What Do We Really Know about Anything?

The college football bowl season is reaching its climax, and the professional football playoffs are about to begin. By all accounts, football is indisputably the most popular sport in America.

Indeed, according to an article published in Business Insider early in 2014, football is essentially keeping network television culturally relevant and financially solvent. Consider this chart of the top-rated programming of 2013:

Top-Rated Programs of 2013

Football—or so the commonplace argument goes—has supplanted baseball as the national pastime because it is almost the opposite of baseball in many ways but, most notably, in the pace of the games and in the amount of action that each sport involves. In short, baseball puts us to sleep while football keeps us at the edges of our seats.

So, imagine my surprise when I came across this chart, compiled for Business Insider from data collected by the Wall Street Journal:

Football Telecasts Broken Down

Yes, just 8.3% of the average football telecast consists of actual play on the field, and I am assuming that that statistic will be as shocking to most football fans as it is to me.

This study raises the obvious question of why we perceive football telecasts to be so action-packed when they are relatively devoid of actual action. Moreover, it makes me wonder why sports that involve almost continual action, such as soccer and hockey, should be markedly less popular than football.

It is, of course, very possible that we are simply responding in a powerfully visceral way to the relatively depersonalized violence of football.

But I think that it is more likely that we have simply “bought” the aggressive marketing of football as an action-packed and very American sport and that we are connecting it in some Jungian way to archetypal impulses fundamental to our national character, however that character might actually be defined.

But, as interesting as it might be to speculate on the reasons for the current, unchallenged popularity of football, I think that the bigger takeaway is that even on a topic as basic as this one, some of our most basic underlying assumptions seem largely without any basis in actual fact.

In other words, if we are getting this so wrong, what are the chances that we are getting much, or even anything, right as we attempt to discuss much more complex economic, social, political, and cultural issues?

Like the commercials advertising football telecasts, our public discourse seems very often to substitute hype for clarity and sensation for perception.



5 thoughts on “What Do We Really Know about Anything?

  1. I had recently read perhaps the same or a similar article that of the approximately 3 hours of a football gaime that the ball is actually in play about 20 minutes. Your article is clearly on point. If we don’t question what is available on television almost nonstop during the season, why would we not question issues that should matter more to us. Perceptions seemed to have replaced reality and facts seem irrelevant. Good article. Phil Ward

  2. Marty, how many are the ways this post is simply wrong. For one thing, it is hardly “indisputable” that football is the most popular sport in America. Yes, the Super Bowl outdraws all other television shows, but what else is there to do on a late Sunday afternoon in January? Major League Baseball attendance — those who actually go to the games — is significantly greater than the combined attendance at football, basketball, hockey, and soccer games. Add in the minor leagues, currently experiencing a renaissance, and professional baseball attendance probably exceeds all the other sports combined by a factor of two or three.

    Of course, the football fans will argue that this is only because there are so many more baseball games. But that’s part of the point. Who would want to watch football more than once a week for more than a third of the year? And, of course, were there more football games we’d need more football players since they’d all be in vegetative comas before the season even ended. The fact is that outside of the deep South, Ohio, Michigan and, well, Green Bay, football is just one of several popular sports. And who on earth cares about football stats and football history? (In that light I’m sure that visitorship at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown far exceeds that at the Football Hall in Canton.)

    And the notion that baseball is slow-paced and football fast-paced has always been a myth propagated by football fans, many of whom are no doubt too plastered (trying to keep warm or simply not die of boredom) to notice that between the brawls between head-bashing overweight linemen most of the game involves standing around. I don’t agree with George Will about much, but he did get it right when he described football as “combining two of the worst features of contemporary American life: it’s violence interrupted by committee meetings.”

    • Hank:

      Here are some very loosely organized comments on your comments.

      My antipathy about George Will’s opinions is usually fairly pointed, whereas my apathy about Ohio State football is much more diffuse (and I am putting myself and my family at great personal risk by making this admission; we are already permanently stigmatized by my putting up lawn signs for Democratic candidates, and now the neighbors will surely notice that we are not flying the OSU flag 365 days a year).

      That said, did you see that game last night?!? How can everyone not enjoy watching any team coached by Nick Saban lose? Even if the winning team is coached by Urban Meyer.

      In 1971, Murray Ross contributed the often-anthologized article “Football Red, Baseball Green: The Heroics and Bucolics of American Sport” to the Chicago Review. I am not sure if the article preceded or followed George Carlin’s well-known routine on the contrasts between the sports, but, at the very least, the two pieces very much complement each other.

      I have noticed, however, that football is now placing more emphasis on all sorts of stats, defensive as well as offensive, in a clear effort to replicate that part of baseball’s enduring appeal. And fantasy football is, of course, basically just statistical forecasting.

      But, to come back around to where you began, if you are going to start totaling up the number of people who show up for games, I think that you also have to factor in the attendance at high school games, and football draws a lot–an awful lot–more interest at that level. In Ohio, several local high school games are even televised each week, and the statewide sports network runs just about all of the state playoff games starting with the regional semi-finals. They don’t do that for baseball.

      But, as you know, I am a lifelong Yankees fan; so I know very little about baseball as it really ought to be played.

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