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Has Football Become America's Pastime?

Posted Thursday, July 07, 2005 by Dave Der Cola

Cue the trumpets: Football is national pastime
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Kevin Hench / FOXSports.com
Posted: 1 day ago

Could anything be more blasphemous than denigrating baseball so close to the fourth of July?

What's next, mom is overrated and apple pie is no match for chocolate cake?
Don't get me wrong, I love baseball. I am a baseball freak, a seamhead who is down with OBP, OPS and batting average with RISP. It's just that from where I'm sitting baseball has been supplanted by football as the national pastime. (Both, of course, have been supplanted by NASCAR as the regional pastime, but let's just pretend we still live in a world where most people prefer sports where the athlete is more important than the internal combustion engine.)

People in Milwaukee love Brett Favre and the Green Packers while the Brewers, well, are the Brewers. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

I probably won't get any argument in Wisconsin, where the Packers are a religion and the Brewers are a punch line. In my adopted home of Southern California, however, fans might see things differently. They've been jilted by two football teams and have two proud baseball franchises fighting for their loyalty. I come at the argument from the lofty and unprejudiced perspective of a New England sports fan, whose baseball and football teams are both reigning champions.

While it's true that no sports experience could ever top what Red Sox fans experienced last October ? even last-second field goals to win Super Bowls took a back seat ? the fact is that the National Football League's product is more reflective of America's sporting soul than baseball.

How so? Here are 10 reasons why football is America's new national pastime.

Sunday is an event
For all different kinds of Americans, Sunday is a sacred day. It is a day of worship, a day of family, and ? in my case ? a day to get together with buddies, eat, drink and watch five separate football games simultaneously. (We've tried to develop a call-letter system so you can steer people's attention to a particular screen, but no one can ever remember if Alpha refers to the far left or the big projection screen in the middle.)

Some guys are rooting like crazy for their Bills or Pats or Steelers, others for their fantasy teams, and still others for a particular game to merely pass the over/under threshold. The point is that beginning in Week 1, every Sunday of football season is an event. Guys are screaming, swearing, seething and, occasionally, even smiling. There is nothing like it in baseball.

In case you haven't been to a megaplex or seen Deadwood or the Sopranos (when, oh when are you returning?) or pro wrestling or played Halo or Grand Theft Auto, we Americans sure like our violence. I don't know how you'd measure such a thing, but I suspect violence has surpassed sex as our nation's go-to indulgence of the lesser angels of our nature.

Occasionally there is some violence in baseball, like a collision at the plate. (Winslow Townson / Associated Press)

Sure, occasionally a former football player like Darin Erstad will crush a catcher at the plate, but for the most part baseball just can't satisfy our bloodlust.

On a related note, the NFL has to back off its fines and penalties for inadvertent helmet-to-helmet contact. That's why they are wearing helmets!

Every game matters
Let's face it, when you play 162 games, your concentration is going to wander, especially when you're playing in front of 35,000 empty seats against a non-contender in late August. But in football, every game, every snap matters, right from the opening kickoff of the season.

Just ask the Indianapolis Colts how much every game matters. A missed field goal in their opening game against the Patriots doomed them to return to Foxboro for another January playoff loss. No baseball team can ever point to an opening-day loss as the pivotal moment of the season.

Heck, in baseball, you can even lose three straight games in the World Series and still prevail ? the '87 Twins come to mind. In the NFL playoffs, the one-and-done format raises the stakes and the drama. The World Series has come down to a one-game, winner-take-all finale 35 times in its 101-year history. The Super Bowl has come down to a one-game, winner-take-all finale all 39 times it has been played.

The salary cap
One of the defining elements of American culture ? as mythical as it may be ? is that all men are created equal. Growing out of that founding principle, we have strived over our 11 score and nine years to make sure that the playing field was level for all people, though we have often disagreed on how best to achieve that goal.

Ironic, then, that the one place where the playing field is actually level is the very place from which the metaphor stems, an athletic field (although if a football field were truly level there would probably be drainage problems). Football's salary cap may lead to cruel and confusing roster moves ? nowhere else are All-Pros routinely cut ? but it does mean that no matter how forsaken your team is today, with a good draft, a couple of decent free-agent signings and a shrewd coaching staff, they can be contenders almost overnight.

Such is not the case in baseball, where George Steinbrenner can spend the entire D-Rays' payroll on a weak-hitting first baseman and an inconsistent No. 4 starter. Yes, there will always be one or two great stories like the Nationals, but year after year the eight playoff teams will be comprised mostly of the teams with the highest payrolls.

Fantasy Football
America was founded, has been sustained and will be led into the future by dreamers. The founders' fulfillment of their dreams delivered us from taxation without representation, and we have now arrived at a place in history where a lucky few have lots of representation with almost no taxation.

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I, too, have a dream. That one day in any of my multiple fantasy football leagues I will actually hoist the championship trophy. (Will somebody explain to me how I missed the playoffs with Drew Brees, Brian Westbrook, Muhsin Muhammad and Tony Gonzalez?)

While it's true that there probably wouldn't have been any fantasy football without rotisserie baseball, roto baseball has been left in the dust by fantasy football. Sundays, my friends and I invariably face some crazy emotional conflict between real life and fantasy.

"Buddy, why the long face? Your Cowboys just scored."

"Yeah, but I'm going against Keyshawn in fantasy."

It's embarrassing, but a tough fantasy football loss can ruin my whole weekend. Roto baseball just never seems to get as intense.

One other note on fantasy sports and its place in the fabric of American life: If you have a roto baseball team, you are by definition a sports geek. But plenty of normal, employed, fully functioning adults have fantasy football teams. I, of course, have both and long ago made my peace with being an abnormal, semi-functioning sports geek.

For every season ...
Part of America's majesty is its incredible range of physical beauty. From snow-capped purple mountains to sun-dappled painted deserts, there's a postcard off the next exit. Like in New England, where lush green yields to a spectacular explosion of colors in a couple of months before settling into a winter wonderland for, oh, about six months. Which brings us to the fact that you can't play baseball in much of the country for much of the year.

Unlike baseball, football can be played in any type of weather. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)

Baseball is a summer sport, but its most important games are often played in near-wintry conditions with Joe Buck starting the broadcast by informing us what the wind-chill factor is.

Football is an all-weather, all-terrain sport that has the versatility to be played in withering heat and in sub-zero temperatures. Rain, sleet, snow, 59 below? Bring it.

Baseball just had a game end in a tie because it was raining.

Sure, we are smack dab in the middle of baseball season and football training camp hasn't begun yet, but as you wash down those sausages and peppers with a cold beer, just think how happy you'd be if it were merely a prelude to three hours of full-contact tackle football.

There's a certain thrill piling into a subway with your fellow fans on the Green Line to Fenway or the No. 4 to Yankee Stadium or the El to Wrigley. But it's just not quite as American as dropping the tailgate on the F-250, throwing some red meat on the grill and popping open an ice gold Anheuser-Busch product, now is it?

Forget for a second that America has become a sedentary culture of video games and reality TV voyeurism. Think instead of our long line of 100-meter champions, swimming gold medalists and boxing greats. The United States has consistently produced the greatest athletes in the world. Nowhere is this more true than on the football field.

It's long been accepted that the hardest thing to do in all sports is hit a round ball (going 90 miles per hour) with a round bat squarely. But the fact is Terrell Owens would eventually make solid contact with a Major League fastball while no big leaguer could ever do what Owens did in the Super Bowl. NFL running backs, wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs have a combination of strength and speed that boggles the mind. Baseball has David Wells, who, in his own way, boggles the mind ? like when he lost a footrace to first base with lead-footed Jim Thome last week.

In America, we are taught that through hard work and smarts we can accomplish anything. (At least I think that's what we were taught, I was pretty foggy on a lot of Tuesdays as a schoolboy after staying up to watch Monday Night Football.)

Football has a long history of actual geniuses patrolling the sidelines, most notably Bill Walsh, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. These brilliant minds studied their sport and found ways to revolutionize it. Walsh turned the game upside down and made the passing game ? long considered high risk ? the most efficient way to maintain possession.

Parcells was the first coach to understand that special teams were fully one-third of the game and he won championships by discovering talent like punt-coverage specialist Reyna Thompson and return man Dave Meggett.

Belichick has created a system that expands the limits of the 45-man roster by stressing versatility. He has found linebackers who can become down linemen, safeties who can play corner and one very special wide receiver who can play nickelback. Other coaches must feel like they're up against 55-man rosters.

Baseball gave us Grady Little. When my mom ? and every other mom in New England ? was screaming at Grady to lift Pedro after seven but he just froze, well, you get the feeling ol' Grady would be a little overwhelmed by the particulars of a hot read against a zone blitz.

The fact is managing a baseball team is easy. Hit-and-run, lefty-lefty, infield in, intentional walk to set up the double play. Most of the decisions are fairly obvious and all can be made at a leisurely pace. Coaching football is nearly impossible with hundreds of options on each snap and each decision needing to be made with the play clock winding down. A baseball manager and his staff could stay at the office until 5 a.m., but they'd better bring a deck of cards because there just aren't that many contingencies to prepare for. (Though they still manage to get confused.)


The simplest reason football has replaced baseball as the national pastime is nationalism.

Except for the occasional kicker, American football is played by Americans. Big ol' linemen from the corn belt, speed merchants from Florida and Texas and quarterbacks from Pennsylvania.

Not so with baseball.

It may be called the American League, but a quick look at the AL All-Star starters and you'll see nearly half the team is from the Dominican Republic. No other country has adopted American football as its national pastime. But Japan, Cuba and the Dominican are all more wild about baseball than America.

That the United States has long been an underdog in Olympic baseball has been explained away because we have been sending our amateurs. But now it is hard to imagine a team of U.S. professionals being favored against the Dominicans.

The worst team in the NFL, meanwhile, would crush the best football team the rest of the world could put together.

Kevin Hench is supervising producer of The Sports List on Fox Sports Net.

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