BOB GARFIELD: Come Monday the good people at the A. C. Nielsen Company will inform us that almost a third of the American public watched at least some portion of the Superbowl this weekend.
Now, maybe to you that seems like a relatively small percentage, but a third of America rarely does anything all at once anymore. And that includes voting.
So we are a football culture, are we not? Well as a society clearly we like football. But the culture part is another matter altogether because football and culture don't mix. Or, put another way, the football culture somehow seems at odds with the culture culture.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For instance, baseball's official documentarian is Ken Burns who aides the sport in the sepia-tinted nostalgia of documentary film.
Football has NFL Films, free with your subscription to Sports Illustrated.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
KEN BURNS: Lombardi, a certain magic still lingers in the very name.
BOB GARFIELD: Baseball's resident conservative is George Will who favors wirerimmed spectacles and intellectual looking bowties. Football has Rush Limbaugh. In a recent NFL FIlms special called Football and Politics, the Port Lee Pittsburgh Partisan wore a Steelers' jersey the entire time.
But it's not just football versus baseball, it's football versus art. Football in the media and literature seems always to be depicted as brutal, plodding, notably untranscended, the source of either low comedy or high melodrama, usually along the war metaphor lines.
This is from Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday.
BOB GARFIELD:How is it that so pervasive a phenomenon resonates so little outside the lines? Joining me now is Samuel Freedman, a journalist and professor at the Columbia School of Journalism who's written on the literary merits of football stories versus baseball. Mr. Freedman, welcome to the show.
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Thanks very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, this is Superbowl weekend. We are absolutely inundated with everything football. But in terms of literature and art, really the only thing that has come out of this annual national holiday is one thriller about terrorism called Black Sunday. What is it that makes football, even this big game, such a lowbrow enterprise?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Well, unfortunately for a lot of the creative artists and cultural figures in America, football is a lowbrow enterprise. So I suppose the Superbowl would be the lowest brow of all. Buy as someone who's a writer and also passionate football fan, I've never missed the fact that the kind of rhapsodizing that writers routinely engage in for sports like baseball foremost, but also golf or even boxing rarely gets applied to football.
BOB GARFIELD: And, and why is that? Is it because they're gladiators in armor, because there's so much brute force involved? What is it about football that doesn't seem worthy of a Bernard Malamud novel or Roger Angel writing so elegiacally about it?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: There's an idea, particularly with baseball, that it fits into, as one academic I interviewed once put it, a pastoral myth of America, it's the--a game played in the spring time and everything's verdant.
[CLIP] Football, in contrast, is a sport where as, as you say, the players are in armor of a kind, all their padding, their helmets. Having said that, that one of the other arguments of why artists in America haven't cottoned to football is that tactically it reminds them of the military and that there's this certain kind of reflexive anti-military sensibility among a lot of writers.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned military imagery. I think George Carlin went off on that.
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Well you have a lot of military terminology that has taken hold. As football jargon it tends to make the game feel somewhat less personal, somewhat less an act of individuals than an act of teams, or in this case one would say--one would say armies.
BOB GARFIELD: Now comes the Superbowl and it is as close to a national holiday as any sporting event or telecast can be. More than a third of the population of the country watches it. And it's truly an event that--is very much a part of the American popular culture.
Isn't it inevitable that at some point the--if, if not the game of football itself, the Superbowl as an event, as a popular phenomenon will somehow be the subject of literature eventually?
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Well, I think going into the Superbowl, the amount of ballyhoo, the amount of commercial buildup becomes offputting for those who might otherwise write a book or make a movie or do a play. Maybe people feel themselves competing against the giganticness of the media machinery.
It's interesting that some of the best renderings we have of football are in a more intimate way or take a more sidelong glimpse at it in Dave Mariness' [?] excellent biography of Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered. One of the great achievements in that book is when he writes about the Ice Bowl. And that's a moment that most football fans either recall 'cause they've lived through it or have since learned by seeing it repeated enough times on NFL highlight films--
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: And yet Mariness, through the application of his reporter's craft is able to make you literally feel that game so intensely, to really take you in, in three dimensions into that experience. And that's a challenge that not your average writer is up to.
BOB GARFIELD: Samuel Freedman, thank you very much for joining us.
SAMUEL FREEDMAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Samuel Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.
We'll go out with an aria from Different Fields, a football opera written by former Cincinnati Bengal Mike Reed, and performed by the Memphis Opera Company.