwing the ball are, one might think, activities unlikely to give offense during football practice, being integral to the game. Yet in this case they touched off a brawl involving a couple dozen men. (No word whether Jets defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis was among them. He’s supposed to be serving jail time for an incident back in 2010 during which he threatened someone with a baseball bat.)
It gets ugly sometimes. I wrestle with the ethics of football spectatorship every year, and not just because of the players’ arrest records. Junior Seau’s death back in May reminded everyone that football takes a huge toll on the men who play it. Even though they all choose to be there, and some of them make a lot of money during their professional careers, football is still a blood sport. And a lot of the real damage happens off the field, conveniently out of the fans’ sight.
There’s also the nagging feeling that it’s wrong to merely watch football. If I like it so much, my inner ethicist tells me, I should play it myself, and participate in the violence directly. I don’t box, or fight in MMA-style cage matches, but I do spar, so when I watch those sports I can appreciate what’s at stake. And I could actually play full-contact football—or try out, at least. I happen to live in a city with a Women’s Football Alliance team, the Austin Outlaws. Several of my friends have played for the Outlaws. I’ve never even considered it. I’ve stepped into the sparring ring many times, sometimes with pretty big opponents, but I have zero desire to crouch down at the line of scrimmage and wait for a 240-pound linebacker to turn me into a speed bump. A girl could get hurt that way.
Scrimmage, meaning “a minor battle,” according to Webster’s, is a curious word. I had it mentally filed alongside words like scrim and scrimshaw; artsy words that imply fabrication. In fact, scrimmage derives from the Middle English skirmish (“a minor fight in war usu. incidental to larger movements”). At some point skirm was transformed to scrim through a phenomenon called metathesis, the transposition of sounds within a word. The i and r sounds in skirmish were flipped, as if the word had been clotheslined by on offensive linesman and its internal organs rearranged. Instead of happening with one solid hit though, linguistic metathesis occurs across generations, as speakers’ tongues pronounce a word over and over again, caroming off the odd phonemes and rearranging them until they settle into their new order permanently.
Sometimes when metathesis occurs, the original form of the word disappears—thus the Old English bridd is now extinct and we say bird instead—but scrimmage, rather than replacing skirmish, developed its own distinct meaning. Skirmishes are small, chaotic fights peripheral to a larger conflict, whereas a scrimmage is a formal contest: A line on the ground; an engagement with rules, a beginning, and an end.
The entire sixty minutes of clock time in a pro football game consists of brief individual scrimmages; around a hundred and thirty of them in an average contest. The players form up at the line, the ball is snapped, whoever has it is taken down or run out of bounds, and the play is over. Up to forty seconds can run off the clock between plays, meaning that most of the action on the field happens in bursts of ten second or less. This start-and-stop dynamic frustrates a lot of spectators (especially Europeans) but for me it’s part of football’s appeal: You don’t need a long attention span to follow the game.
During those ten-second scrimmages an awful lot of force is produced and absorbed by human bodies. The players accelerate, collide, change direction, and hit the ground (and if my friends who played in the WFA are to be believed, they do a fair amount of head-butting and eye-gouging, especially during fumble recoveries). A lot of emotional force is generated as well. Players bring their personalities to the line of scrimmage; their fears, their intelligence and their instincts. All of which collide when the ball is snapped: Crunch.
Not everyone is thrilled by that spectacle. Some people are disgusted by it. Some are bored. It’s difficult to explain to people who hate football why I love it; why the violence itself is an essential feature of the game for me. The thought of football without the force, without the blocking and tackling and stomping and smashing, is completely unappealing. I avoid fantasy football for the same reasons I didn’t seek out a career in management: Too much focus on performance, not enough hitting. It’s not the statistics that I find so compelling about football, or even the contest itself, but the physical and mental energy committed to winning it.
Football players subject themselves to forces I could never withstand, and indeed can barely fathom. That doesn’t make them superhuman but it surely does something to them, and I’m fascinated by that possibility of transformation. I’ve fought hundreds of sparring matches (many of them in a Kyokushin school), and I know that every time I’ve fought, I’ve been re-arranged inside. The act of fighting against something or someone with full physical commitment—of experiencing violent force, and applying force yourself—changes you. Sometimes the change happens all at once (and I have the emergency room bills to prove it). More often it’s gradual, the same way that a word like skirmish gets transformed into scrimmage, by being uttered over and over again. In the sparring ring, the fight and its meaning are always clear to me, and relatively simple. In football, the complexity of the whole endeavor is much greater.
When I watch football, I don’t just see twenty-two players arrayed along a white line. I also see words, each with its own unique meaning, carefully arranged in a coherent sequence. When I watch a snap, I’m also listening, and reading deeply, parsing a sentence that was diagrammed, perhaps, on a coach’s clipboard in the off-season, composed and refined on the practice field, and then edited on the fly in the seconds before the center snaps the ball, as players shift position and switch assignments. Each individual on the line gets a say. Each player contributes to the message. Like a well-written sentence in which every word counts, a good play in football is clear and irrefutable.
There’s a conversation going on during scrimmage, part of which is an elementary debate about who’s bigger, faster, and meaner. But the arguments can be subtle, and I love trying to follow the back-and-forth. Offenses and defenses don’t just knock each other down. They take positions, provide backup, contradict one another, lie, and make completely unfounded claims. Some arguments are successful, some aren’t. But each play contains a statement and rebuttal in the strongest possible terms, played out in a language marked by its essential honesty, underneath all the sweat stains and the television networks’ high-definition graphics overlays—a language that most of us barely even speak anymore.
Which is why, I suppose, we need professional athletes to carry on the conversation for us. The average citizen these days is more conversant in the language of marketing and politics. We hear endless debates about who is better, sexier, richer, holier, more American. We know the rebuttals by heart. We’re used to the empty back and forth of outrageous accusations and self-righteous fury. Some of these contests revolve around issues that are truly important, yet no one is changed by the conversation, because the people shaping the arguments aren’t committed to them in any meaningful way. The consequences are so far removed from the players making the claims that it’s hard to see the connection.
There’s something bizarre about a culture that invests so much energy and passion in its sporting events, and so little thought and commitment to its civic dialogue. In a way it’s quite admirable, how we split off our more destructive impulses into the arena of sport. And yet, the popularity of violent games like football hasn’t made Americans any less eager to bomb civilians (provided we can’t see them). It hasn’t made our habits or our policies any less destructive. It hasn’t changed us at all—at least, not for the better.
Enjoy the preseason if you’re watching it. Grab a beer and some nachos, and savor the Cowboys’ fifteenth consecutive year of rebuilding. I sure will. But while you’re watching, try listening as well, to what the game and its players are saying about force, and passion, and commitment. Because if we can’t hear them, we’re in danger of losing the meaning of those words altogether.