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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 9. Every Picture Tells a Story

by Bob Andelman

"What's the first thing you think of somebody who doesn't follow football? Someone you don't have a lot in common with. Especially in the South, where it's not a sport, it's religion."
Barry Dreayer
Computer software salesman/consultant

God bless football, for without it, men might have nothing to talk about.

Given the feeblest of openings, we'll wax rhapsodic about last night's game, last year's Super Bowl or a life-changing play vaguely recalled from childhood. And if we ever played the game, stand by for a moment-by-moment recreation of how we won a crucial high school game against a sworn blood enemy.

We can talk players, coaches, trainers, owners, contracts, incentive clauses and free agency. There's the annual college draft, an endless vein of player, team, conference and league stats. Some guys can even tell you the best routes to far-away stadiums.

Not all men love football as voraciously as these superfans. The vast majority of us know enough to be conversational, understanding the mechanics and keeping up with the basics in the sports pages. Gotta take the family jalopy in for a tune-up? Check the weekend scores so you can make conversation with the mechanic. Live in a college town? You'll become a football fan through a form of mass psychosis/osmosis.
Notre Dame Stadium on game day, with student s...
"It's amazing how much it carries over," Volney Meece says. "In Oklahoma, for instance, a Saturday night game might last three hours but it's talked about until the next Saturday game one way or the other, win or lose. I used to work on an afternoon paper. You'd be surprised how many secretaries would call in early Monday morning to get the scores by quarters for all the company pots. It's big."

You can't go anywhere in the United States on a Monday or Sunday from August through the Super Bowl in January without talking about a game or hearing people talking about it.

In many college and NFL football cities, very little business is transacted on Monday mornings until employees get the football talk out of the way. And even then, it's a convenient conversational topic and icebreaker on the phone all day.
Women do lunch and what do men do? They play football. And they talk football. Society permits it.

"It's great for relatives," says Barry Dreayer, a computer software and voice mail salesman/consultant in Atlanta. Dreayer used to teach a course for novices called "TeachMeSports." "I had lost touch with a cousin of mine. One day I was on a national sports talk radio show. He heard me in another state. The next day, he called. To this day, we keep in touch because of this shared passion."

You get a friend or two over, you're pulling for your team, talking about football, work, the wife, whatever. It's a release from the pressure of the week. "I used to have a tense job," retired tool company executive Ralph Weisbeck says. "Football is still a release for me."

If two guys, total strangers, are stuck with each other's company for whatever reasons, business or pleasure, they can count on football to break the ice. Or drive a wedge between them.

"Is that a Florida Gator pin on your lapel?"

"Yup! You a Gator, too?"

"Nope, Seminole, you asshole. You guys cheat!"

"Screw you, ya Criminole!"

See how easy it is?

Sports is easily the No. 1 topic of conversation for young men, rivaled and interrupted only when one guy pokes the other in the ribs and says, "Ey, check her out."

"And if you happen to have the same allegiance," Broncos fan Jeff Spear says, "or if you happen to just be a fan of the game, you can watch just for the sake of enjoying the sport and you can find someone to talk to on that level. You can find fans on all kinds of levels and it's something that you could easily relate to."

Football is just transparent enough so that anyone can know something about it. Every fan is a coach.

Some people have observed that women tend to communicate more freely over a vast range of topics, including emotions. Men tend to be more limited in their communication. Sports, particularly football, gives us something to discuss.

"One of the reasons men love to watch football," Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum says, "is because the next morning, on the job, they can talk about the game. It gives a man an opportunity to have something more to communicate about with his peers -- other men. They can communicate with a limited degree of intimacy and a limited amount of emotional connection, which I think for many men is the preferred state of relating."
* * *

A lot of us get married and wake up one day to find that we've somehow become cut off from all our male friends. Or, as our wives refer to them, "Those idiots." Priorities change, relationships fade, wives steer husbands away from single guys they see as bad influences . . . But sports bring us back together.

"Male bonding" is a cliche, but everyone understands what it means. It's one of the few ways we can still hang out in an acceptable way, outside the shackles of maturity and responsibility.

"It's a good feeling to be able to do that with the guys," Teitelbaum says. "I also think of bonding as a way for many men to get away from the world of adult responsibilities. It's kind of escaping into a less responsible mode -- which we need to do. If you have the responsibilities that most people have as they move into their late 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond, you have a need to get away. Watching football presents an opportunity to escape into a less responsible mode and to recapture the boyhood exuberance and enthusiasm of rooting for your home team with the other guys."

Teitelbaum knows from personal experience the release of being able to talk football with another guy -- his son.

"You can get into what is going on in different levels of the game than you probably could with your wife," he says. "When I go to the games with my grown son, it is a very different experience than when I take my wife. If I take my wife it's fun but I have to explain so much more of what is going on. My son will see something that I don't see, or I'll see something that he doesn't see. We know the gist of what is going on much beyond the surface of the play. There is something that men feel they get in sharing football together with other men which is above and beyond what they usually feel in sharing it with their women."

"Doing things with guys is very important to me," psychologist Rick Weinberg says. "I spend most of my life around a woman -- my wife -- and so I think football is a great way for men to relate to one another around a game with beer, popcorn and chips."
* * *

No doubt, there are men who hate or don't understand football. There's nothing unmanly about them. Not much, anyhow. But more than likely they keep their disdain private, avoiding the game whenever possible, putting on an enduring poker face when socially required to watch or talk pigskin.

"If you were at Harvard," Dr. John M. Silva says, "I don't think there would be too much pressure to follow Harvard basketball. If you did, fine. If you didn't, no big deal. But if you are at Notre Dame or North Carolina and you weren't following basketball, you would be abnormal. I think a lot of it has to do with the norms that exist in the environment that you are in. When I was a kid growing up just outside Boston, I followed the Celtics. You could never get away with wearing a Knicks or a '76ers shirt. You'd be lynched. I am sure the same thing operated in New York City, particularly when there were fewer teams and the rivalries were greater. If some kid walked into the Bronx with a Celtics shirt on, I don't think the kid would have gotten out of there alive. A lot of it has to do with the group that you are involved with and what the norms of that group are. At some schools I don't think athletics are that important. You can go to a Yale football game -- the Yale Bowl holds 80,000 people -- and you are lucky if they have 20,000 people in there."

Peer pressure forces some men -- and women -- to learn enough about the game to get by. Barry Dreayer, the Atlanta salesman, sensing an opportunity to make a few convert and a few bucks, offered a class for several years called "TeachMeSports." It gained local and national media coverage, but when the TV cameras came to class, embarrassed men refused to be photographed.

"It's a macho thing," Dreayer says. "It's the most non-threatening way to make small talk, the ideal icebreaker for doing business. And I think it helps solidify relationships."
* * *

Football provides many of us with a conversational confidence, especially young men. Conversational competence depends on knowing what's going on, and many conversations in an office or on a job site or in social situations pivot around sports. It starts with discussion of a particular team or a league or a player. If you can't join in and have something to say, you're left out. Being in the know about league leaders, hot streaks, slumps and playoff prospects is valuable for interpersonal relationships. It's not rocket science, but it does have value.

Football has status; it's always in vogue to be a football fan. Some people will claim to be fans when, in their hearts, they're not. But they want to be included in Monday Night Football gatherings and conversations. They want to play a part in whatever the crowd is into. Football today, rocket science tomorrow.

"When you go back to work on Monday," Dan Jiggetts says, "you want to have seen everything that everybody else saw. The reason people watch the highlights shows is they don't want to miss a thing."

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