Let's see, how should I spend my Sunday? Should I keep reading Herwig Wolfram's magisterial History of the Goths? Should I perhaps go a-hunting online for some whimsical new videos of cats doing unexpected things? Or should I check to see if there are any noteworthy athletic spectacles on television?
There has been a dull din, growing louder over the past few weeks, that suggests to me that some big sports event is in the offing. Distant memories from childhood cause me to associate this din, in this particular season, with football. These associations, in turn, conjure up others still: of Ronald Reagan, of high-school meatheads in letter jackets telling me not to stand too close to their girlfriends, of ROTC, of PromiseKeepers, of words like 'buddy', of a model of American masculinity that quite literally spit me out as indigestible.
And now, here I am, back in the belly of the beast, steeling myself for yet another Superbowl. (The last Superbowl I can remember, in early 1994, I spent locked in a closet reading Anna Akhmatova as my parents hosted a wide-screen-TV Superbowl fiesta, complete with trays of bean dip made up with various ingredients to resemble a football field: sour cream for the yard lines, a goal post out of avocado, etc.)
Now all team sports may properly be described as sublimations of war, and to the extent that I've already confessed to 'getting' the Ernst Jünger-style aestheticization of battle, it is but a corollary confession to observe that I do find some such sublimations beautiful. But American football is not so much a sublimation of the martial as it is an outright advertisement for it. As far as I can tell this is how it's been for a very long time, which is precisely why it made such natural sense to fall back on the figure of the 'Gipper' when then-president Reagan made a characteristically hard-nosed move against the Soviets, or the Sandinistas, or air-traffic controllers.
And now today, from what I've gathered from brief glimpses while waiting in airport bars, the media event of a professional football game is entirely intermeshed with the promotion of US foreign policy (all this talk of honoring our troops, all these stupid ribbons, all this shitty conservative music at half-time that makes Bob Hope at the USO look like the Bad Brains), and with the preservation of the racial divide that defines American history (nothing quite helps to further reify the imaginary boundaries of race than the jovial displays of locker-room bonhomie between men of different skin tones, who never doubt that they belong to different natural categories and that their bonhomie succeeds only through the crossing of a real line).
I seriously do not understand how anyone who does not anchor himself to these ideological docks could nonetheless find something left over in the spectacle to get excited about. How, moreover, could anyone who is not American --or an immigrant trying overhard to become American-- possibly feel welcome at the spectacle? I do have friends who are not, politically speaking, yahoos, and even a few European friends, who adore American football. Until I hear an explanation, I will assume that they are all just trying to be idiosyncratic.
For my part, whenever I overhear or catch a glimpse of anything having to do with the NFL, I get a deep, preconceptual, instinctive sense that this is just not my world. I suspect that this is something that is not so different from the way sexual orientation works: sport might not be as important as kinship in the organization of a society, but it is pretty important. In both cases, when a person cannot play along with the way sport or kinship has been set up in a given society, that person risks marginalization. I am being quite serious when I say that I feel my marginalization very intensely on days of nationwide or worldwide athletic celebration. And as with sexual orientation, I feel like saying to anyone who would blithely insist that I need to lighten up and get with it: I can't. It's just not in me.
Of course, everyone will find him or herself unable to relate to at least some features of the modern world: many people hear off-the-cuff political analysis about, say, Suleiman's prospects in a post-Mubarak Egypt in the same way I hear the whooping and hollering about Ben Roethlisberger. That is, they don't hear it at all; they just switch it down to a sort of background humming.
I insist on writing semi-regularly about sports (my 'sports column', I like to joke) because I really do think this is important. Sports, as the t-shirt puts it, really is life for many in our society; and it is important to not allow this slogan to be elevated to, so to speak, a universal maxim with normative force. In this respect, I am quite serious when I emphasize the parallels to heteronormativity.
As it is, parent-child relationships are destroyed over a lack of enthusiasm on junior's part for throwing the pigskin around; and people actually lose jobs because they are unable to shoot-the-shit about LeBron James or whatever with their coworkers (not to mention the inability to go shoot a round of golf or 'some hoops'). Yet no one is there to defend them.
This remains for the moment a pernicious yet sub rosa variety of coerced conformity. If I weren't an utter recluse I would start an advocacy group.
To follow me on Facebook, go here.