Sunday, October 12, 2014

Skipping Football: One Year Later

Regular readers may remember that last fall Wedge declared he was taking a year off. Like John Grisham's story that inspired "Christmas With the Kranks," Wedge was indeed Skipping Football. As a new dad with increasing home and work responsibilities, he decided it would be a great experiment that, at the very least, would free up some of his time throughout the week, which is perfectly understandable. But now the experiment is over, and he is free to watch again. Wanting to know his thoughts now that he's had time to reflect and get back into watching games, I did a quick interview with Wedge.

Mike: So first, what are your initial thoughts about "returning" to football? Was there a sense of elation? Or was it really not a huge deal mentally?

Wedge: Honestly it wasn’t a big surge of elation or celebration.  More than anything, it was relief. Because it was so hard to do. I don’t mean via my willpower. I mean it’s incredibly hard to avoid football in this country without abandoning mediums altogether. I don’t know how to explain it to anyone other than telling them to try it; you get a real sense for how much market saturation football has.

People might say there are always alternatives, and sure there are, but how many quality alternatives are there for a sports fan in the US? Especially on weekends when football takes over 90% of the primary TV, radio, and social media landscapes.

Mike: What are some things you realized that you'd missed the most? Coaches' challenges, right?!

Wedge: Certainly not coaches challenges. In fact, dedicating yourself to watching other sports makes you realize how terrible the NFL (and NCAA) are at doing play review. Its a simple concept really: have a person dedicated to reviews, when one is needed do it fast and do it accurately. In cases where it can be automated via artificial intelligence, do it now (see: tennis). If you can’t make a decision after watching two replays, then it’s too indecisive to change anything. With modern technology there’s no reason that takes more than one minute tops. I’m a fan of getting calls right, but too often the challenge function is abused to get a free timeout or out of spite and, in both cases, that’s when they should be able to decide quickly that it’s a waste of time and to move on, just like in tennis.

But back to your question, I definitely missed some things. Mostly I missed the game of football and the variety. Football is so spread and there are so many games that it lends itself to easily finding exciting competition. I’m even more convinced that the announcers and media covering football are by far the worst in football. However there’s one exception. I missed being able to wake up early on Saturday mornings with my son and being able to turn College GameDay on in the background. That show is the fandom appreciation show that every other sport tries to copy and the NFL wishes it had. Those guys do good analysis and back stories, but more importantly the stars are the fans in the back constantly getting face time, and they spread their wealth visiting all kinds of different schools. If it were MLB they’d only be at Yankee Stadium and Fenway every week.

The last thing I’d say I missed is football’s willingness to change and make adjustments. Many of the other sports I watched (rugby, soccer, baseball, hockey, motorsports etc.) have some severe issues with their rules/procedures and the only thing stopping them from being fixed are the sporting bodies' unwillingness to make changes. Football by comparison isn’t even the same sport it was 10 or 20 years ago because it makes so many changes, but no one has complained to go back on the competition changes. And even while they fall very short on some things they at least acknowledge the issues. FIFA on the other hand, I watched them completely ignore three different times this/last year when a player was knocked 100% unconscious for 10+ seconds and then the team left them in the game once they came to. Or Formula 1 and their lax safety rules that led to the Jules bianchi incident. Even the NFL doesn’t have the balls to defend that kind of stupidity.

Mike: What are your thoughts on fantasy football, concerning watching or not watching NFL games?

Wedge: It's funny because this was where most people told me this was a terrible idea, because there’s no way I’d be able to do well in Fantasy Football by not watching the games, and I just don’t get it. People forget that its purely statistics and chance.

A prime example: T.Y. Hilton just ripped off a massive game on Thursday night. No amount of watching football games would have helped you predict that was going to happen. If anything watching games can have a negative effect on fantasy because it’s like watching the memory line at a roulette table where you convince yourself you see something instead of remembering statistics and probability and trends.

All that said when I wasn’t watching football I didn’t win either league I played in, but I also didn’t come in last either. According to Yahoo, in your league I set the record for strongest strength of schedule. Again, I’m not sure how watching football would change my ability to do anything about that. This year I’m off to a good start but not because of watching anything because for the last 10 years all my picks are based on statistics and Yahoo/CBS rankings.

Mike: I watch the Saints, try to watch the Broncos, and try to watch at least some of the prime-time games if I can (Thursday, Sunday, Monday night). Throw in LSU and parts of random college games, and I'm probably at about 15 hours per week. Obviously there are some who would be closer to 20-25 hours per week or more, so at least I'm not as obsessed as some. I also get a lot of work done (or play with kids) while watching football. If it isn't the Saints or LSU, I'm never just sitting idle and watching. What about you? How much time do you think you're spending? Do you feel like it's a waste of time, or can it just be a healthy hobby comparable to something like fishing or golfing?

Wedge: Hobby is the most important word you mention there. Yes it most certainly can be a healthy hobby and something on in the background during other activities, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time. But the issue I was testing for, and one I think a majority of the country has, is that it’s not a healthy hobby for many people. I am addicted to competition/sports. Just watch me on twitter: I go all in on anything I watch. You’re talking to a guy who once watched the final table of the World Series of Poker live for three hours. But with most other sports you can do ebbs and flows and it doesn’t take over your life. With football I feel like this country has crossed over the line for “healthy.”

At the end of the day all sports are entertainment, they are an escape from normal everyday life, but when it becomes more important than that, when you neglect life for entertainment, then it’s crossing the line. I wouldn’t say I was there, but I know many people who are, and I’m sure I was at least in the area where I could have been doing more productive things with my time or expanding my horizon of what information I was taking in, listening to music, other sports, documentaries, whatever.

Before this experiment I probably dabbled with the 25+ hour mark because I will take live sports over syndicated television any day, so when I’m lying in bed, working in my garage, cutting grass or running on the treadmill, etc. I’d put whatever NFL or college football game was on. But sometimes you get sucked in and suddenly you are up at 12:30am because you need to see how the North Southern Midwest Central Florida vs. El Paso Dakota State game is going to end. And for many people it sometimes evolves into all the time. But I’d still say I’m not a typical American in that aspect.

If you ever need evidence of how unhealthy the relationship has gotten with football, watch ESPN in the football offseason. More than half the shows and SportsCenter coverage time is still dedicated to football. They don’t do it because they are that obsessed, they do it because the viewers are. That’s unhealthy, by a lot. So too is the way it takes over, not just NFL, but college, and high school, and the draft, and people just talking about it, and people talking about the people who talked. There are so many other quality sports out there people can watch, and its better than 70% of the football content that’s broadcast; the boycott was more about that large majority of football junk rather than the minority of really good games.

People leave public gatherings where they were having a good time to go home and watch a football game of non-importance. There are others who can’t fathom trying anything else. But you could easily replace the word “football” with any other activity and make many cases for other things. Football is just more common.

Like you said, it should be a hobby, and people should have many healthy hobbies. Don’t be the guy that only hunts, or only plays golf; instead, be a person who has tried out anything there is to try. Have a favorite beer, but make sure you try out some other beers to see if you like anything else.

Mike: After taking a year off, how do you feel about the current schedule, where there is basically football on TV nearly every night? Would you like to see it scaled back or expanded? For example, Thursday night football is fun and all, but it's also part of what made Thanksgiving football so special. 

Wedge: As you can tell from the last question, this is one of my biggest pain points about football is over-saturation. It doesn’t know when to stop itself. I attended the University of Southern Mississippi when the concept of playing college games on a Thursday night was invented. It seemed crazy. USM announced we were going to play on a Thursday, we stopped classes at lunch time so people could tailgate, and the university had to rent extra lights to make sure the field was bright enough for TV. But they did it because it meant they finally would get some primetime air because the big conferences dominated TV on Saturday. It was new territory for colleges and ESPN.

Only “problem” was it worked so well that the big conferences stole it from the small ones. And now the Boise States of the world have had to move to playing their games on Wednesday and Friday nights, screwing over high schools that traditionally played on Friday. And the NFL is now taking the Thursday slice from the big college conferences and playing games on Saturdays by the end of the year. To my knowledge, Tuesday night is the only night of a week that does not regularly have a football game on TV during the regular season.

No longer are any of these night games special because everyone plays them every night. There’s 2-3 games every night of the week instead of one matchup getting accolades for a night after a few days off allowing you to build up to it. Same thing for Thanksgiving, I’m totally with you there; tradition stampeded on.

Forget the fans though, lost in all of this is the HUGE negative physical effects weekday football has on players with much less time to recover and rest; or in college, less time to attend classes and study, which is supposed to be their primary purpose of being in college (or at least that’s what the NCAA still claims). The NFL keeps pretending like they care about the player safety so much, yet they added Thursday night games full season, play London games every year, and proposed adding two more weeks to the schedule, all to the detriment of players' bodies.

Mike: I gave up soda this year, and honestly it wasn't that hard. (Shout out to seltzer for making it possible!) You know how much I loved Coke, but it really didn't phase me after a couple of weeks. I just don't know if I could completely give up football though. I'd say, aside from necessities and things like spending time with family,  my top five most difficult things to give up would be (in order): music, horror movies, baseball, football, pizza. What is your top five?

Wedge: Man, just like you mention seltzer making it possible for you, frankly sports made it possible for me. Giving up football was only possible when I could still get sports fixes with baseball, hockey, tennis, rugby, soccer, IndyCar, Sports Car racing, Formula 1, UFC, Olympics etc.

Excluding family and necessities, the five most difficult things for me to give up now I think would be: Music, the internet, going out to eat, travel for leisure, and streaming documentaries/movies.

Mike: Any final thoughts?

I said a lot already, but I think the biggest sports related epiphanies I had during this football layoff were watching other sports and seeing things I wish football would adopt. For example:

#1 – From rugby, the best thing football could adopt is the extra point procedure. Only one of the players on the field during the touchdown would be allowed to attempt the extra point. Instant revolution in the NFL. Fantasy gets a whole lot more interesting, and we stop wasting a roster spot on kickers.

#2 The America’s Cup. I already wrote about it on GBS, but I’m still amazed and love that the champion gets to choose the rules by which they defend their crown. I really wish they could do this in other modern sports to some effect and let the games evolve each year. That’s what modern day sports are missing. That was the biggest thing people kept telling me throughout this whole thing. They kept trying to tell me how I was missing all these games, but at the end of the day I was missing the same old thing, a footnote in the history books in a way.

Imagine if this was the year the champion said all teams can only field 7 players and that no punts were allowed… and I missed that!? Then yeah, then I’m missing out. The best players would be the ones who excelled no matter the rule sets. You could tell stories about the different years and the different rule sets that had to be followed. It would add so much more significance to everything.

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