This Sporting Life

     I got the phone call from Johnny Ball at two in the morning. At first no one said anything, but I quickly figured it was Johnny because in the background I could pick out the sounds of an NFL game, a baseball game, a basketball game, and underneath it all the buzz of stock cars. Only Johnny had enough digital video recorders to do that all at once.
     “Johnny,” I said, stifling a yawn. “What’s up, John?”
     “There’s something terribly wrong.”
     Stroke? Heart attack? Ex-wives stoning the house and cutting the cable?
     “Help me. Please help me,” he whispered.
     Johnny Ball was a sports freak, always had been. Played three sports in high school, lettered in all of them, married a cheerleader. He exuded all the confidence of a jock his whole life. He could recite detailed statistics from baseball, football, and basketball, and was one of seven Americans who knew the names of all the pro hockey teams. He loved sports. But on the phone he sounded like a wreck, a pathetic empty hulk with an ego shrunken to the size of a marble.
     “I’ll be right over, Johnny. Hang on.” I grabbed a bottle of American beer I kept for emergencies such as home team losses and suchlike. Never touch the stuff myself. It’s all commercial and no flavor. Johnny loved it.
     When I got to his house the front door was wide open. I thought maybe he had been burgled and someone had stolen his sports equipment. The televisions and stuff. But that wasn’t the case.
     I found him in his Sports Den, slumped in his super recliner, in the flickering lights of half a dozen television screens, a half-full beer bottle dangling from one hand, the universal super multi-remote control clenched in the other.
     He looked up at me. A single tear coursed down his cheek. I took the remote from him, gently unclenching his fingers.
     “It’s all gone,” he said. “It’s gone. My whole life’s work.”
     “Johnny, what are you talking about?” He didn’t have a life’s work. He managed a bank.
     He waved loosely at the bank of televisions on the wall. “Omigod! Gone, all gone. I’ve lost the edge, pal, I’ve got nothing to live for anymore.” He dropped another tear.
     “Did you forget to pay your cable bill?”
     “No,” he moaned. “No no no. It’s much worse than that, much much worse.”
     I couldn’t conceive what might be worse in his life than that.
     “Look, let’s turn on some lights, maybe you can relax some, and tell me what’s going on, okay?”
     He looked awful in the light, so I turned the dimmer down some. “What’s happening, Johnny?”
     He looked at me with the face of a little boy whose dog has gone missing. “I, I, omigod, I had an epiphany.”
     Johnny was not given to epiphanies.
     “A sports epiphany,” he said.
     “I don’t understand. Epiphanies are illegal in America. Only effete Europeans have epiphanies. Does Homeland Security know?”
     “No. Listen, I was flipping through the channels, very innocent like, and I stopped on a soccer game. A European one. Just out of curiosity, you know. Not out of betrayal.”
     “You’re treading a very fine line.”
     His lower lip trembled. I feared for his manliness.
     “I- I couldn’t stop watching.”
     I felt his forehead. “No fever. Maybe something you ate?”
     “The worst part? I liked it. I got excited. I cheered.”
     “Who was playing?”
     “I don’t know. It was blue uniforms against red uniforms. English teams. But they never stopped. I only caught the second half. They never stopped.”
     “Now, see, it must have been a hallucination. They would have had to stop for commercials and referee conferences.”
     “No, no, no.” He grabbed my arm and squeezed. “There were no commercials. None. Zip. Nada. Nought.”
     “That’s impossible. What’s a ball game without commercials?”
     “And did you hear me say ‘Nought’?”
     “I tried to ignore it. You are my best friend.”
     “An Englishism.”
     I tried to reassure him. “Look, fire up an NFL game on the DVR and in a few minutes you’ll forget all about soccer.”
     “I tried that. It didn’t work. I started timing the game. Do you know that a play averages about three or four seconds? That during a three hour NFL game there’s only about fifteen minutes of actual play? Fifteen minutes!”
     I had been suspicious of the NFL for a long time, but had never been able to put my finger on what was wrong. But Johnny was right.
     “And another thing,” he said, starting to get wound up, “why are there seven referees on the field? Soccer has one guy running the whole game. Twenty-two players. One ref. And everybody runs for ninety minutes.”
     “Well, sure, okay, but there’s not much scoring, you know. That’s not so exciting.”
     “What’s exciting about the score? It’s the play that matters. And soccer is all play, up and down the field. My emotions were swinging constantly, and when the red guys scored it was huge. That’s when I had my epiphany. One to nothing.”
     “C’mon, Johnny, one to nothing?” I scoffed.
     “Did you ever watch a three nothing NFL game?” he countered.
     I shuffled my feet and looked away.
     “Look,” he said, “one ref. No commercials. Constant play. Everybody gets to work the ball. What’s not to like?”
     “Well, it’s kind of an effete game.”
     “The goalkeeper had a fractured skull two months ago. He’s in there playing. No pads. Nobody has pads.
     “And,” he went on, “if you do something really bad, the ref throws you out of the game and you can’t be replaced. Your team plays short. And you don’t get to play the next game. Break someone’s leg in the NFL and it costs the team fifteen yards.”
     “Jeez, Johnny, next thing you know you’ll be raving about rugby.”
     He grinned. “They play eighty minutes, nonstop, no pads, one referee, no commercials, and those guys are tough.”
     “C’mon, they can’t be as tough as NFL players. No way.”
     “NFL guys are sissies compared to these guys. They’d never keep up.”
     I seriously contemplated calling Homeland Security and turning in my best friend. I never thought I would be put in a position like that. But it seemed like a serious breach of patriotism. After all, the NFL, with its rigid rule structure, its authoritarian hierarchy, its social hierarchy where only a few got to handle the ball, its finely honed consumerism, its constant graphics and replays that fool us into thinking we’re actually watching a lot of football… umm… well, anyway, the NFL is one of the highest expressions of American values and to turn away from it for a foreign game… umm… well, maybe baseball is a better exemplar, with its rigid rule structure, its authoritarian hierarchy… umm.
     Johnny offered me a European beer, sat me down in the guest recliner and said, “Watch this.” He worked the remote and soon had an English Premier League soccer game on one set and an international rugby game, with Australia playing New Zealand, on another.
     Several hours later we went out for breakfast. Next week we’re going to Europe to follow the soccer season. Nuts to the NFL and Homeland Security. They deserve each other. We deserve better.


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