Saturday, September 4, 2010

Go Deep

Michigan football is back, which means many Saturdays of maize-and-blue drunkards clogging the roads, tailgating every few feet, the Michigan fight song in heavy rotation. You'd think the utter disaster of Rich Rodriguez's reign would dampen festivities somewhat, but if anything, it's made loyalists even more determined to will their team to at least a .500 season. The locals have little to cheer about as it is. A shitty football team with a storied tradition is better than nothing.

Man, how Michigan football has fallen. When I first moved here, they were one of the top teams in the country, having won the national championship two seasons before. They were ranked in the Top Ten for years, sometimes as high as Two or Three. They boasted serious talent, many of whom went to the NFL: Jake Long, LaMarr Woodley, Steve Breaston, Mario Manningham, and Braylon Edwards, who I saw, from field-level seats, shred Notre Dame's secondary, making gymnastic deep-field catches. Their rivalry with Ohio State was serious, each year's game up for grabs. Now, they're not even in the Buckeyes' rearview mirror, eclipsed by Iowa, Wisconsin, and Penn State. They might be better than Indiana, but I wouldn't bet serious money on that.

I've made relative peace with Wolverine madness, mainly because I have little choice. I live only a mile from the Big House, so my neighborhood serves as an extended parking lot for fans. This used to make me nuts, but then much of the past decade drove me crazy, so I can't pin it all on the football culture. Besides, I love football, more the NFL than the college game. My favorite team since I was eight years old is the New York Jets. Living in Michigan put a dent in my Jets' viewing, as the hapless Detroit Lions are the local team. I don't have satellite TV, so I can't buy an NFL season pass which would bring me every Jets game. And this is the year to watch them, if the Super Bowl hype has any validity.

I've been enjoying HBO's Hard Knocks with the Jets. They're an entertaining bunch, led by their animated head coach Rex Ryan. The Jets are loaded with gifted players, but based on this show, they aren't maximizing their potential. The defense looks solid, though settling with All-Everything cornerback Darrelle Revis would decidedly help. The offense is shaky, not lighting up the pre-season scoreboard as it should. But then the pre-season Indy Colts looked pretty bad too, and they're the defending AFC champs. I doubt they'll have a losing season, nor will the Jets. At least I hope not. Jets' fans are used to serious letdowns. Not winning the Super Bowl this year would be a big one. Still, I suspect I'll survive.

Given my views about violence, hierarchy, and nationalism, you'd think I'd despise football. And in many respects I do, especially the fan culture. Arrogance, desperation, and idiocy lubricated by binge drinking is rarely a pretty sight. If you have any hopes for some kind of significant social or political change, one glance at an NFL tailgate party will depress you. In a sense, the NFL is a subdivision of US imperialism, further conditioning consumers to internalize militarist concepts.

This becomes more explicit during the playoffs and Super Bowl, when fighter jets streak over stadiums, Marine color guards march on-field, and fans stand at attention, waving American flags. If it's true that a majority of Americans oppose the terror wars, you won't see it expressed at an NFL game.

For all its theatrical flourishes, Nazi Germany could never compete with NFL nationalist displays. Plus, the Nazis bankrupted and brought destruction on Germany. The NFL is making record profits, building new stadiums, expanding the regular season, and is a marketing juggernaut. Compared to this, Joseph Goebbels was a derivative hack, though given time, he might make the Lions a respectable team again. Detroit and Weimar Germany share many features, so Goebbels would be working on familiar ground.

If I feel this way, why do I love football? It goes back to my childhood when I played the game for a brief time in pads, then a lot in backyards and open fields. Football strikes a primal chord in me. When I see a running back break loose for an 80 yard score, or a receiver catch a ball with outstretched fingers, his feet barely in-bounds, my brain's pleasure center clicks on.

There's a rough physical beauty to it all, however destructive it is to human bodies. I can't explain it, won't defend it, nor apologize for it. As I've told certain critics of mine, who think my anti-imperial views mark me as treasonous, I'm thoroughly American. Couldn't shake it if I tried. Drain a few beers with me while watching a Jets game and see if you agree. Hell, I get emotional just watching this early history of the team.