Most sport-loving British men (and it does tend to be men) of a certain age have a favourite American football team. Back in the 1980s Channel 4 began covering the NFL with a highlights programme every Sunday and a live broadcast of the Super Bowl. Come Monday, padded out in our school blazers and ties and armed with a tennis ball, we would try to recreate what we had seen. Like most of the boys, I fancied myself as a quarterback, even though I could never see a pass or read the situation. But in my mind there was something spectacular and exhilarating about commanding a long drive down the field (or the concrete playground in our case).
The most popular teams in Britain in the 80s were the Dolphins (because of Dan Marino), the 49ers (because of Joe Montana), the Bears (because of ‘the Fridge’) and the Raiders (because of… actually I have no idea). The contrarian that I am, I refused to let popularity be my guide, instead opting for the team with what I considered to be the coolest name and strip: the Cincinnati Bengals. I soon discovered that they were widely regarded as a pretty terrible team (even if they had appeared in the 1982 Super Bowl, losing it to the 49ers, but that was before Channel 4 began its coverage). It mattered little to me: the Bengals might have lost most games they played, but they did so while adorned in tiger stripes.
And then in 1988 they briefly became good (thanks in large part to their fine quarterback, ‘Boomer’ Esiason) and reached the Super Bowl to face, once again, the San Francisco 49ers and Joe Montana. I still remember much about the game. A close fought, low-scoring affair (it was 3-3 at half-time), a third-quarter touchdown gave the Bengals the lead going into the final quarter. Thanks to a field goal, they still retained the lead with just over three minutes left, and with the 49ers pinned back by their own goal line. But then, over eleven plays, Montana drove his offense 92 yards up the field to deliver the winning touchdown with 39 seconds left to play. It was an extraordinary drive—but for a Bengals fan, it was about as painfully tortuous as sport gets.
That was the closest the Bengals have ever come to winning the Super Bowl. I left school and began university, and, lacking a television, I rapidly lost interest in American football. This spared me some fallow times for the Bengals: for about twenty years they were probably the worst franchise in the NFL, never remotely coming close to success, and usually failing in ways that invited ridicule rather than sympathy. And then a few years ago my interest in the sport was rekindled, and I discovered, happily, that the Bengals had surprisingly become quite good. Okay, they haven’t won a playoff game since George Bush senior was president, but the fact that they have consistently reached the playoffs over the past few years is something—these days they actually win more games than they lose. Indeed, as I write they have made a perfect start (4-0) to the current season, so optimism reigns once again.
My better self has long tried to dampen my enthusiasm for American football. There is, after all, much to dislike about it. The sport is intensely violent and aggressive and has real problems with long-term injuries; the culture surrounding it is dispiritingly meat-headed, money-oriented, and garishly showy (the Super Bowl is in many ways a hideous spectacle); it has a history of racism (for a long time black players were not allowed in the NFL) and homophobia; the NFL, by all accounts, is an appalling organization. On the other hand, the draft system which gives weaker teams first pick, the scheduling which ensures stronger teams have tougher fixtures, and the salary cap are all features which ought to give the English Premier League pause for thought.
Above all, it is a great game. Although it can never rival for me the flow, beauty and thrill of football (i.e. soccer), American football is an extraordinarily complex, intricate sport, capable of sustaining tension throughout. It can appeal on so many levels: it is fast, powerful, tough and highly physical; but there is also a beauty to its tactical sophistication, its clever plays, its use of bluff, deception, variety and skill in working out the best defensive or offensive strategies, all of which are attractive on a deeply intellectual level. I find it vastly superior to rugby. Whereas I struggle to find any intellectual or aesthetic appeal in rugby (most rugby matches look to me like an unthinking, primordial mess), American football mixes artistry and ideas in with the big hits.
Even so, I am not enthusiastic about the prospect of a London-based NFL team. I prefer a safe distance from the culture of the NFL. Anyway, although I know next to nothing about Cincinnati and will probably never visit the city in my life, I’m happy to keep on following the Bengals—and, given that they seem to be good whenever I show an interest, perhaps the Bengals are happy about that too.