The 51st year of the given Sunday is upon us (1969 marks the 50th anniversary of the NFL). As usual it is bedecked in its autumnal regalia of sere clich�s, and the stereotype is once more heard in the land—from the followers of the purple pros of Minnesota to the diehards who watch the New Orleans Saints go stumbling out.
The clich�s of professional football have become clich�s because, like most, they are often true. For example, this year, with talent thinly spread over 26 rosters, it is probably truer than ever that on any given Sunday any team in either league can beat any other. Didn't the Jets prove that for all time in the Super Bowl?
It's true, too, that pro football is a sport that has captured the imagination of the populace. This has been happening for a long time, but the Jets' win in the Super Bowl seemed to crystallize the game's enormous appeal.
While college football is—and will always be—an immensely attractive sport, it hasn't participated in the burgeoning popularity that marks pro football. Interest in the college game is mostly parochial—the old grads of Siwash U and the inhabitants of the area dominated by Siwash are rabid fans, but, when you cross the county line into Backwater State territory, the people couldn't care less about Siwash. It's hard for a college to build a large national following because the players keep coming and going. In a three-year career a Joe Na-math spends a year or two making a reputation, capitalizes on it as a senior and then takes his reputation and talent to a pro club, where he may stay 10 years or more.
And the college game isn't nearly as proficient. College offenses and defenses are built to minimize flaws. Unlike the pros, no college team has superb athletes at every position, so the coach must disguise his weaknesses as best he can and teach physical skills, not strategy and tactics.
Once in a long while a sporting event becomes transcendent, universal. This occurs most often when well-ballyhooed heavyweights fight for the championship. The Cassius Clay-Sonny Liston fights were two of the most melodramatic confrontations, not only in sport but in the larger realm of what might be called pop history—that is, until last Jan. 12.
The Super Bowl summed up the temper of the times. The best of the mod, mod world, in the hairy, slouching person of nonconforming Joe Namath, took on the Establishment, as typified by the Baltimore Colts, and put it down in a game that was, in a word, hallucinogenic—to everyone over 30. Namath and the Jets struck a resounding blow for youth and, if you will, disrespect, and the excitement they generated carried over to this summer. It was reflected in the extraordinary interest shown in the preseason games.
In July, in Green Bay, 41,000 willingly paid a buck a head to watch the Packers scrimmage the Packers. Early in August, in San Diego, an SRO crowd of 52,171, which paid $264,342, saw the Chargers lose to the Colts in a game that was of no importance except to the coaches of the two teams, who were evaluating their personnel. A week later 87,381 watched the Rams defeat the Cowboys in the Coliseum under the same conditions. The last two games were typical of preseason play—preseason because Pete Rozelle has decreed that these contests, whose outcomes are meaningless, may not be called exhibitions.
In no other sport do so many pay so much for so little. Baseball puts on its Grapefruit and Cactus League games in ramshackle ball parks before a handful of senior citizens and bemused tourists wearing Bermuda shorts, socks with clocks and dress shoes, who pay reduced admissions. Basketball and hockey exhibitions are played in places like Camden, N.J. and Rimouski, Quebec where crowds ranging from 2,500 to 7,000 fork out $1 to $4 to gawk. Only football showcases its preseason games at regular-season prices in NFL and AFL cities and draws full houses for penny-ante shows.
Why? It is a near-clich� to say we live in an hysterical age, and pro football is a near-hysterical sport. But it's nearly the case. Pro football's format—bursts of extreme emotion, followed by a reasonable time to savor the action—is ideal. Basketball, on the other hand, is almost as intense but, when a shot is made, the spectator has little time to appreciate what he has seen; the ball is put in play immediately and, as basket follows basket, insensibility begins to set in. Baseball is slow and intellectual, hockey fast and esoteric.