If you can get past the cognitive dissonance of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” appearing on Thursday night, then yes, the N.F.L. season starts tonight, taxing consciences across the nation: To watch or not to watch?
In other words, where does time-wasting end and health-giving escape and relaxation begin? As John Candy as pencil-mustached Mr. Mambo said back in the early 1980s on SCTV (for my money the best television comedy ever made), sitting in his comfy chair and offering his “Words to Live By” as he folded his newspaper with resignation, “The world is in a mess. And there’s sweet diddly you can do about it.”
“My only advice to you is,” he concludes, “when everything gets you down, you get up. And mambo!”
Or watch football.
The other day I caught a college running coach’s hourlong motivational talk on YouTube, and he posed the eternal question, “How does it help you?” That bowl of ice cream. That episode of “The Bachelor.” Even that time with friends that could presumably be spent doing crunches, planks, or speed intervals on the track. What leads you to be the best version of yourself?
One way to think of it, he said, is not to ask, “What’s wrong with [fill in some fun thing here]?” But rather the deflating “What’s right with it?”
Down that road, of course, lies the life of the grind. One of the insights to come from sports research recently is the debilitating tendencies of specialization. Which is a somewhat different topic, but related, in a wearing-down, lack of variety sort of way. You know, the benefits of a diversity of activities — Roger Federer playing soccer in his youth and all that.
Speaking of football, this coach asked of the country’s most watched event, the Super Bowl, who remembers who won it five years ago? I might’ve said the gambling addict, but the answer was no one. So why spend the time? In contrast, if you set aside such dross and focus on your goal, the resulting achievement could be of lifelong significance, like winning a conference title, or making all-American.
He was talking to the young, and it made sense. For the middle-aged, then, what does the guilty pleasure of watching football do for us, exactly?
I’m reminded of Woody Allen — no exemplar of moral rectitude, but still. In speaking to The Wall Street Journal years ago about his fandom and a “refreshment factor” crucial to facing the drag that life often is, he called the Knicks “one kind of distraction. For the two hours you’re at the Garden you’re only focused on that. . . . People will say to me, ‘Does it really matter if the Knicks beat the Celtics?’ And I think to myself, ‘Well, it’s just as important as human existence.’ ”
Now everybody get some rest. Tomorrow’s another day.