Music and sports rarely go together in British games, but in American football, thumping beats and blaring choruses are part of the festive appeal. At last night’s game between the Cardinals and Rams at Twickenham, I experienced a brilliant overload of the senses.
Music is a constant, whether it’s the opening concerts, half-time entertainment at the Super Bowl or – how could I forget – the cheerleader set pieces.
Like all things American, NFL football is grounded in a cinematic drama. Shiny strips, bright glistening headgear streaked with tribal symbols and even the manicured grass of the pitch. All are designed to conjure intense emotional reactions.
Some of this of course is meant to be a distraction. When penalty decisions or TV umpire controversies go on for more than half a minute, the screens start to flash, the music gets louder and circus acts on stilts bounce down the sidelines. The cheerleaders spring to life. Anything to keep the crowd from getting restless.
It’s well known that advertising is crucial part of the football experience in the States, and this can be overwhelming and wearing.
Attention is the premium commodity, and organisers will do anything to stop spectators devolving into boredom.
It would be wrong, however, to conclude that the pageantry and colour of an NFL game is nothing but a cynical and corporate ‘bread and circuses’ scam.
Noam Chomsky, ever the dreary intellectual snob, once said that football was nothing more than crowd control, managing the testosterone of the numbskull masses, to avoid social unrest.
Typically, there is a grain of truth in what the professor says, but it’s simplified into a dismissive and reductive sneer, to the point of being uninteresting.
As well as the garish corporate distraction of an NFL game, there is also something life-affirming, something that unifies the spirit and makes you feel part of a whole.
Is this the comfort of the mob? Is it is the security of mystifying rituals? Perhaps. There may be something more going on, though.
NFL games are intimately connected to the military. The games in London include both American and British soldiers on parade, and last night at Twickenham, two very English brass bands opened the game for the packed crowd.
Sure there is an aspect of propaganda here, but no one is forcing us to believe that every war the west fights is morally righteous. Rather, you are left with a vertiginous awareness of civic fragility. The pleasure and escapism of the moment is beautifully diluted by the reality of freedom.
Rather than being jingoistic, this show of military theatre is a ritualistic reminder of the duty and sacrifice at the heart of our valued liberties.
At what other British sport would they parade a 30-foot national flag onto the pitch and welcome uniformed soldiers to the sidelines as the country’s anthem is sung? And if there is another sport, would this moment be so unapologetic and devoid of shame?
American Football as a game is baffling to the newcomer, but once you understand the phases of the game, it becomes one of the most accessible sports.
As a middle-class arty boy in Scotland, I always found it a forbidding and humiliating experience to involve myself with football.
UK football is indeed a beautiful and balletic game. At its best the games can be silky and athletic masterpieces. But there is a so much anachronistic and protestant machismo around British football, that only a certain temperament is welcome.
British football is buried in inverted faux-working class snobbery and in-group Puritanism. If you are a newcomer, you are a ‘poser’, not a ‘real fan.’ If you are still getting to grips with the rules of the game, you are quickly ridiculed and put in your place.
In a word, homegrown football is aggressively parochial and devoted fans resent new blood. They are obsessed with their own so-called authenticity. The game is used as a form of macho ranking. Real fans are real men. New fans are fly-by-nights, wannabes.
Despite all the claims of the beautiful game to being a ‘working man’s game’ it is the least inclusive and welcoming of sports. It is a compulsion of the initiated.
Not so with NFL. There is a slightly corporate outreach programme to make the NFL global right now, but the game itself is also inclusive and accessible.
One of the advantages of the game is that you can enjoy it from a distance. The drama and explosive rhythm of it is watchable for its own sake, without any real deep knowledge of offence and defence strategy.
Most importantly, though, the sheer theatre and filmic scope of experiencing an NFL game amounts to a celebration of the human spirit. It’s cathartic and gladiatorial, but it’s also a pagan sacrament, an unashamed performance of human passion and common citizenship.