An objectively bad sport

The Superbowl is this weekend, and I thought I would go slightly off topic by discussing why I think football is the worst sport (of course, since this is the second post about football and this blog isn’t even a week old yet, you could say that the topic of this blog is more about football than anything else, but rest assured, after the Superbowl (and potentially its aftermath) I won’t be making any more football posts for some time). Of course, it’s not a sport that I hate; the only sport I hate is hockey which I think I’ve watched about 2 hours of in my entire life and through accidents or whatever, will probably watch 2 more hours before I die, and none of those 4 hours will be spent at all well. But, even though I hate hockey, it’s not an objectively bad sport; people like it and I understand why people like it.

Soccer is another sport which deep down I don’t really like. Every four years we in America get excited about the World Cup, and then very soon forget that soccer is a thing. And while I do like following the world cup, it’s mainly for two reasons:

1: I get to spend a lot of energy looking at a whole bunch of scenarios involving teams getting out of group play and
2: I get a totally appropriate occasion to really think about whether I like Bolivia or Portugal more, and that’s something I enjoy doing.

But I don’t actually really care about the sport on the field so much; again, like hockey, its not really my thing, but I understand why people like it. In fact, the last thing I want to do with this post is make anybody feel that I think I’m superior for not watching soccer. Soccer is a beautiful, wonderful, and simple game. If anything, if you are a soccer fan, you should feel superior to me, for I kind of like football, a game which I’m arguing is objectively bad.

The first reason that football is a bad sport is the fact that, even though its a team sport, the great majority of its value comes from a single position. The quarterback is (at least at the pro level and in recent history) the most important position in the sport, by a huge margin. If you were to list the top players in the game almost all of them would be quarterbacks.

Don’t take my word for it, look at the perceptions of NFL GMs.

Of the 15 highest paid players, a full 11 of them are QBs including 9 of the top 10 and the overall top 6 (mind you this should be even more impressive because there are only 32 starting QBs in all of football, and some of them are only off the list because they are still on rookie contracts (such as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson)). The fate of your quarterback is in many ways the fate of your team; the last team to win the Superbowl with a “bad” quarterback was in the 2003 Superbowl when Brad Johnson and Tampa Bay won.

Other sports have similar situations where a single player can swing the course of a season; think Michael Jordan for instance, he had a larger impact on the NBA landscape in the 90’s than probably any quarterback ever. The difference isn’t that players can’t dominate in basketball (probably in the same way as with other sports such as hockey and soccer, though I must confess I’m not familiar enough with them to really write intelligently about), it’s that it isn’t tied to a position. Micheal Jordan was the best player ever, and he happened to be shooting guard. The second best player (by my estimation Bill Russell, but pick whoever you want) isn’t going to be a shooting guard (unless you picked Kobe Bryant, which is a really weird pick for the second best player ever. But even if you do think Kobe is the second best player ever (and if you do, I’m going to guess you live in LA and are too young to remember Magic Johnson) the third best player isn’t going to be a shooting guard).

The two best NBA players right now are LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who by coincidence both happen to be small forwards. If you happened to get them both on the same team, well, you wouldn’t bench one, you’d just move one to shooting guard (or power forward or whatever), and then dominate the game unlike anyone has before (assuming the rest of your team is at least mediocre, also assuming that they can learn to play to each others strengths, etc.  Even it if wouldn’t actually work because of some nuance of basketball I don’t understand, the basic point is that its very easy to imagine a situation in Basketball or Baseball or Rugby or whatever where having the two best players is a very good thing). The two best players in the NFL are, by my count, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. If you had both of them on the same team, well, you’d bench one. Yeah, I guess that having Tom Brady come out if (or when) Rodgers gets injured would be nice, but it wouldn’t be a big help. If you had both on your team, you’d trade one for a JJ Watt or a Ron Gronkowski in an instant. If you have only one, you wouldn’t trade them for anybody but each other. Think about it, there are probably only a handful of quarterbacks who you’d ever consider playing at another position (Michael Vick a few years ago and an uninjured Robert Griffin III come to mind). For just about any other sport, a great player at a position is at the very least a good player in at least one other position.

The biggest exception to this is baseball, where the pitcher as a position has an even great role in the team’s success than the quarterback does in football, and good pitchers rarely become good position players (Babe Ruth of course is the exception). But with baseball no one pitcher can handle the full load; just about every team has 5 starting pitchers and numerous backups, so while the position as a whole has disproportionate impact, a team can’t ride a single good pitcher to the championship, nor will its season (necessarily) be derailed by an injury to a single pitcher.

So now I’m sure you’re saying, well, Mr. Gallant Tiger, all of that may be true, but it isn’t necessarily an argument, it may indicate why football is unique, but not uniquely bad. Well, I’m glad you asked; (actually, I’m not glad, it makes writing this much harder. Also, you didn’t ask that, I did, so the previous statement is totally false).

Lets highlight this by looking at an example. Take the Packers; they’re a generally good team who, because they have the best quarterback, are a perennial Superbowl contender. But there are other players (JJ Watt comes to mind) who are better at their jobs than Rodgers is at his, but because their jobs are less important, they aren’t considered as valuable. This leads to us as viewers and consumers of football, to care less about a player at tight end or left tack having a truly great season than a player at quarterback having merely an above average one. Football trains us to view good players at quarterback more highly than historic players anywhere else, which certainly offends my sense of what sport should be about.

However, this isn’t the only reason, or even the main reason that Football is a bad sport. Football is an inferior sport in the number and nature of its rules. The official NFL rule book clocks in 95 pages of rules (you can read it here).  Compare it to the 17 rules of soccer  and you can see that one is much simpler. Even the official FIFA rulebook , although similar length to the NFL rulebook; looks completely different. It has large font, diagrams, and generally looks like something that a fan might actually read; or want to read to get a better understanding of the game. The NFL rulebook looks like it was written by and for lawyers. It has the same format and purpose as a contract, not to provide explanation but to provide justification (seriously, take some time to look at it. “Touching Free Kick (a) See 6-1-4-c and 6-2-4 for touching a free kick”).

This isn’t just about the size of the rulebook; look at how the NFL web of rules affects your viewing experience. There are multiple times a game when the announcers or color commentators have to explain a rule to the fans, not because the fans are dumb, but because there’s really no expectation that the average fan would know all the rules. Of course, these
explanations are given not only because they’re obscure, but because often the fate of the game depends upon the
interpretation of some obscure rule. Think about how often this happens in other sports: basically never (baseball has
a rulebook which is probably even bigger than footballs, but it seems very rare that there are decisions which involve obscure rules. In fact, most of the time the obscure rules are there specifically not to be noticed. For instance, the infield fly rule is basically a rule which prevents the defense from gaining an advantage by intentionally dropping a ball, as a result of the infield fly rule defenders never intentionally drop the ball and therefore we never see the infield fly rule every actually in play, ie, the rule streamlines the game).

Entire games can be described by a rule – every football fan old enough knows what the “Tuck Rule” game was; and I almost guarantee you that, if not for that game, 1 football fans in 10 could tell you what the Tuck rule actually is (in fact, I bet that there are more fans who could tell you about the “Tuck Rule Game” than about the tuck rule itself).

This is combined and compounded with the other great evil of football, the penalty flag. You know the experience, you’re watching some giant play unfold, which alters the course of the game, but suddenly, the yellow “flag” marker appears beneath the network scoreboard. Somebody had a penalty, and depending on the penalty, the giant play didn’t either did or didn’t actually happen. So you’re waiting for the referee to announce whether the play, which you just saw, didn’t actually take place because of a holding call. This of course combines with the rules mentioned above to get stupid results, a play is called back (or its alternative, a play (usually a pass) that didn’t happen is ruled to have happened because of a penalty), and then the announcers explain this is based on a rule that the casual (or even dedicated fan) knows nothing about; we’re watching sport that by its very nature makes it difficult to understand.

Of course, the NFL wasn’t satisfied with this stupidity, it had to invent a whole new way to slow the game down and move the action off of the field and into the decision of a referee. It introduced challenges. So now, whenever a coach wishes, they can “challenge the ruling on the field,” at this point the officials then go and look at videotape of the event in question to determine what actually happened. Now, I’m all for instant replay to determine calls, but I wouldn’t call the NFL’s version instant. Instead, they do the dumbest possible thing where they have a referee look into a video screen underneath some sort of hood to ensure secrecy, after all you wouldn’t want everyone to see the same replays that they’re showing on network television. Compare that to the replay for tennis. Tennis has a replay system, where it uses triangulated cameras to determine the exact location of balls or something, but I can’t really talk too much about it for the very reason that it isn’t noticable. It improves the quality of the calls, but doesn’t detract at all from the viewing experience; in fact by being an official arbiter, it can make the gameplay smoother and less prone to interruption. (to its credit, the NFL is trying to reduce the time it takes an official to make a call by having the ref talk to people viewing the game in New York, but the process is still longer than it needs to be and it took them 15 years to figure this out).

Once a football official returns from the super secret viewing booth on the field, he will announce to the stadium the result of his ruling. And, depending on whether the ruling favors the home team or not, the crowd will go nuts. If you need any more reason to think that football is objectively bad, in football, the biggest cheers go to rule interpretations, not feats of athleticism.

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