Football Friday vol. 4: Of towels and men

It's time for the last Football Friday of the year, before it becomes Futility Friday in honor of my beloved Cubs and their glorious 101-year streak of irrational optimism in the face of inevitable doom. I do not say this doom has been inevitable because of a hokey, made-up curse that sells a lot of t-shirts and glossy-paged coffee table books. Rather, because of the entirely human ability to come right up to the edge of a difficult feat, stand at the brink of a greatness to which one has dedicated talent and training and sweat and tears and millions of dollars, and then say to oneself, Wait a minute. I can't really be doing this, can I? Why me? What makes me so special, so gifted, so lucky, so different, when all the great-hearted, talented folks who came before me have failed?

But there will be plenty of time for that later. My prediction, if by some odd coincidence one of my non-Dave readers is interested in it, is down below the image.

Tonight I will be talking about football. In football the opportunity for a man to second-guess himself seems usually to be obliterated by the split-second reaction times necessary to play the game without getting horribly mangled by the big, strong men who are paid to hurtle towards him with the sole object of slamming him into the ground. Even those whose job it is to slam others into the ground are in constant jeopardy of themselves being thus slammed, in order to prevent them from accomplishing same. But football is a sport beloved both for its (carefully controlled, but still impressive) violence and for its statistical unpredictability.

Very, very few statistics in the game of football have any meaning, even in the broad sense in which any statistic can be said to have meaning. It's a point that's been done to death, and I've typed out four or five similies to express it just now and erased them, because none could add any new insight to that bald statement. Statistics describe generalities. Sporting events are celebrations of the particular. The man who's spent all year on the sidelines but comes off the bench in the big game because the star player got his ankle crushed in a freak accident, and carries his team to glory. The man whose name has been on every sportscaster's lips for days, whose ridiculously expensive replica jerseys adorn the backs of thousands, who inexplicably forgets where he is for a crucial split second and loses a game that everyone had thought was a foregone conclusion. It is precisely this that excites hope and fear in the heart of the true sports fan, because the fan can see in the game the mirror of real life. We may understand the rules, calculate the odds, plan as best we can for every eventuality we can imagine, but in any particular case, when it's your ass on the line, success or failure may have nothing to do with your knowledge or your talent or your plans. Shit just happens.

Let it be said again that I'm not a true sports fan. I respect those who are; I think it can be a psychologically healthy outlet for a human being's need to belong, to fully invest passion and identity in a group and a cause. Healthy, because it's less susceptible than a lot of groups and causes to being twisted into an instrument of oppression and hate. Because no matter how much a person wants to weep or break things when their team suffers a heart-wrenching defeat, at the end of the day it's only a game. But that part of being human is something I'm frankly afraid of--afraid to do, afraid I'm not quite as able to do as other human beings. To the extent I've got it in me, I'm going to spend it on my family, or on things I can participate in personally. I don't have enough identity to spare to give all that much to a sports team.

(Yet another reason the Cubs are the perfect match for me. And the extent to which a lot of Cubs fans are like me is, to my eye, a big part of what's wrong with the Cubs, as an organization and a cause. But I'm getting off topic again.)

I predict that the Steelers will win, but will not cover the point spread.

In terms of strict football, Dave has described to me the matchup of these two teams as an example of the irresistible force meets the immovable object. The Steelers are the immovable object. Their defense has led the NFL is a couple of meaningful stats across the course of the season. The Cardinals are the irresistible force. They have a couple of receivers whose ability to dodge the knocking-down guys and lay hands on the ellipsoidal object are truly astounding, and a quarterback who excels in arranging his team's players on the field in a manner that allows said receivers to lay hands on said object with impressive frequency. So the second thing is the part of my prediction I'm most sure about. Whether I'm wrong and the Cardinals win, or I'm right and the Steelers win, neither will do so by 7 or more points.

But I'm putting my metaphorical money (not even my imaginary money! that's for next year!) on the Pittsburgh Steelers. I do not back this prediction up with any reasons, statistics, or facts. That would be useless and a distraction from what I consider to be the real story surrounding this game. It involves towels.

The late, great Douglas Adams has said the one should never hitchhike the galaxy without a towel. Towels can be used to baffle certain predators, to provide a handy resting place when sunning on psychotropic alien beaches, and, in a dire emergency, to dry oneself off after bathing. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is a symbol of their identities as member of the Steelers franchise and supporters of their quest for victory in the game of football. This is more than is usually demanded of a towel, true enough. But since it is an emblematic towel, a spiritual towel, and more importantly, an officially licensed souvenir towel with many thousands of copies sold throughout the land, it seems to be up to the challenge.

Recently the mayor of Phoenix and an officially licensed mascot of the Arizona Cardinals demonstrated their disrespect for said towel in front of cameras and a crowd. This reportedly infuriated the Arizona Cardinals. Who, being professionals themselves, understand something fundamental about the game of football: success and failure have as much to do with emotional and mental state as they have to do with talent and skill. The men who play in the NFL are all of them near the top of all the statistical bell curves that measure strength, agility, and the particular kinds of intelligence necessary to process the tactical data of football plays in real-time and react to them appropriately. What sets one team apart from another in any particular instance, what enables one group of incredibly gifted and highly trained athletes to overcome another at the game for which they have sacrificed their adult lives, often comes down to the attitude each team carries with it onto the field.

And the "desecration" of their symbolic towel gives the Steelers a huge spiritual advantage. They are now able, thanks to the magic of caring, to take on the role of righteous victims. Their honor has been insulted, and with true hidalgo vigor they will tilt at the windmills of injustice until they have won the true heart of honey-voiced Dulcinea.

(Wait, that's Don Quixote. My big sister, whose taste in books is excellent, found a site where you can get the full text for free and emailed me the first chapter. I haven't been reading much of late, not since I finished that cool book about Amish people she lent me, but for my next reading fix I think I'll definitely go for the Don.)

There are a few psychological transformations a person can undergo which allow them to commit all the resources of their personality towards the accomplishment of a single goal. Each comes at a terrible price in terms of personality construction--consider a person who undergoes a transformation in the service of an unjust cause, or as a result of some desperate self-delusion. I'm not at the point in my study of personalities where I can list them or give tutorials; perhaps the information is already out there, and I just haven't pieced it all together yet. Heck, maybe there's twenty-two of them and I've been staring the codex in the face for years.

However, as I said earlier, football is one outlet for the human capacity to undergo such transformations that is less likely than most to result in horrible tragedy and death. So I don't have any ethical problem with it, myself. But the Cardinals understand the reaction this act will elicit in their opponents, and if they contemplate the event with some chagrin, it is understandable. By making fun of a magic towel, the mayor of Phoenix has symbolically challenged not only the Steelers' skill at football, but their strength of character, their manhood, their very right to exist on the face of this universe.

So that's why I think the Steelers will win.

We are all set for Super Bowl Sunday. We don't have the money to get Metra tickets to go out and spend it at Dave's mom's place, so we're going to stay at home. I will make burgers, me and Dave each have a tube of Pringles, and our cable bill is not yet sufficiently overdue that we have to worry about missing the game due to lack of payment. For a rarity, I, the nerdy chick who is maniacally determined not to care about football, am actually looking forward to a football game. Wonders never cease.


Amber E said...

You were right.