Heidegger and the Super Bowl

Thinking football

For the past few days, I have been reading the essay “What Is Called Thinking?” by the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger. I have also been thinking about the Super Bowl.

Who would Heidegger root for? (Drawing of Martin Heidegger by aeneastudio via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Time and being has something to do with it. You see, I am presently in Phoenix, Arizona, staying in a townhouse that is about as close to the site of the Super Bowl festivities and stadium as my home in South Philadelphia is to the Linc. (I am an Eagles fan, but that is another story.)

As for thinking, it might be possible to argue that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is the Heidegger of football, if anyone could actually figure out what Belichick is thinking. From what I have heard so far, he speaks with the indirection of the head of the Federal Reserve and the elliptical phraseology of a character from Waiting for Godot. I gather he thinks about football and winning football games, but that does not amount to saying very much. It is not that I want to hear him discuss his philosophy of football — if there can be said to be such a thing (Heidegger also has an essay titled, “What Is a Thing?”) — but it might be provocative if he had something to say about what he does beyond the platitudes he, and nearly everyone else involved in the sports world and football, comes up with.

Three simple questions

Not that I pay much attention. For me, football is almost too complicated to really think about — in the sense that when I think about certain aspects of football, I am unable to figure out how to actually think about it. For this week, since I have other things to do, I have narrowed it down to three things to think about: 1) What does it really cost?, 2) How is it possible to actually see/experience football in action?, and 3) What about Endgame?

By “what does it really cost?,” I mean, in a professional football game, how could one calculate the number of working hours and amount of money it takes to play a professional football game, or even execute one play? How long a list would you have to make to include everyone involved with a team? It would start with the owners and team managers to head coaches, offensive and defensive coaches, line and back coaches, assistant coaches, physicians, trainers, equipment managers, photographers and video specialists, locker room crews and their assistants — and who knows how many other employees — before even getting to the players. No wonder it became difficult to figure out who inflated or deflated the balls in the recent playoff game.

In other words, there is this extraordinary, elaborate, unimaginably expensive, utterly planned, bureaucratized, technologized and physically coordinated system that operates to have 11 men move a football down a 100-yard field while another 11 men attempt to thwart them, both sides functioning in accord with their own weekly plans, designs, capabilities, attitudes — and bodily injuries — for 60 minutes, or really, with time-outs, 45 or so. That is a lot of human mental energy and labor and, let’s face it, manpower, to accomplish a particular feat. I mean goal. Or, touchdown, afterpoint, and field goal. Whatever. Who doesn’t marvel at what is involved in a football game?

An untapped resource

In fact, I think about how if the collective cost, manpower, and dedication expended during a pro football season were directed at other goals, America could solve a lot of problems. With CEOs, generals, or managers like Belichick or Chip Kelly running teams of men — and women — urban social issues, environmental concerns, legislation, and economic conflicts would be diagnosed, attacked, and taken care of far better than they are now. Arguably, if the entire NFL — and you might as well throw in the NBA, MLB, and NHL, too — were conscripted to take care of foreign conflicts, they would likely show the military a few things about how to solve complex territorial matters among oppositional force in relation to territory. As for the United States government, there are high school teams in Pennsylvania that are demonstrably more organized and efficient.

The other thing I think about is how complicated the phenomena of any given football game — or play, for that matter — are. At the moment of a play’s action, when the ball is snapped, the 22 men on the field (and the refs) erupt into multiple schemes of minimal and maximal movements, some in tandem with others (receivers and defensive backs) and others smashing into one another. These are large men in uniforms, all running, falling, pushing and, inevitably, colliding with great force and animation. Every man’s limbs, torsos, and heads twist and flail outward and downward, though a few men run together in braided patterns and sometimes leap with their bodies outstretched, arms reaching and fingertips groping into the air before plummeting onto the ground with the flying football.

Or not.

Semiotic density

Who can watch a whole play and comprehend all that is going on? Outside of the few coaches in their booths, who mostly know what might or is supposed to happen, I would think only a dance critic who has understood the choreography of Merce Cunningham or William Forsythe would have an idea of how to grasp the speed, intensity, motion, and intricacy of a football play. In fact, I think that one of the things that makes football so appealing is that the average, even lifelong, fan just doesn’t experience the composition and semiotic density of individual plays. It is sort of like the casual art lover who doesn’t spend the hours following the layers of color, interrelationships of shapes and movement of lines in the paintings of Max Ernst or Paul Klee.

When it comes to the game Sunday, I’ll watch it on TV. I could care less about who wins, and I will be glad when it will be over. I already think too much about it, and next week I have to start thinking Endgame and other works by Samuel Beckett.

Our readers respond

Dan Rottenberg

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on February 02, 2015

Your comparison of football and dance is intriguing. I was first drawn to football in junior high school because it struck me as the greatest possible combination of mental and physical challenge — and it still does. A ballet dancer once insisted to me that in fact ballet is a greater challenge: A ballet dancer must be in superb physical shape, must be well versed in music, and must be keenly aware of everyone's whereabouts while on stage. I found his argument persuasive except for one tidbit: In ballet, you don't have 11 opponents trying to kill you.

Author's Response

Thanks for picking up on that. Ballet and dance are choreographed, as Cunningham once pointed out, so the dancers don't run into each other. Football is about competing choreographies where the object is to run into or away from other players. After the collisions, tackles, bumps, the spin and fall of of limbs and torsos, sometimes entangled, is remarkable to watch. In real time, it's like moment-to-moment wrestling action with multiple actors...and both dance and football are hard to do well. 

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