The 51st year of the given Sunday is upon us (1969 marks the 50th anniversary of the NFL). As usual it is bedecked in its autumnal regalia of sere clichés, and the stereotype is once more heard in the land—from the followers of the purple pros of Minnesota to the diehards who watch the New Orleans Saints go stumbling out.
The clichés of professional football have become clichés because, like most, they are often true. For example, this year, with talent thinly spread over 26 rosters, it is probably truer than ever that on any given Sunday any team in either league can beat any other. Didn't the Jets prove that for all time in the Super Bowl?
It's true, too, that pro football is a sport that has captured the imagination of the populace. This has been happening for a long time, but the Jets' win in the Super Bowl seemed to crystallize the game's enormous appeal.
While college football is—and will always be—an immensely attractive sport, it hasn't participated in the burgeoning popularity that marks pro football. Interest in the college game is mostly parochial—the old grads of Siwash U and the inhabitants of the area dominated by Siwash are rabid fans, but, when you cross the county line into Backwater State territory, the people couldn't care less about Siwash. It's hard for a college to build a large national following because the players keep coming and going. In a three-year career a Joe Na-math spends a year or two making a reputation, capitalizes on it as a senior and then takes his reputation and talent to a pro club, where he may stay 10 years or more.
And the college game isn't nearly as proficient. College offenses and defenses are built to minimize flaws. Unlike the pros, no college team has superb athletes at every position, so the coach must disguise his weaknesses as best he can and teach physical skills, not strategy and tactics.
Once in a long while a sporting event becomes transcendent, universal. This occurs most often when well-ballyhooed heavyweights fight for the championship. The Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fights were two of the most melodramatic confrontations, not only in sport but in the larger realm of what might be called pop history—that is, until last Jan. 12.
The Super Bowl summed up the temper of the times. The best of the mod, mod world, in the hairy, slouching person of nonconforming Joe Namath, took on the Establishment, as typified by the Baltimore Colts, and put it down in a game that was, in a word, hallucinogenic—to everyone over 30. Namath and the Jets struck a resounding blow for youth and, if you will, disrespect, and the excitement they generated carried over to this summer. It was reflected in the extraordinary interest shown in the preseason games.
In July, in Green Bay, 41,000 willingly paid a buck a head to watch the Packers scrimmage the Packers. Early in August, in San Diego, an SRO crowd of 52,171, which paid $264,342, saw the Chargers lose to the Colts in a game that was of no importance except to the coaches of the two teams, who were evaluating their personnel. A week later 87,381 watched the Rams defeat the Cowboys in the Coliseum under the same conditions. The last two games were typical of preseason play—preseason because Pete Rozelle has decreed that these contests, whose outcomes are meaningless, may not be called exhibitions.
In no other sport do so many pay so much for so little. Baseball puts on its Grapefruit and Cactus League games in ramshackle ball parks before a handful of senior citizens and bemused tourists wearing Bermuda shorts, socks with clocks and dress shoes, who pay reduced admissions. Basketball and hockey exhibitions are played in places like Camden, N.J. and Rimouski, Quebec where crowds ranging from 2,500 to 7,000 fork out $1 to $4 to gawk. Only football showcases its preseason games at regular-season prices in NFL and AFL cities and draws full houses for penny-ante shows.
Why? It is a near-cliché to say we live in an hysterical age, and pro football is a near-hysterical sport. But it's nearly the case. Pro football's format—bursts of extreme emotion, followed by a reasonable time to savor the action—is ideal. Basketball, on the other hand, is almost as intense but, when a shot is made, the spectator has little time to appreciate what he has seen; the ball is put in play immediately and, as basket follows basket, insensibility begins to set in. Baseball is slow and intellectual, hockey fast and esoteric.
There are a number of other things that make professional football a true extension of the modern American character. Ours is a civilization dominated by technology and its jargon. When we send men to the moon, they communicate back to earth in a language peculiar to extraterrestrial exploration. Sociologists, psychoanalysts, computer programmers—all the witch doctors of the concrete jungle—speak a language that nobody but other sociologists, psychoanalysts and computer programmers can fully comprehend.
Pro football also has a special vocabulary—and it, too, produces a sense of superiority. A pro football fan who can identify a flexed tackle is not unlike a diner who reads a French menu and knows without prompting what quiche Lorraine should be.
Indeed, terminology has had a great deal to do with pro football's success. A maneuver as simple as rushing linebackers across the line of scrimmage becomes infinitely more fascinating when you call it red-dogging or blitzing. If what a spread end or a flanker does when he cuts back to the middle of the line to knock down a linebacker on a running play were called a return block, no one would get very excited. But a crack-back block has verbal as well as physical impact, and if you recognize the term you feel as though you belong to the cognoscenti.
Even if you don't know precisely what a revolving defense or an overshifted line is, the terms themselves create a sort of mystique that grows from year to year, so that the fan always has new terms to assimilate, use, show off. Turnover (a term that pro football appropriated from basketball, where it gained currency circa 1960) is very big this year, and quarterbacks are no longer dumped by the pass rush—they are sacked.
This year, too, the Cowboys will play one of their defensive tackles back off the scrimmage line, to make it a bit more difficult for the offensive lineman to find him. This means that the tackle, instead of lining up as close to the lateral position of the ball as possible, will drop back a yard, giving himself a longer route to the quarterback and the blocker a longer, more devious route to the tackle. Dallas Coach Tom Landry calls this man the flexed tackle. If you call him the tackle a yard back, everyone would know who he is and where he plays—but if you can sneak flexed tackle into a conversation you are very definitely in and eligible for your Pete Rozelle secret decoding ring.
It's not so easy to be an expert on hockey, basketball or baseball. Few comprehend the mysteries of icing the puck, the offside rule and the intricacies of attack in hockey, the subtleties of offense and defense in basketball or the tactical odds in baseball. But almost every pro football fan—with the exception of some women—knows that on third and eight you can expect a pass and that on third and two most teams run. Many fans also know that on third and two on his own 40 Bart Starr is very likely to fake the run and throw a long pass. Few moments are more satisfying than the one that comes just after you have told your companion, "Starr's going to throw a play-action pass," and he does.
Finally, pro football gives us heroes, knights in armor that emphasizes their size and virility and conceals any frailty of countenance. Baseball players dress like little kids, basketball players look like they're wearing their underwear and hockey players resemble those mad old ladies who carry 14 shopping bags and wear 18 sweaters.
But a football player, arrayed in his helmet, face mask, shoulder pads, hip pads, rib pads, thigh pads and hand bandages, has obviously girded himself for battle, but perhaps one in an older, more gallant and glorious mode: for instance, that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight rather than Hamburger Hill. And since war is certainly human, any war game is a welcome release to the species—particularly to Americans, that violent subspecies.
It is a psychological cliché that the little wars on Sunday assuage the aggressions of the people who watch them—but, again, no less an authority than Konrad Lorenz sees sport as man's salvation. In the last three years the little preseason wars have achieved exaggerated importance because they've matched two leagues—two nations—and have involved the fans—their inhabitants—in close and continuing argument. No more. Next season comes the merger of the NFL and the AFL, and in many respects it is unwelcome.
It took the AFL a long time to catch up. In 1960, when the league was founded, most experts believed that if it could survive for six seasons it would be on a par with the NFL. In fact, it took the AFL more than eight years. As of now there are only five teams in the new league which could compete, Sunday after Sunday, in any NFL division—the Jets, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Chargers and the Oilers. If any other AFL club were put in an NFL division it would almost surely finish last.
But AFL adherents will never concede this. They are, resolutely, proponents of the territorial imperative and are fanatic in the protection of the restricted area in which they dwell—and root. If professional football has made a mistake in the last decade, it may well be the merger. The Super Bowl will be an immensely exciting game again next year because it will match the champion of the AFL with the champion of the NFL. In 1971, when the pro football world is no longer divided into two vigorously warring camps, the Super Bowl may be an anticlimax.
In 1970, three NFL clubs will be playing in what was the AFL—Cleveland, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Cleveland and Pittsburgh will be in one division, Baltimore in another, so Baltimore and Cleveland could play for what amounts to the AFL championship. If so, the fanatics who buy the season tickets in the AFL and who abhor the NFL will be upset. And even NFL fans will feel cheated.
As the cliché has it, they should have let well enough alone.
St. Louis Cardinals
Green Bay Packers
New York Jets
Kansas City Chiefs