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:
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:
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.