Why is football “the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion”?

NFL player Arian Foster is out as a non-religious player:

Arian Foster, 28, has spent his entire public football career — in college at Tennessee, in the NFL with the Texans — in the Bible Belt. Playing in the sport that most closely aligns itself with religion, in which God and country are both industry and packaging, in which the pregame flyover blends with the postgame prayer, Foster does not believe in God.

“Everybody always says the same thing: You have to have faith,” he says. “That’s my whole thing: Faith isn’t enough for me. For people who are struggling with that, they’re nervous about telling their families or afraid of the backlash … man, don’t be afraid to be you. I was, for years.”

He has tossed out sly hints in the past, just enough to give himself wink-and-a-nod deniability, but he recently decided to become a public face of the nonreligious. Moved by the testimonials of celebrity atheists like comedian Bill Maher and magicians Penn and Teller, Foster has joined a national campaign by the nonprofit group Openly Secular, which plans to use his story to increase awareness and acceptance of nonbelievers, especially in sports. The organization initially approached ESPN about Foster’s willingness to share his story, but ESPN subsequently dealt directly with Foster, and Openly Secular had no involvement…

Religion may be football’s sole concession to humility, perhaps the only gesture that suggests the game itself is not its own denomination. Nowhere is the looming proximity of Christianity more pronounced than in the SEC, where, in the time of Tim Tebow, a man named Chad Gibbs was inspired to write a book — God and Football — telling of his travels to every SEC school to decipher how like-minded Christians navigate the cliff walk between rooting for Florida and maintaining their devotion to Christ. These religious currents aren’t confined to football, of course: Big league baseball teams routinely hold “faith and family” days; players appear at postgame celebrations to give their testimonials, and Christian rock bands perform well into the night. In football, though, public displays of faith can be viewed as a necessary accessory for such a dangerous and violent sport.

I’m more interested in why football might identify more with religion than other sports. (And I’m a bit skeptical of whether this is true.) Is it:

1. The physical nature of the game? Perhaps it reminds the athletes more of their own mortality. Plus, careers are short due to the physical demands. Perhaps playing football reinforces religiosity.

2. The connection between football and certain areas of the country? This article cites the Bible Belt and SEC schools. So this connection between football and religion could really be a relationship between football and the South? This could be an example of a spurious correlation.

3. The people who play football are more religious and/or come from more religious families? In this explanation, the religiosity comes before football rather than because of football (different causal order).

4. Football players have been more publicly vocal about their faith compared to athletes in other sports?

5. A historical connection between churches and/or religious schools and football?

Could be some interesting stuff to look into…

Baseball games average 17 minutes 58 seconds of action

Surpassing football games, one analysis suggests baseball games average 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action:

By WSJ calculations, a baseball fan will see 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action over the course of a three-hour game. This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, a Broadway intermission or the missing section of the Watergate tapes. A similar WSJ study on NFL games in January 2010 found that the average action time for a football game was 11 minutes. So MLB does pack more punch in a battle of the two biggest stop-and-start sports. By seven minutes.

The WSJ reached this number by taking the stopwatch to three different games and timing everything that happened. We then categorized the parts of the game that could fairly be considered “action” and averaged the results. The almost 18-minute average included balls in play, runner advancement attempts on stolen bases, wild pitches, pitches (balls, strikes, fouls and balls hit into play), trotting batters (on home runs, walks and hit-by-pitches), pickoff throws and even one fake-pickoff throw. This may be generous. If we’d cut the action definition down to just the time when everyone on the field is running around looking for something to do (balls in play and runner advancement attempts), we’d be down to 5:47.

I’m sure some might quibble with the methodology. Yet, the findings suggest two things:

1. A significant amount of excitement about sporting events may have to do with the time between action rather than the action itself. Sure, we care a lot about the plays but the fun includes the anticipation between action as well as the conversation and analysis that takes place then. In other words, sports involves a lot of patience.

2. The “feel” of the action may matter more for perceptions than the actual measurement of action. Football and other sports include faster action and more players moving at a time, giving an image of more total action. This particularly shows up on television. Perhaps it is more of a question of do fans prefer group action or more solitary action?

Taxpayers pay 70% of NFL stadium costs, owners pocket 95% of the revenue

Gregg Easterbrook summarizes the research on who pays for and benefits from the construction of new NFL stadiums:

Judith Grant Long, an urban planning professor at Harvard, has shown that about 70 percent of the cost of building and operating NFL stadia has been paid by taxpayers — many not even sports fans. About 95 percent of the revenue the stadia generate is kept by team owners. It’s a deeply disturbing arrangement. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, has shown that NFL investments never generate the promised job totals or local economic activity. If there’s public money to spend in Buffalo, investments in infrastructure — schools, transportation, a replacement for the dilapidated Peace Bridge, improving Delaware Park — would have more of an economic multiplier effect than an NFL field.

This said, if there is one city where public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified, it’s Buffalo. Should Atlanta or Miami lose its NFL team, that would be a shame, but these cities would still have strong economies. Should Buffalo lose the Bills, this could be perceived as the “last one turns out the lights” moment, reducing the odds of a Buffalo urban recovery.

Public investment in an NFL stadium might be justified only if the facility is located downtown. The Buffalo News reports that 15 sites are under consideration for a new stadium. Two are in Toronto. Several are suburban, including an abandoned shopping mall property an hour’s drive from the city. One is near Niagara Falls, where the tourist activity is on the Canadian side, not the American side. One is on the Buffalo Outer Harbor, which is cut off from downtown by a freeway and doesn’t contribute to the pulse of urban life. Only downtown locations should be considered if public funds are spent.

Nobody would have believed 20 years ago that Pittsburgh and Cleveland could bounce back and have trendy downtowns. And nobody believes that about Buffalo now. But already underway on the north side of the city is a complex of a teaching hospital and medical research center that will be among the world’s largest and best equipped. Thousands of professionals will move to the city to staff the center. Add the NFL to downtown, and Buffalo might acquire the cachet it needs to rebound.

In other words, the research from recent years is consistent: building a publicly-funded stadium is not really a good deal for taxpayers. Major league teams will appreciate it and the owners certainly benefit but the money does not flow back to taxpayers. Yet, since the political calculus is such that no major leader wants to be the one that let the favorite team get away plus there are still sites that existing teams can threaten to move to (in the NFL, Los Angeles is perhaps more important as a potential city rather than an actual home for a team), taxpayers are likely to continue to help foot the bills for new stadiums.

Soccer won’t make it big in the US because it doesn’t have enough time for commercials?

Forget cultural differences; perhaps soccer won’t make it big in the United States because there is not enough money to be made.

“Soccer is the least profitable sport on the planet,” says Stefan Szymanski, professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of Soccernomics. “The whole structure of soccer is totally at variance with the America model.”…

In America, TV contracts have a lot to do with a sport’s profitability. MLS recently took a step toward the big leagues with new contracts that will generate around $90 million in revenue per year, the most ever for the league. But that’s puny compared with leagues such as the NFL, which takes in about $5 billion per year from TV rights. The visibility generated by saturation TV coverage helps the NFL earn even more revenue from sponsorships, ticket fees and licensing deals.

It might be unfair to compare the MLS with the NFL, which is the world’s most profitable sports league and an almost unexplainable phenomenon. But pro soccer in the U.S. may face a chicken-and-egg problem that prevents it from ever following in the NFL’s cleats. Most NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL teams manage to be profitable whether they win or lose. That’s because of revenue-sharing deals, salary caps and other equalizers meant to keep leagues competitive and owners satisfied…

“The MLS is pursuing the America business model, which means it’s not pouring billions into making it successful but is actually limiting player spending,” Szymanski says. “There are probably 30 soccer leagues that spend more on wages per team than the MLS — including the Romanian soccer league.”

I wonder how American sports fans would react to the idea that sports “work” in the US because owners can make lots of money. Sure, the sports may be interesting and the athletes impressive but the owners have to make money and there have to be lots of commercials. The average football game has about 11 minutes of gameplay. It’s more like the sports play around the commercial breaks.

Does this mean American sports don’t really follow a free market model? It sounds more like team owners work together to guarantee their profitability and then others on the outside, like various corporations and television networks, can try to make money.

Breaking Madden: tweaking the game to have the most unequal outcome

I’m a latecomer to the Breaking Madden series but here is what happens when you tweak the game to pit the two most unequal teams together on the same field:

I released every member of the Seahawks and Broncos that I possibly could, and replaced them with a total of 82 players I created…

Imagine also that this player is seven feet tall and 400 pounds heavy, and that there is no stronger, smarter, faster, or more skilled football player on the planet.

Now imagine 41 of them. In previous editions of Breaking Madden, I’ve made a small handful of these sorts of players — maybe one, or three, or five. Never 41…

In just about every way, these Broncos are the anti-Seahawks. They are as short (five feet tall) and light (160 pounds) as the game would allow me to make them. In every single skills category — Speed, Strength, Awareness, Toughness, and dozens of others — I assigned each of them the lowest rating possible…

I could not continue. My heart wouldn’t let me. I used the simulation feature to speed up the game to the end. I relinquished my ambitions of a 1,500-point game. Seahawks 255, Broncos 0. The machine and I agreed upon the final score.

The visuals are priceless: a team of giants overwhelming the team of scrawny players with the game just giving up at the end. I’ve never seen anything like it in my years of playing Madden football.

The premise of the project is interesting as well: just how much can the average video game be tweaked by the user to create different outcomes? I would count a lot of the newer games that have open maps and numerous playable characters as ones that can be tweaked a lot. Yet, there are still plenty of games that have you follow a fairly strict script. Both can be enjoyable but the autonomy of the gamer is quite different.

One thing I’ve always liked about sports games – and sports in general – is that the outcomes are somewhat unpredictable. Sure, there does come a point where the gamer reaches a skill level that overwhelms the computer every time but then you can set new goals: start a career team from scratch, play with some sort of handicap, or move up a difficulty level. This has been my recent quest: move up the ranks of English soccer in FIFA 2012 with Oxford United. At some point, the game can still be too easy or repetitive – this was the curse of earlier sports games when certain plays or players could just dominate – but playing a game within a game usually insures some flexibility.

Super Bowl program, tickets feature NYC skyline though game takes place in New Jersey

Updating the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl discussion, the official Super Bowl program and tickets feature New York City:

But it reached a fever pitch this week when the NFL unveiled its design for the official game program and tickets — a shot of the New York City skyline — with New Jersey a small speck in the distance.

“Apparently, the NFL needs a geography lesson,” Sen. Robert Menendez, (D-NJ) said at a press conference with Sen. Cory Booker and other elected officials held to denounce the NFL’s design and reprimand players and broadcasters who refer to the Feb. 2 game as the ‘New York Super Bowl.’ Menendez also took issue with the “tiny sliver of Jersey City” visible in the program cover, adding; “You’re kidding, right?”

Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL who took pains to point out he lives in New Jersey, sent a long list of the NFL-supported Super Bowl activities happening in the Garden State. He insisted that the program and ticket design featured Jersey City, and said the Super Bowl logo prominently shows MetLife Stadium with a view toward New York City, adding that other promotional decor displayed both New York and New Jersey.

But the program design — in which Jersey City can be found if you’re looking for it — hit a nerve that was made raw almost immediately after the 2010 announcement that the nation’s first cold-weather Super Bowl would be played in New Jersey; news which was heralded on the cover of New York City’s tabloids as the ‘New York Super Bowl,’ and is repeatedly referred to by sportscasters as such.

I suspect that the New Jersey politicians can complain all they want and most people are still going to focus on New York City. Fair or not, New York City has a more glamorous profile than suburban New Jersey. Perhaps New Jersey can take solace in the fact that much of the attention on New York City tends to primarily focus on the wealthier areas of Manhattan, like around Times Square or Wall Street, while leaving out the majority of the city.

“Half of American fans say ‘supernatural’ forces are in play during sports events”

Around half of American sports fans, particularly football fans, think that the supernatural influences are at play on the field/court/ice/pitch/playing surface.

“Just ahead of the 2014 Super Bowl, 50 percent of sports fans see some aspect of the supernatural at play in sports, meaning they either pray to God to help their team, have thought their team was cursed at some point in time, or believe that God plays a role in determining the outcome of sporting events,” reports a new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, non-profit group based in the nation’s capital.

A fervent 26 percent of the respondents say they have prayed that “for God to help their team”, while an equal number have entertained the notion that their team was “cursed.”…

“Football fans are also more likely than other fans to say they pray for their team (33 percent ), perform pre-game or game-time rituals (25 percent), or to believe that their team has been cursed (31 percent).

White evangelical Protestants (38 percent), white mainline Protestant (33 percent) and minority Protestant (29 percent) sports fans are considerably more likely than Catholic (21 percent) or religiously unaffiliated (15 percent) fans to say they have prayed for their team, the survey found.

A few quick thoughts:

1. America is often regarded as an unusually religious industrialized nation so it is not surprising that this would carry over to sports.

2. This gives credence to the argument that sports might sometimes act as functional religion.

3. Rather than attribute outcomes on the field to the actions of individual players or physics, some fans invoke the supernatural. How else to explain unusual plays or certain outcomes? Does invoking religion is related to the record of a particular team (bad teams are cursed, good teams are provided miracles – mediocre/average teams are supernaturally stagnant)?

Crediting New York if this year’s Super Bowl goes well, blaming New Jersey if it does not

Gregg Easterbrook points out the interesting game of geography playing out in the upcoming Super Bowl to be played in New Jersey in a stadium used by two New York teams and with lots of media coverage of the Super Bowl happening from Manhattan:

This year’s Super Bowl will be played in New York, which, for NFL purposes, is located in New Jersey. Since the media, politicians and celebs will downplay the New Jersey angle, TMQ will play it up. In solidarity with the state of Thomas Edison, “The Sopranos” and toxic waste, TMQ will offer a weekly Road to the Swamps item during the runup to the game…

Both of the NFL’s “New York” teams not only play in New Jersey, they practice there and are headquartered there, too: neither the “New York” Giants nor “New York” Jets has the decency so much as to maintain an office in the Empire State, which today has one NFL team, the Buffalo Bills. NFL officials, media types, club-goers and politicians love New York and look down their noses at the Garden State. Should all go well, New York officials will take the credit. Should the game or the bus-based logistics be a fiasco, New Jersey will be blamed.

Three years ago, the Super Bowl was held in Dallas, which for NFL purposes is in Arlington, Texas, and ESPN’s local set was in Fort Worth, 35 miles distant. These things happen in modern life. But the “New York” Super Bowl will take cartographic challenges to an extreme. Though the game will be held in New Jersey, all three networks will report on it from across the Hudson River in Manhattan. The ESPN local set will be at Herald Square, the Fox and NFL Network local sets at Times Square. For media purposes, New Jersey will be located in New York.

Officially the Super Bowl will be played at a field called MetLife Stadium located in a town called East Rutherford, N.J. In order to encourage tourism, that town should change its name to The Swamps of Jersey, New Jersey. Springsteen fans would flock. The stadium should change its name to Somewhere Field, which has a nice numinous quality. Then as the big game begins, broadcasters could say, “Welcome everyone to tonight’s Super Bowl from Somewhere, in The Swamps of Jersey.”

The real issue here is that the game and media coverage is all happening within one metropolitan region surrounding New York City. Plenty of stadiums are located outside of the central city and media facilities are located all over the place. (Think of the world’s media sports center in Bristol, Connecticut – home of ESPN.) Yet, this particular metropolitan region crosses state lines. Yes, Fort Worth is not the same as Dallas which is not the same as Arlington or Irving but at least they are all within the same Metroplex. Moving between New Jersey and New York City (and also Connecticut – though there are no sport facilities there, perhaps for the same NIMBY reasons that didn’t allow the United Nations to locate in suburban Connecticut – and upstate New York, which probably has the same relationship with NYC as downstate Illinois has with Chicago) is a big deal. New York City, particular Manhattan, is the number one global city in the world. It is the center of media, entertainment, and the financial industry. In contrast, New Jersey is industrial, working-class, and The Sopranos.

One other question: can Chris Christie take some credit for this New Jersey Super Bowl or do the New York politicians get to take all the credit?

Thanksgiving football game = 11 minutes of action, over 100 ads

Football is America’s favorite sport but the average NFL broadcast doesn’t actually contain much football:

The NFL’s popularity is all the more remarkable when you inspect the fare it has to offer each week on television. An average professional football game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes, but if you tally up the time when the ball is actually in play, the action amounts to a mere 11 minutes…

The 11 minutes of action was famously calculated a few years ago by the Wall Street Journal. Its analysis found that an average NFL broadcast spent more time on replays (17 minutes) than live play. The plurality of time (75 minutes) was spent watching players, coaches, and referees essentially loiter on the field.

An average play in the NFL lasts just four seconds.

Of course, watching football on TV is hardly just about the game; there are plenty of advertisements to show people, too. The average NFL game includes 20 commercial breaks containing more than 100 ads. The Journal’s analysis found that commercials took up about an hour, or one-third, of the game.

As this piece correctly notes, this is partly due to the rules of the game where there is down time between plays. At the same time, the NFL broadcasts go out of their way to add commercial breaks. Consider a sequence like this: touchdown scored, kick the extra point, commercial break, kickoff, commercial break. This happens all the time.

For contrast, watch high school or lower level college football. These games still have breaks between plays but the drop-off in wasted time for commercials is astounding.

One other note: if it weren’t for all the commercials, would the networks still show football games?

Quick Review: League of Denial

I had a chance this past week to read the book League of Denial and see the PBS documentary by the same name. Some thoughts about the story of the NFL and concussion research (focusing mostly on the book which provides a more detailed narrative):

1. I know some fans are already complaining of “concussion fatigue” but it is hard to think of football the same way after hearing this story. For decades, we have held up players for their toughness and yet it may be ruining their brains.

2. The human story in all of this is quite interesting. This includes some of the former football players who have been driven to the edge by their football-related brain injuries. At the same time, the story amongst the doctors is also pretty fascinating, the chase for fame, publishing articles, and acquiring brains. Running through the whole book is this question of “who is really doing this research for the right reasons?” Even if the NFL research appears to be irrevocably tainted, are the researchers on the other side completely neutral or pure of heart?

3. The whole scientific process is laid out in the book (glossed over more in the documentary)…and I’m not sure how it fares. You have scientists fighting each other to acquire brains. You have peer-reviewed research – supposed to help prevent erroneous findings – that is viewed by many as erroneous from the start. You have scientists fighting for funding, an ongoing battle for all researchers as they must support their work and have their own livelihoods. In the end, consensus seems to be emerging but the book and documentary highlight the messy process it takes to get there.

4. The comparisons of the NFL to Big Tobacco seem compelling: the NFL tried to bury concussions research for a few decades and still doesn’t admit to a long-term impact of concussions on its players. One place where the comparison might break down for the general public (and scientific research could change this in the near future): the worst problems seem to be in long-time NFL players. When exactly does CTE start in the brains of football players? There is some evidence younger players, college or high school, might already have CTE but we need more evidence of this to be sure. If that is established, that perhaps kids as young as junior high already have CTE and that CTE is derived from regular hits at a young age (not the big knock-out blows), the link to Big Tobacco might be complete.

5. It is not really part of this story but I was struck again by how relatively little we know about the brain. Concussion research didn’t really take off until the 1990s, even as this had happened with football players for decades. (One sports area where it had been studied: boxing.) Much of this research is quite new and is a reminder that we humans don’t know as much as we might think.

6. This also provides a big reminder that the NFL is big business. Players seem the most aware of this: they can be cut at any time and an injury outside of their control could end their careers. The league and owners do not come off well here as they try to protect their holdings. The employees – the players – are generally treated badly: paid well if they perform but thrown aside otherwise. This may lead to a “better product” on the field but the human toll is staggering.

7. How exactly you change people’s opinions, both fans and players, regarding concussions will be fascinating to watch. It will take quite a shift among players from the tough-guy image to being willing to consider their futures more carefully. For fans, they may become more understanding as their favorite players consider what concussions might do to their lives. Will the NFL remain as popular? Hard to say though I imagine most fans this past weekend of football had little problem watching lots of gridiron action Saturday and Sunday.