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Explaining American Football to the British

I asked an American to help me understand.

by Oscar Rickett and John Klingler
26 January 2012, 12:00am

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Our language separates Britain and America, and so does our sport. With the Super Bowl on its way, I was feeling confused about the fuss surrounding the game, so I turned to my American friend John for some advice. I wrote him an email asking him to explain the ins and outs of the sport to me. Here is our exchange.


Dear John,

A while ago you wrote to me asking for a few insights into football. I duly obliged. Now, I’m asking the same of you. With the Super Bowl on its way, Britain is a little more concerned with American football than it usually is. The event will be on the television and games have been played at Wembley, our public thrilling to the sight of large, armoured men destroying turf meant for Association football. So, I need a guide to America’s answer to rugby and so do the uninitiated British readers of VICE. Here are some questions, helpfully accompanied by numbers for ease of answering...

1. Adverts.

I’ll get into the actual game in a little bit but the thing most Brits notice about American football is that, while a game takes about three hours, 75 percent of that is taken up by adverts for various kinds of land cruiser, each more patriotic than the last. Now, I don’t want to get all racist like John Cleese, but how is it possible for a game that must have been invented a while ago to be so completely geared towards selling people shit? Before adverts, were games just eight minutes long? But perhaps the adverts are part of the fun. Maybe you enjoy them.

2. Two separate teams.

So, there is a team to attack and then a team to defend? Do these two separate groups of players interact much, or do the attack guys think they’re too cool for the defense guys? What kind of people are you looking for in each case and is there a traditional “type” of player?

3. Being fat.

One American football stereotype is that the guys are really fat. I recall a man named “the Fridge”, various players with the epithet “big” and another who may have been called “deep freeze”. Do these guys ever need to run and, if they had to, would they even be able to? Do they often die of heart-related diseases/ go on to advertise fat-laden foods?

4. Quarterbacks.

Are these guys always all-American heroes with strong jaws and winning smiles? Does everyone want to be a quarterback? It seems like there’s no glamour in playing in any other position.

5. Head injuries.

Now, I may not know much about American football but I did read a rather illuminating article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker about former players going mad because of the harsh battering their heads had taken for years. In it, he wondered if there really was any difference between American football and dog fighting. The article was 37-pages long, so I got a pretty good introduction to neuroscience as well as something called “the American condition”. The article seemed to suggest (and I’m paraphrasing, obviously) that American football was seriously dangerous and that a whole bunch of new rules should be introduced to make it at least vaguely humane. The argument against this seems to be: “Don’t be such a massive pussy, Gladwell.”

6. Economics.

The English Premier league is relentlessly, gloriously, monstrously capitalist. Intriguingly, American football, played in the land of Wall Street to a backdrop of beer commercials, seems to be dangerously Marxist in its approach to buying and selling players. What’s up with the draft? If I’m the owner of the richest team in American football (who?) can I not just buy the most square-jawed quarterback in the country and put him on the field with some of the juiciest fat guys around?

7. The League/ Super Bowl.

In our football, teams play each other twice a year and the team that’s done best is crowned champion. In your football, you can do great all season and then have ONE bad game (i.e. the Super Bowl) and that’s it. Is that fair? Sport should be a relentless test of painful endurance, a last man standing kind of affair in which the weak are slowly and crushingly removed from the pack until but one team remains, bloodied and exhausted but triumphant. It shouldn’t be about who can best complement Bruce Springsteen’s half-time show. (Or should it?)

8. Foreigners.

To you and to American football, I am a foreigner. It seems like all American footballers, with the exception of a few Mexicans who do some kicking, are American. Am I wrong? Is there a heroic Brit I can get behind? Does no such person exist because, essentially, no one cares about American football outside of the US? Or is there a bias against foreign players?

9. Who should I support?
Yes, me. I am looking for a team. Here are my criteria:

a. Good guys. Obviously, the team should have likable players. And by likable, I mean no known rapists. A funny guy with a blog or a Twitter account would also be a plus.

b. Not Manchester United/ Manchester City. Or, whatever the equivalent of Manchester United is. The rich team that is always good that no one likes except people from that city and/or glory hunters.

c. Not Stoke City. Or, whatever the equivalent of Stoke is. The cheap team that does just enough to survive and no one likes because they're horrible year in year out and play ugly football.

d. "Pretty" American football. Define this how you want, but ideally, something pleasurable to watch that does not end in 7-7 each week. (Is that a dull score?)

e. Good kits. Maybe I wear the shirt or something to the bar during the game or around the house. Would be better to look cool.

So basically, if you could start it all over again and didn’t have to support the team from whichever God forsaken American wasteland you are from (Tampa Bay), which team would you support? I am looking for pluck, Sir. And maybe a hilarious British connection…

OK, that’s enough I think. Your help and guidance on these things is, as ever, much appreciated. I’ll end with the customary rousing chorus of “Rule Britannia”:

Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves!
Britons never, ever, ever shall be slaves!



Dear Oscar,

Here are your answers my man. I tried not to go on and on…

1. Adverts. 

...says the Liverpool fan with "Standard Chartered" emblazoned across his chest. But, yeah, besides the occasionally clever or artistic ones, most commercials are just terrible reminders of the human condition. Beer, trucks, boner pills. The latter films of Adam Sandler.

There are so many because there can be. American football has built-in stoppages in play, which allow for ads without disrupting the game. (Something to keep in mind the next time you're arguing for instant replays in soccer.)

2. Two separate teams. 

Offense is for people who like glamour, while defense is for people who like to hit. There is a third group, Special Teams, responsible for the punting and kicking parts. It's ideal for people that like thankless drudgery. The basic positions/ types:
a.    Quarterback (throws the ball): Strong leader, tall, George Washington-y.
b.    Running Back (runs the ball): Low to the ground, shifty, quick.
c.    Wide Receiver (catches the ball): Arrogant beyond belief, for some reason, always.
d.    Lineman (block for a, b, & c.): Big and smart.
e.    Tight-End (1/2 lineman, 1/2 receiver): Big and versatile.

a.    Lineman (kill the quarterback): Big and mean.
b.    Linebacker (control the middle, behind the lineman): Medium-sized, stocky, fast.
c.    Secondary (cover the receivers): Small and quick. Would be receivers if they could catch.

3. Being fat. 

You are speaking of the lineman. These monsters weigh in at over 300 pounds (21 stone). They’re not "eligible", meaning they cannot be thrown or handed the ball on purpose. Occasionally through some twist of fate, a fumble or interception will land in their buttery, oversized hands, resulting in the glory of a fat man running. And running. And running. I could watch these all day.

4. Quarterbacks. 

Yes, they're better-looking than most people, or so says science. I guess this is something about pretty fellas being pushed to play the glamorous positions, and our possible inclination to accept leadership from aesthetically pleasing people.

Also, apparently, they tend to be white people. Although 67 percent of NFL players are black, only 16 percent of quarterbacks are (2010 stats). There is most certainly some deep-rooted institutional racism at work here, which continues to funnel white people to the supposed "thinking" positions – offensive line and quarterback – and black people to the "athletic” positions – pretty much everything else.

5. Head injuries

Oh, it is dangerous. It is a brutal, violent game. Our bodies were not designed to play it, especially the repeated, forceful blows to the head part. Check out: Does Football Have a Future? Answer: not looking good. Brain damage is a very real concern. None of my friends who have kids let them play football competitively.

Ex-players suffer from debilitating body pain, dementia and depression. One, Dave Duerson, killed himself last February. Instead of aiming for the head, he shot himself in the chest so that researchers could study what football had done to his brain.

How can you go on watching a sport thinking of shit like that? You can't. So you shove that knowledge way back deep in your head and try to ignore it. Our entire culture depends on our collective willingness to act as if violence and depravity are natural by-products of a competitive system, so why should the national pastime be any different?

6. Economics.

There is a "salary cap" in the NFL that establishes a limit on the amount a team can spend on player wages. (In 2011, $120 million.) This precludes an owner from Man City’ing his way to a championship. The most square jawed quarterback will have entered the league through "the draft", a system that allots the most-promising rookies to the worst-performing teams. Imagine if Wigan, instead of being relegated at the end of the season, were instead awarded Neymar, so that they might improve.

It is a bit "to each according to his needs", but it works. The key is that revenue from TV rights is split evenly among the 32 teams. Although many more people care about the Dallas Cowboys, they get as much as the Arizona Cardinals. Is this socialist? Probably, but I don't think Ché was concerned with an organisation deciding how to split up six billion dollars a year. The end result is an levelling out of quality. You can argue there's no romance in that, but it is lot better than Real–Barça every year, especially if you live in Getafe.

7. The League/ Super Bowl. 

The NFL "regular season" is only 16 games. Almost all of it fits within autumn. You can think of it as the group stage of a large tournament, with the division winners and some runners-up advancing to the playoffs (knock-out rounds.) The last team standing hoists the big trophy. Unlike the Premier League, in order to be the champ, you can't lose your last game. Is this fair? Yes. The best team is the one that wins when it must.

8. Foreigners. 

Ositadimma "Osi" Umenyiora, a New York Giant, was born in Golders Green, London. His first name means "from today things will be good” in Igbo. He is top-notch and will be playing in the Super Bowl this year, so root for him.

There are some other foreigners. Mostly big guys from Samoa and lads from soccer-based societies that we turn into placekickers, with comical results.

9. Who should I support?

The Chicago Bears. Storied history, classic uniforms, currently good but not great (no bandwagon). The quarterback is emo, the city is big-shouldered. Walter Payton, Mike Ditka, Superfans, "The Monsters of the Midway". Good stuff.

There you go my friend.

How’s ruling all those waves between Portsmouth and The Isle of Wight working out for you?




Previously: Explaining Football to America

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