The game of American football has come a long way from its origins as a game played between colleges in the late 1800’s, inspired by the fusion of rugby and soccer gameplay it developed as an independent sport and soon became the game we all know and love today. When watching the pinnacle of American sports, Super Bowl 51, I was surprised by the reality of what this game has become, a commercialized entertainment experience.
Considering its origins it is amazing how a game concept, defined by generations of American youth, has not only turned into a legitimate sport but a defining element of American culture. Yet, the Super Bowl as it stands today is not a game in as much as it is a means of entertaining and capitalizing on the attention of potential customers.
How did we arrive here, how did we take something that at its core should be a game of physical competition, and envelop it in a materialistic celebration of America consumerism?
Praising the players
As the game began I was awestruck by the pageantry of how each team was introduced, the professional athletes, all recognized as celebrities with fanbases based on their personalities as well as in-game talent, paraded out from their locker rooms with cheerleaders, theme music, and pyrotechnics. This glorification of the players and the branding of the teams has nothing to do with the game but rather the business of maintaining an audience.
Watching for the commercials
Some people, guilty of not being huge fans of football, but still wanting to spend time with their friends and family during the game, have learned that they can still find entertainment within the commercial breaks. With the knowledge that millions of people would be watching the Super Bowl, the commercials are now as big a part of the event as the game itself, with the airtime serving as a stage for avant-garde advertisements. However, companies competing for the most attention grabbing marketing effort, dilute the importance of the game as a competition, and further push gameplay moments to the margins, to be enjoyed as vignettes in between commercial breaks.
Superstar Lady Gaga took the stage for a memorable half-time performance which transformed the sporting arena into a full blown concert venue including: singing, synchronized drones, light shows, dancers, choreographed crowds, musicians, acrobatics, stunts, and of course singing.
The game itself
Indicative of its place among the rest of the exhibition, the game itself wasn’t that entertaining, players made valiant efforts to score points, points were scored, and an exciting comeback finish by the Patriots was surprising but not extraordinary. The game itself was of little consequence beyond who’s championship shirts would be on sale the next day.
Submerged in a sea of advertisements, entertainment production value, branding, and million dollar contracts are the players and the game, the competition is work, the players are celebrity icons posing for their best action shots, and the points on the scoreboard mean nothing to the players beyond whether or not they will be part of a more or less lucrative franchise this season.
The lost spirit of football
In 1869 the first game was played between college teams from Rutgers and Princeton. Similar to soccer, players using kicks bats and headers to maneuver the ball, unable to carry it. At this time the game was played with rule variations based on the hosting college’s rules.
In 1873 the first set of standard rules were created for all schools to follow. In 1880 the rules were amended by Yale player Walter Camp to include rugby-style gameplay, allowing players to carry the ball. Camp also limited the team size to 11 players and he introduced the snap to replace the rugby scrum.
In 1882 Camp brought about changes to the use of the snap and added downs, first down progression, and turnovers to keep the action going. Also within the rules changes of 1882, a standardized scoring system, and the mechanics of tackling below the waist and blocking. In 1905 after a series of fatalities playing the sport, the NCAA was founded by 62 colleges and universities to regulate the sport and improve safety.
The passionate experimentation and iteration of the sport across its foundational years has given way to the stagnating focus on the game as a commercial venture. What American Football has gained in viewership and profitability it has lost in heart and play. The game today lacks the innovation of play, the breaking and building of the rules to improve the game, the passion for the novel and the interest in evolution it once had.
What do you think of the current state of Football in America? Do you believe that professional sports can have heart, or do you think that the passion leaves the game once players get paid? Do you think the commercialization of sports hurts or benefits its growth? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please respond to the thread for this article, or talk to me through my email or any of my social media: firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook, Twitter.