Watching the Patriots isn’t healthy for me. Since moving north two decades ago, I’ve seen the Patriots win a lot more than lose. Division titles, Super Bowls, MVPs, GRONK – I’ve fallen hard for them. But very little of it gives me joy. Viewing a Pats game is a mix of angst, stress, self-loathing, terror, nausea and occasional exhilaration. I fold laundry, stress-eat and stomp around, exclaiming to my dog (named “Brady”) and the couch, “It’s all over!” and “They blew it!” assuming the worst while hoping for the best. I wonder if I should’ve been a Jets fan – that way I could assume the worst and expect the worst while taking my sad dog Rex for long Sunday afternoon walks.
In addition to the stress, I’m getting dumber the more I tune into the Patriots. Like a wide receiver with cartoon pinwheel eyes after a big hit, I have a vague sense my brain is slowing down the more I watch, my prefrontal cortex congealing into useless goo, leaving me unsmarter and disintelligent. Bombarded by constant banter, cartoon robots, graphics, music, statistics, replays and commercial after commercial, I’m a mental mess when the last whistle sounds.
I think I’ve uncovered the cure for this stress and my mental decline – watching more soccer. Yes, that’s right – good old authentic “football” played in England and broadcast right into my basement TV lair. Watching a live English Premier League game (or, “EPL,” as it’s known) is like a boost of vitamin B12 as my favorite record plays in the background.
A few weekends ago I sat down and compared an EPL game to the last Patriots game of the regular season, determined to prove my theory that less football and more soccer makes for a smarter, happier life.
I chose two games of top teams in each sport (Patriots and Chelsea) pitted against decent also-ran squads who’ve shown flashes of success but never for long (Buffalo Bills and West Ham United). Each broadcast was led by a set of two commentators, one the expert in play-by-play and the other a former standout professional in his respective sport. In the EPL game, the team of Peter Drury and David Pleat called the match, and in the NFL tilt, Spero Dedes was joined by Solomon Wilcots, a six-year veteran of the NFL. Both games played in front of sold-out stadiums with rabid fans ready for action, each team’s best eleven taking on the other’s. And that’s where the similarities ended.
Consider how each set praised the players’ skills. Peter Drury of the EPL remarked, “They find it hard to cope with Hazard’s twinkling feet,” “Downing’s take is a grave disappointment,” and “The position he plays suits him to the ground.” In the Patriots game, Spero and Solly said things like, “He’s a talent,” “He’s got good instincts,” and the phrase all mothers want to hear said of their baby boys to millions of viewers, “He’s such a wide load to deal with.” (Four hundred pounders have feelings too, you know).
Broader descriptions of the game were no less different. During the Patriots game, I learned, “The Buffalo Bills came to play,” “They want to put more points on the board,” and “When players are playing hard, things turn out alright,” but in the Chelsea-West Ham game, Drury and Pleat described the action as, “Fresh, raucous and rousing – a match of genuine consequence,” and “Wonderfully intelligent, accurate intense play.” When the British commentators mentioned, “He can twist, he can turn, and all the defenders can do is take a tumble,” our American counterparts offered, “I wonder if he hit a wet spot.” Hamlet versus Charles in Charge.
After a point-blank save of a blistering shot, the West Ham goalie was, “So stately in goal –absolutely assured!” while the Bills’ wide receiver was described thus – “He’s done a good job. The ball’s thrown to him, and he’s catching it.” Comparisons of the lyrics of John Lennon to Kid Rock’s musings comes to mind.
The NFL commentators talked about “continuity and chemistry” a lot, using the phrase more than a few times. They chose words like “execution,” “processing in his progression,” and the term everyone knows and loves, “consistency in organizational structure,” heard in huddles across playgrounds and sandlots across this great nation - “OK, Billy, you go that way. Tommy, you run that way, and Junior, you focus on consistency of our organizational structure. Break!” At times it sounded like Dedes and Wilcots were giving a PowerPoint presentation to bank auditors – “It’s about preparation and execution, consistency and making sure the progression is being processed!”
Watching a Premier League game was far more relaxing, and even with so much at stake and millionaire soccer players – petulant prima donnas whining about phantom fouls, scratching and clawing for advantage – I felt calm and relaxed, Drury and Pleat’s words setting an erudite, thoughtful mood even if the action on the pitch was anything but. At one point, as a West Ham defender took umbrage with a Chelsea attacker’s elbow, Peter Drury reminded us, “You mustn’t raise your hand to an opponent,” like a wise old uncle teaching ethics from an oversized leather chair in a dimly lit library. He and Pleat went for stretches in silence, letting the crowd’s cheers and chants fill the void. Spero and Solly, on the other hand, assumed silence was failure, filling every aural nook and cranny with, “They need to take care of business,” and “Their relationship was whole.” What does that even mean?
Soccer uses words like, “cynical,” “clumsy” and “ambitious” while football repeat the terms, “consistency,” “stud” and “guy.” During a five-minute stretch early in the second half, Wilcots used the word “guy,” more than dozen times, as in, “They thought they had their guy, but he’s not a long-term guy,” “Guys like Wilfork are guys to fuel the defense,” and recalling how the Bills’ coach referred to his quarterback as, “He’s not my guy,” and “He’s the ‘for now’ guy.” Where’s ‘70’s punter Ray Guy when you need him. If he were playing, we’d hear, “That Ray Guy guy is the ‘punter-guy’ guy.”
Watching soccer game makes me feel smarter, like I’m reading a John Donne sonnet (“The fullback forager makes a clever, splendid play”). By the end of the third quarter of the Patriots game, I wondered if I was listening to an awkward semi-erotic page turner (“Let’s get this thing started. That was a good pump fake! He’s gonna take a lick – now he has to eat it!”).
See if you can guess during which game I heard the following sentences: “He needs to create space between he and Vereen,” “He brought the crowd to their feet,” and “They ruled the ball incatchable.” Now compare to, “The ball squirts up kindly,” “A gorgeously awaited pass yields an absolute peach of a kick,” and “They are a joy to watch – they play the game so smartly with such precision.” Ren and Stimpy versus Strunk and White.
Perhaps all of this is unfair. No one tunes into an NFL game to improve vocabulary – we do to watch guys hit, outrun, push, pull and score lots and lots of points. We accept that sixty minutes of game time involves no more than seven solid minutes of actual movement, we ignore the ads for toenail fungus and payday loans, and we expend more energy convinced our choice of shirt or beverage will affect the outcome than we do listening for erudite banter. But I offer that the careful choice of words, words that elevate, sharpen and inspire - the act of deliberately choosing beautiful language to describe the human experience is what separates us from the primates – and Jets fans. To accept anything less, in the words of Drury and Pleat is “only a temporary reprieve” from our stressful lives. And making more time for soccer makes us all a little smarter.