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Embracing the couch, an integral part of sports -- and society


It has four legs, is covered in animal hide and I make my living sitting on it, but because it's a couch and not Secretariat I'm not considered an athlete. Which is outrageous, as the couch is the new cradle of greatness.

Seven weeks into the NFL season there are already several Couch of the Year candidates, including the couch of tackle Max Starks, who "basically came off the couch" two weeks ago to earn a game ball for the Steelers, and the couch of Carson Palmer, who went straight "from the couch" into the Raiders lineup on Sunday. The quotes about their couches were issued by their coaches, and it's getting difficult to tell which is the better molder of athletes these days: A good coach or a good couch.

Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck spent part of his bye week in September "glued to the couch for 10 hours" watching football games. In Sydney last month, Glen Suter set a new Guinness world record by driving his couch 101 miles an hour down an airport runway with only a coffee table in front of him for wind resistance. Suter's couch has an engine, which is appropriate, as the couch -- once an emblem of indolence -- has become an engine of action.

Tomorrow, after a 14-year absence, Beavis and Butt-Head return to their cartoon couch on MTV, yet another sign that we've embarked upon -- we've em-Barcalounged upon -- a Golden Age of Couches.

It arrives not a moment too soon. For most of the last two centuries, and long before the invention of television, men were forbidden to go near a couch, as if women feared that any man who sat on one would never get up again. Consider the advice of various etiquette guides:

• "Were there a vacant seat on the sofa, there is not a gentleman who would not throw himself upon the serried spears of a hostile army rather than take it." (Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, 1833).

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• "Do not, if a gentleman, seat yourself upon the sofa." (The New Revised HIlls's Manual, 1897).

• "A gentleman never takes a seat on the sofa ..." (Good Form and Proper Deportment, 1919).

This benighted Victorian taboo about men and couches had changed somewhat drastically by the time Homer Simpson formed an "ass groove" on the sofa that opens every episode of The Simpsons. But it isn't just those who watch sports who reside on couches. Every self-respecting coach and manager keeps a couch in his office: Not for guests, but to advertise the fact that he sleeps there. Cal football coach Jeff Tedford has moved a bed into his new office in Berkeley, perhaps inspired by Job 7:13: "My bed shall comfort me, and my couch shall ease my complaint."

If you're like me, the couch can still be a source of -- not a refuge from -- complaint. From where I write this -- supine on the sofa in my office -- the couch is still often misconstrued as an icon of idleness, not industry. President Kennedy said, "We must use time as a tool, not as a couch." But a couch is a tool. Like Sigmund Freud, I couldn't work without my couch (from the French coucher, "to lie down").

And neither could America. A CBS News survey this year found 21 of the 96 freshmen members of Congress living in their offices, most of them sleeping on couches or cots. One -- Paul Gosar of Arizona -- told the network: "It allows me to continue my work patterns, stay on the job and focused, and I get stuff done."

And yet those of us who work on the couch are still persecuted by the phrase "couch potato", coined in 1976 by a man named Tom Iacino, who chose that vegetable to describe himself and his friends: Tubers -- as in boob-tubers -- who were covered in eyes and grown in the dark. His friend Robert Armstrong illustrated The Official Couch Potato Handbook, for people "dedicated to the pursuit of Inner Peace through Prolonged Television Viewing." It was meant as a compliment, a rallying cry, but quickly became pejorative, and has remained so ever since, enshrined in the names of our furniture: La-Z-Boy and easy chair and -- my favorite -- daybed.

Are we going to take this? Rise up, couch people. Not literally, of course, or you'll look like Tom Cruise on Oprah. On second thought, don't rise up at all. Let's take these insults lying down.