It’s Super Bowl Sunday! I know of at least one friend who describes Super Bowl Sunday as his favorite holiday of the year! And I agree that there’s definitely something fun about the occasion. The sports element is enjoyable (I grew up watching football and even played four years of football in high school). Still, there are plenty of extra elements for those who don’t follow football. The halftime show… the creative commercials… the social component of getting a group of people together for the game… We eat special food (Pizza Rolls and Buffalo Chicken Dip are some of the favorites at our place). It just all feels like one big celebration of Sports, Pop Culture, Patriotism, Capitalism, Commercialism, Consumerism, and all things “American.”
But the whole occasion doesn’t sit easy with me. It feels like a parade of American idolatry: Sports, Pop Culture, Patriotism, Capitalism, Commercialism, Consumerism… Doesn’t it?!? I’ve learned to not be too curmudgeonly about it, after almost ten years of re-engaging with American culture. I usually just keep my thoughts to myself. And I’ve learned that it’s sheer folly to try and “counter-program” the Super Bowl in Collegiate ministry. So, I try to keep it fun. I try to redeem what can be redeemed and just move on after the game (and the whole National Football League season) is completed.
This week, however, I’ve been thinking more about the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). They’re probably the two biggest sports leagues in the United States. They’re both having major events within the same week: The Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game (in Cleveland this year!). And even though I know these things are highly subjective, it seems like there are some obvious points of comparison and contrast that make it clear to me that there are many reasons why I like the NBA better than the NFL.
An International Game
The NFL is as American as it gets. And some people might consider that one of its finer points of distinction. But I prefer the way that the NBA is far more global. It has one of its teams in Canada, for starters. Beyond that, many of the league’s players come from different countries. And we’re not just talking about token role players. Many of the game’s biggest stars right now are from outside of the United States. Most non-Americans are hopelessly confused by the complexity of American football, but basketball is intuitive. And I’ve found in my (albeit limited) travel around the world that it’s way easier to talk about NBA basketball with people from around the world than it is to talk about NFL football.
The NFL is overwhelming with the sheer number of positions and players required for each team. I bet I don’t even know half of the players on my favorite NFL team! Adding in the rest of the league is even more overwhelming! I regularly hear others say “he’s one of the best players in the league right now” — and I’ve never even heard his name before (even though I consider myself a casual fan).
In the NBA, on the other hand, teams have far fewer players. And their faces are not obscured by helmets. Their bodies are not hidden by pads. And I know that might sound like a silly point of comparison, but I think it really makes a difference. NBA players feel like people; NFL players feel like stormtroopers.
If you would have asked me in adolescence, I would have told you the NFL was far more action-packed than the NBA. Crazy hits… Bursts of speed… Diving catches… I thought of the game in terms of its highlights, not its play-by-play action. When I moved to Europe in my twenties, though, I started seeing the game through other eyes. And the truth of the matter is that a lot of a typical NFL game is filled with inactivity. Plays getting called in and distributed to the players… Time outs for official review of the spot of the ball… Big scrums where nobody really goes anywhere… Especially if you don’t know what’s happening, an NFL game is really quite boring!
By contrast, the action in a typical NBA game is far more consistent. There’s almost always some level of movement. No pauses between the end of one team’s possession and the beginning of the next team’s possession. The game just flows more naturally. I know that some people prefer the “punctuated equilibrium” of an NFL game. But I prefer NBA action.
Because of the recognizability mentioned above, I think the storylines of NBA history are easier to follow. But I concede that this is one of my more subjective arguments. I just know the stories of the NBA better than I know the stories of the NFL. Sports can be really effective vehicles for storytelling. But it helps to know all of the “characters,” and “settings,” and “plotlines” that have played out over time.
I could probably devote myself to learning the storylines of the last twenty years of NFL football if I wanted to (going back to the time when I moved away from the United States and lost touch with the history). But that feels about as arbitrary as learning all the players, teams, cities, and histories of teams in the Pakistan Super League of Cricket. As it is, I’m already more intimately acquainted with the NBA storylines. So I like it better.
I honestly hope that everyone enjoys the Super Bowl. I’ll definitely be watching, along with friends. But I’ll also be glad when the game is done, and we can all enjoy the rest of the NBA season.