Having graduated from college in 1980, I took the following year off to travel, study, and screw around. My longest trip, which lasted the better part of two months, was to Israel. It was there that I checked into a yeshiva, thought long and hard about what the rabbis were saying, and decided to be a baal teshuvah, which is another way of saying a born-again Jew. The rabbis at this yeshiva would surely be proud that they “converted” me from a secular to a religious mindset. But they wanted more. They wanted me to move to Israel.
Honestly, I thought about it. Life seemed to be more meaningful in that country. I was overwhelmed with the history of the place and the sense of spirituality that was built in to the architecture. I felt a greater sense of community there. And I could relate more to the people; they made me feel at home. But when push came to shove, I didn’t make the move. And I recall there being two primary reasons why. First and foremost, my parents were in America. As an only child, I needed them and they needed me. Secondly, and I’m not kidding, there was football. The season had been over for a couple of months, but that didn’t matter. I just couldn’t imagine living in a country where I wouldn’t get my constant dose of the gridiron. Watching that sport had been a passion of mine ever since the mid-60s. I started out as an NFL fan – a devotee of the Raiders and Vikings, to be specific. But by the time I graduated college, I was an equally rabid college football fan. It was my comfort food. It was my guilty pleasure.
Decades have elapsed since my flirtation with “making Aliyah” (as they call the decision to emigrate to Israel), but my love for football has never died. To be sure, on more than one occasion I’ve felt compelled to boycott the sport in order to take a stand against the barons of the professional game. Even then, however, I’ve continued to watch my beloved Stanford Cardinal. Watching football is the closest thing I have to a drug addiction. I’ve lost a bit of my appreciation for the violent side of the game – sadly, it was probably my favorite aspect of the sport when I was younger – but there is plenty of finesse and strategy in football, and believe me, I love every bit of it.
I’m reflecting on the sport right now because it seems to be so much in control of the American cultural scene this fall. During the opening weekend of this year’s NFL season, the average prime time telecast drew an audience of 20 million. This was more than the average World Series telecast. So basically, early-season football is more popular than baseball at its best.
And that’s just the NFL. In many parts of this country, college football is the biggest game in town. I sure can’t get enough of it. Just this afternoon, I spent my time at a crowded bar watching the Stanford-Colorado game, and there were probably six or seven other matchups on the tube that I actually cared about. Tonight, when LSU plays Alabama, the entire Deep South will be watching. I’ve met many people over the years from states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and I can’t think of one who doesn’t love college football.
Then there’s the high school game. As bad as my high school team was, football was still the biggest sport there. In some small towns around here, high school football is a huge deal. My wife teaches at one of those towns – Damascus, Maryland. They’ve got the number two team in the Washington area, and I assure you – when that team plays, that town comes alive.
Those of us who live in Washington DC joke that the Capitals could be in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Wizards in the NBA finals, and the Nationals in the World Series … but the people of DC would still care more about the Redskins even if they stink. Such is life here in Washington. Such is life here in most American cities. There are exceptions, but those are anomalies. We live in a football crazed country, and that doesn’t seem likely to change no matter how many players get injured or engage in off-the-field misconduct.
I’ve often joked that if you want to know who is going to win the next Presidential election, just ask yourself one question: which of the two Parties’ nominees would you rather hear as the analyst of a National Football Conference Championship Game? That’s another way of asking who would America rather have a beer with? If you go back in time a few decades, you’ll find that this test works virtually every time.
In our next election, I actually expect this method to fail. I just don’t see how, “barring injury” (as we football fans would say) Hillary doesn’t win the election. And Lord knows that nobody wants to hear her get in the booth and analyze the NFC Championship game. Pot luck would be WAY better at that.
Still, on days like today, when my college team won big and is very much in the thick of things to make the Playoffs, I find myself wondering. No matter how many reasons I can identify for why Hillary can’t lose, maybe I’m not taking the football test seriously enough. If there is one thing that unifies Americans, it’s the love of freedom. But the love of football and all it represents might come in a close second. While Hillary has indeed enjoyed a charmed fall, she’s still not someone you’d want to have a beer with, let alone announce a football game. In other words, she’s no Condoleezza Rice. Both women served as Secretary of State, yet only one shares America’s addiction to the gridiron. And as long as Hillary isn’t that woman, she’ll remain vulnerable in an American popularity contest.