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The Art of Athletic Enlightenment

As September embraces us in its chilly, red-leafed bosom, the air crackles with the excitement of a new season of football. Far gone — for most of us; no, you shut up, New York fans — are the fresh summery dreams of baseball pennants and World Series glory. Basketball games are but a foggy memory or a prospect still too far off to consider. And hockey… enh. It’s hockey. Throw some bikini girls on the benches and work in a car chase or something and maybe I’ll tune in. Maybe. For one period. But probably not.

“Swallowing a live Gila monster would be easier than trying to explain something to a three-year-old child. And probably less painful.”

The thing I’ve found about American football — as opposed to the far more intuitive futbol that the rest of the world enjoys so much — is that it’s very hard to explain to someone ignorant of the game. In most sports, you can take a person with a ‘blank slate’ with respect to the rules — a small child, say, or a reclusive hermit, or a lonely native Inuit tribesman — up to speed in just a few moments. Where you find the hermit or Eskimo, and how you manage to interest them in modern-day athletic contests, is entirely up to you. I’d say that using the small child might be simpler — but I’ve seen small children in action, and I don’t want to lie to you. Swallowing a live Gila monster would be easier than trying to explain something to a three-year-old child. And probably less painful.

The point is, as much as I enjoy football, it’s not the most straightforward sport in the world to describe. Forget the nuances of the two tight-end power set or the 3-4 defense; I’m talking about the basics — the things the three-year-old would have to grasp in order to shut up for a while and watch the damned game. I’ll illustrate by first simulating the conversations you might have in explaining the gist of other sports. Let’s start with something simple:


Small Inquisitive Child: What are those men doing?

Patient Sports Fan: Well, they’re beating each other to a bloody pulp.

SIC: Why?

PSF: To prove which is stronger. That’s how boxing works.

SIC: Why?

PSF: Because that man with the scary Bride of Frankenstein hair will give the stronger one a lot of money.

SIC: What does the weaker one get?

PSF: Almost as much money. But he doesn’t get a press conference, or a spot on Letterman. Maybe Conan.

SIC: Oh. Okay.

See? Boxing is easy. The kid doesn’t have to know about right hooks and TKOs and whose ear was in whose mouth when. There’s time for all of that. Meanwhile, the tyke can enjoy the brutal simplicity of two men methodically pounding the living shit out of each other for money.

Unless it’s foxy boxing. That’s different. The kid can’t watch that until he’s eighteen.

Let’s try something a little more mainstream:


Curious Cave-Dwelling Hermit: What’s that?

Patient Sports Fan: Why, that’s a basketball game.

CCDH: What are they doing?

PSF: They’re trying to put that ball into the hoops dangled over the ends of the court.

CCDH: What happens then?

PSF: Then their team gets two points. The team with more points when time runs out wins the game.

CCDH: Why don’t they just run up and throw the ball in?

PSF: That’s against the rules. Also, that big hulking player with the dreadlocks under the basket would hurt them. Very badly.

CCDH: Interesting. So what happens if they win?

PSF: The team will get a trophy. Also, the one there with the tattoos will get a shoe contract, and their bench players will become minor celebrities for a few months before they go back to bagging groceries and driving delivery trucks.

CCDH: Makes sense to me.

Easy as pie. Someday our little hermit may grow up to become a big hoops fan and learn all about zone defenses and trash talking after monster jams. For now, just deal with the basics. Don’t complicate things.

It even works with the sport many believe to be the most complex and rife with arbitrary, arcane regulations and details:


Politely Questioning Eskimo: What are these people doing?

Patient Sports Fan: They’re playing baseball.

PQE: What is that man on the hill doing?

PSF: He’s the pitcher. He throws the ball to the batter, over there.

PQE: The batter wants the ball, then?

PSF: Not exactly. The batter hits the ball toward the fielders.

PQE: The fielders want the ball?

PSF: Sort of. If the fielders catch the ball before it lands, the batter has to sit down, and think about what he’s done.

PQE: And if the ball falls? Can the fielders harpoon it?

PSF: Um… no. Then the batter runs toward his base. If he reaches base before the ball, he gets to stay.

PQE: And do what?

PSF: Run for the next base, when the next batter hits the ball. If he reaches the last base, his team gets a run. The team with more runs wins.

PQE: Wins what? Do the victors receive fish and pelts?

PSF: Not usually. Mostly, they receive enormous sums of money, and local car dealership endorsement gigs.

PQE: Ah, well of course. Very good.

Another happy, chilly customer. But for the true novice, it’s football that’s hardest to grasp. There’s a fair amount of background and context that most of us take for granted when we watch the pigskins fly. But an outsider — say, a bug-eyed visitor from the far side of Omicron Perseii VIII — would have a difficult time making sense of it. Observe:

Hideous Probing Extraterrestrial: In what activity are these humans engaged?

Patient Sports Fan: They’re playing a game of football.


PSF: Well, the team with the ball is trying to score by getting the ball into the other team’s end zone. That’s how the score, and the higher scoring team wins.

HPE: ‘Scoring’ in this ‘end zone’ you speak of. It involves the noisy skirted females on the sidelines?

PSF: Not officially, no. The end zone is the area at the end of the field, over there.

HPE: Aha! The ball has fallen in the end zone! The local team has succeeded!

PSF: Um, no. That’s an incomplete pass. The player has to carry the ball into the end zone.


PSF: I apologize. But that’s as tricky as it gets — if the team carries the ball in, they score.

HPE: You’d better hop– Oho! The ball was caught in the end zone! VICTORY SHALL REIGN!

PSF: Uh… sorry. Penalty on the offense. Holding. No score.

HPE: No score?

PSF: No.

HPE: Oooh — now?

PSF: Interception. Wrong team.

HPE: Now?

PSF: Punt return.

HPE: NOW?!?!

PSF: Sorry, that’s a safety. The other team scores points. But not as many points. But still some points.


So, there you go. Be glad you don’t have to explain football to an alien invader. Or an Eskimo. Or a small child. Just buy them a PlayStation and a copy of Madden, and let them figure it out for themselves. That’s how the rest of us learned, and we turned out just fine.

Permalink  |  2 Comments

2 Responses to “The Art of Athletic Enlightenment”

  1. kerry says:

    well, i’m still confused…

  2. Roofie Raccoon says:


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