The Accidental Fan: Who Are These Men and Why Are They Tackling Each Other?

by Sabena Allen | 8/17/18 2:00am

Rams at Ravens 8/9/18
by Keith Allison / The Dartmouth

The Accidental Fan: Who Are These Men and Why Are They Tackling Each Other?

Football season is coming up. At least I think it is. We must be in preseason now, which I only know because I just looked up the New England Patriots on Instagram and saw something about them winning a game. (For the uninitiated a.k.a. me, preseason is when National Football League teams play a bunch of off-the-record games prior to their regular season. I know this only because I Googled it.) Anyway, I mentioned in my column last week that the NFL is taking a step forward with two teams’ inclusion of male cheerleaders. Given last season’s controversy surrounding the national anthem protests (which I support, by the way), it will be interesting to see how social issues continue to play out this upcoming season.

Honestly, football is confusing. Maybe I’m spending time with the wrong people, but I get the impression that a lot of people do not understand how it works. During my time as an exchange student in Germany, I was asked by multiple people to explain how football works. I regretfully told them that I had absolutely no idea. It is rather ironic that football is so prominent in the United States that other countries innately associate it with America, yet many Americans don’t even properly understand the rules. I will admit, I am totally one of those people.

However, there was a brief period of time when I understood football, and that was from about halfway through the Super Bowl LII in 2018, when the Philadelphia Eagles conquered the Patriots, to halfway through almost dying in a massive snowstorm while driving back to campus that same night. It had really clicked while I was watching the Super Bowl, but I was a bit preoccupied on that treacherous drive to fully commit it to memory. I think I had finally been able to figure it out because I was actually paying full attention to the game and I had someone with me who could answer my questions about its intricacies.

Now, I don’t think football is actually as complicated or confusing as it might seem, but I do think that there is a lot of jargon surrounding the sport and that sometimes the people who know that jargon can be intimidating. For example, I have a friend who is a huge football fan. He and his dad like to watch games together, and I happened to watch a few times with them. With the two of them in their own football-loving environment, I never asked any questions, and honestly, it was kind of boring. It’s like trying to pose as a member of super-elite club that uses a totally indecipherable language. Clearly, I was not engaging with football in a positive way at that time. The people I was with understood and participated in the game on a totally different level than I was able to. They relished the fine details of the game-play, the play-calling and the development of downs, along with fantasy football, the statistics and drama that each season brings. Which, to be clear, is fine and normal for those who understand the game on a deeper level.

But that’s not the only way to engage with a sport that is both so universal and “elitist.” Someone once told me that she liked watching football because it was an impressive display of athletic feats and because the plays are so big, which makes them fun to watch. I feel like people like her watch sports for their interest in the players themselves. I don’t personally have connections with specific football players, though I do see the appeal both of the athleticism and the individual players (you can read all about this and my relationship with the Boston Red Sox’s Andrew Benintendi in my first column, “My Boy Benny”).

But I like to have some sense of the rules before I can even focus on those aspects. So honestly, I was just proud of myself for figuring out what the heck was going on! But at this point, I feel like my interest in sports in general has plateaued, and football especially has taken a step back in my mind. I went through a transition a while ago from watching literally no sports to having a definite, though casual, interest. This explains why I was watching football every so often and had absolutely no clue what was going on. Now that I do understand (somewhat), I’m still not very committed. I know that is partially because it hasn’t been football season, but we are heading there now. I am still not all that enthusiastic.

So, does a fan ­— especially an accidental fan — need to understand everything about the game? I think not. However, some people, or maybe our culture at large, would have us believe that it does matter. I think it can be helpful for engagement if you know what is going on. But one really important part about sports is just being able to get together and do something fun with friends and family. Understanding the game for me didn’t make me more of a fan and it didn’t make me more enthusiastic. There is no reason why you should have to understand everything about football to enjoy watching it or to be considered a fan. So watch if you want to. Ask questions if you need to, and don’t be afraid to admit when you’re confused. Once again, you won’t be alone!

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