As far as I can see, there’s only two sides really facing off during Super Bowl, and they’re not going to be on the field. They are the two types of America’s, divided over that fat 100% American label slapped across the game of football just like the ones at Walmart and the backs of Wrangler jeans. Somehow, we find ourselves on one side of the divide, favoring either the football-loving America or not. To some, it sounds arbitrary and borderline Socialist to carry anti-football sentiments. But I traced my own tendencies back and found the reasons lying open-faced in a make-believe book called, you guessed it, The 90s.
Like most questions I ask myself nowadays – Why did the housing bubble burst? Who is Justin Bieber? – I look to the 90s for answers. Here, I think we can pretty clearly see signs of the moment when Americans began to veer off of the football freeway in mass numbers. Like when ad people realized their huge opportunity to jerk off a 30-second commercial and slap it between plays for a million dollars; and subsequently swapped college marching bands for Bon Jovi at halftime. Maybe no one remembers this. But the bigger trend in sports culture that further steered youngsters like me toward a life of indifference/ disgust for football and for the America that raised it up: the comic-drama kids sports film.
These quintessential coming of age movies always featured a rag-tag team of dweebs, asthmatics and one semi-talented kid, “hot” in a purely mid-pubescent way, who band together and win some big game. For my friends and me, these movies were as present in our adolescence as fuzzy lips and greasy T-zones. They also defined my favorite sport for a period of anywhere from one month to forever after watching them. And no other 90s movie made me love sports and the kids who learned all about life through them more than the Sandlot. Now the movie has been remade about five times too many; but the original gives us the most memorable mashup of 1950s tweens, their shitty playing field in Nowhere, USA, that pathetic plastic glove, and a giant pickle which was maybe a chauvinist or sexist metaphor. There were no girls in the movie, except for the hot lifeguard, but who knows.
Somewhere subconsciously, there’s still a switch that gets flipped each time I watch baseball. My brain re-plays The Sandlot – or occasionally another baseball movie from that era – and I see a ragamuffin group of kids just sweating and laughing their way through summer. It’s Americana nostalgia in its purest form, even though baseball has wandered far from its humble origins just the same as other professional sports. But the soft, hazy picture that’s projected for baseball, as though I’m watching the teams play from behind the screen of my own back porch, is missing with football. And it’s all because the genre lacked a pig-skinned equivalent.
The only thing that came close to an iconic 90s football film was Little Giants, released a year after The Sandlot. I hardly remember it, except for one scene with snot and the pervasive decade-spanning face of Rick Moranis. I can’t remember the names of any characters or the struggles they overcame together. There were no stars I wanted to slather on my wall and pretend to make out with except for Devon Sawa, apparently, which I didn’t even recall until I looked it up on IMDb. But who would suffer through that movie for some side Sawa action when they could just watch Wild America and get a Sawa/Taylor Thomas combo?
So either you loved Little Giants or you can’t really remember it, like me, and in that case, there’s no fuzzy nostalgic filter to watch football through today. No cognitive link to a group of lovable misanthropes to soften the image of overpaid self-inflated egos. The football I see is the one that’s actually there on TV – grating my eardrums with its hyperaggressive meta-analyses and mindnumbing deployment of pyrotechnics. How could I be expected to identify with the football fans of America when I can’t even remember the Little Giants’ names? It would be like calling yourself a treehugger without knowing what type of tree you’re wrapped around.
I won’t deny that American football is a rare gem, maybe one of the last big time commodities that hasn’t headed for expansion past the border. This is a feat that Budweiser nor baseball can boast. But for me, the latter game is more American than John Wayne eating a KFC Double- Down. And ever since Benny slipped on his PF Flyers, I’ve stayed on the side of the America that loves baseball. One where spontaneous fireworks stream down over an impromptu game, and Ray Charles sings along. Not one with maniacal explosives synced to the auto-tuned vocals of The Black Eyed Peas.
Of course the two sports – the two America’s – are not mutually exclusive tastes. It’s totally possible to love and identify with both or neither. But if one sport happens to stir a sweeter pot of youthful sentiment in your mind, just think about which tape burned out faster in your VCR. And may the best America win.