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 be fired. Kaepernick has never played again and recently settled his lawsuit against the NFL alleging collusion between the clubs to keep him out. The league has also paid out over $500m in legal claims relating to concussions. After all this, it starts getting a little harder to care about the outcomes of games.
What will take its place if football declines? Feetball. When I was a kid, you couldn’t follow the English league on TV. Now there seem to be endless shows devoted to it, not only whole games but analysis. The tone of the conversation has changed. Many of the commentators remain British, but you can tell they’re preaching to the converted now, instead of explaining something to the natives. America’s own soccer league, MLS, is expanding, too. Austin, Texas, where I grew up, is about to get its first major league professional team—a soccer club.
Does this mean the culture is changing, too? Watching soccer requires a different kind of attention than watching the NFL—it has a very different narrative structure, based largely on the tension created by non-events. Maybe Americans could do with a little more appetite for non-events, but I suspect that the rise of soccer reflects not a cultural shift but a deepening of cultural divisions. The NFL may be Trump’s league; the Premiership is probably a little more Democratic.
And something will be lost if kids like me stop playing catch in the backyard. Because even if I never suited up for the real thing, touch football remains one of the best casual-participation sports I have ever played. All you need is a ball and a bit of lawn; the only thing you need to know how to do is catch and run. Make-believe is a big part of the appeal. Pretending to be pros we used to call out fake instructions before snapping the ball: “22 46 fly right HUT!” One of those sounds of childhood, almost totally meaningless, that still makes the pulse tick faster.