My brother’s best friend in high school used to argue that football was a more appropriate name for the American game than the English version, because in American football players (or certain players, kickers and punters) use only one foot, whereas in soccer everyone plays with both feet—so it should more accurately be called “feetball.” American women have always been good at feetball—they’ve won four of the eight World Cups—but the country still has a reputation of not quite getting it, even though almost everybody I grew up with, boy or girl, participated in some form of soccer league, at least for a year or two. It was a sport everybody played but nobody watched.
American football was the opposite. Everybody watched but almost nobody I knew played—in the organised sense, with shoulder pads and helmets and referees. Yet most of my intense early experiences of sports fandom involved American football. It has a clearer narrative structure than any other major sport—the four-down system, the drive, the touchdown, the two-minute warning. And the NFL has always been good at telling its own stories. Voiceovers from NFL Films, launched in 1962, are branded in the memories of most Americans of my generation. Slow-motion runners kick dirt from their boots, with broken-mouthed smiles and pieces of turf stuck to their helmets, while a deep beautiful voice intones the action.
Like rugby, it’s a sport that costs you a certain amount of life-force to make it through a game, which has always been part of its appeal. It’s also now a big part of the problem. The evidence is mounting that playing football is bad for your brain: a 2017 study of dead NFL athletes revealed that 99 per cent of them showed signs of the neurodegenerative disease CTE (chronic traumatic -encephalopathy), whose symptoms include memory loss, impulse control problems, depression and suicidal ideation. The NFL remains the most lucrative sports league in America, but its viewing figures are declining. Football has also been affected by deepening political divisions: when the San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, to protest police brutality against African-Americans, he started a trend that eventually provoked the president, who suggested any participating players should…