Three resources for getting into football this season

It’s football season.

For my family, and many others across the country, this means a constant struggle in which the football fans in the house try to explain the rules and intricacies of the game to the more or less captive audience of everyone else.

Rest assured, every weekend for the next five months the TV channel will be glued to hulks, helmets and Hail Marys… and the occasional accidental karate kick to the face, which is (of course) a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul:


Football is a complicated game (the NFL’s own beginner’s guide is over 1700 words long) that is best understood as a combination of capture the flag and World War I. After what’s nearing two decades of being a self-described “football widow” between the months of September and February, my mother will tell you that she is now just starting to understand the game’s rules, norms and tactics. So why should you care? Well, for starters, football is is our country’s national pastime.  I know, you’ve been told it’s baseball. Well, whoever told you that either did so thirty years ago, or was wrong. In all seriousness, in terms of public opinion and league revenue, the NFL is the biggest slice of the American sports pie, and has been for quite a while.

Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend.

Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend on finding out he made the draft.

But especially now, and this year in particular, there has never been a better time for those on the political left to get into the game. The NFL is in a period of political flux on a number of issues progressives care about. The nation’s most popular sport sets the tone for how our country behaves itself, and from concussions to labor to domestic violence to race to LGBT acceptance, how that tone will be set is currently an open question. We should be adding ourselves to the conversation. Having said all of that, you may need a few resources for becoming familiarized with the game so that, when the time comes, you can speak the language. Here are a few football resources for new/non-football fans to get you started, broken down by what they’re useful for:

Tactics: New York Times 4th Down Bot

The most basic rule in football is the downs system: The team with the ball has four chances to advance the ball a total of ten yards. Each time it advances ten yards, it gets a fresh four chances to do it again; if it doesn’t make it ten yards, the other team gets the ball.

But there’s an added wrinkle: If after three tries a team hasn’t gotten the tenth yard, they can either go for it and risk giving the other team the ball farther up the field; they can try to kick a field goal, which will earn them three points if they make it or give the ball away where they currently stand if they miss; or they can punt the ball as far down the field as possible, ceding possession but making it harder for the other team to score.

Believe it or not, with one click of a button you can be better at making the punt/kick/go for it decision than nearly every NFL coach. All you need to do is follow and/or visit the New York Times’ 4th Down Bot.

Humans are risk-averse, and going for it on fourth down is a risky decision. NFL coaches, worried about being second-guessed by their fan base and, more importantly, their team’s front office in the event of a failed crucial fourth down attempt, often punt or kick when the numbers say they should go for it. And with years of historical data, the New York Times has put together an algorithm, personified in the form of a Twitter account, that calculates which decision is rational in a team’s given situation. It analyzes every fourth down in every NFL game every week, publishing its decisions in real time.

If you want a quick intro to one of the game’s central concepts, or if you just want to troll your traditionalist friends who shout data-less platitudes at their TV every Sunday, keep track of the Bot.

Stats vs. BS: Benjamin Morris

Benjamin Morris (@skepticalsports) is the lead writer for sports at FiveThirtyEight. And while Nate Silver’s brainchild is useful for pretty much everything, Morris’ work on the site is especially useful for breaking down football.

From a quantitative perspective, football is one of the more difficult sports to analyze because the datasets are so small. With 16 games to a regular season, and with so many players switching teams every year, it’s hard to say anything meaningful about a player’s or team’s performance. This being the case, a lot of the commentary you’ll hear on TV (“Team A won four out of six games decided by one possession or less last year”) will be completely meaningless.

Enter Morris. His ongoing division-by-division 2014 NFL preview is already starting to unpack some of the bigger misconceptions about the game’s best players and teams. If you want a football explainer with slightly more quantitative backing than former Jets’ coach Herman Edwards’ famous “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME! IT’S THAT SIMPLE!” then give him a read.

Rules, context, activism and everything else: Chris Kluwe

The punter for the Minnesota Vikings until he was released for his pro-LGBT activism, Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) is the de-facto leader of the LGBT movement in pro sports, particularly the NFL. He’s also a brilliant, clear writer who often tweets during games with helpful explainers on game situations, rules and other intricacies of the game.

John has pointed out Kluwe for our readers before, but if you needed a refresher, here’s some of his best work.

From Kluwe’s viral letter to Maryland state delegate Emmet C. Burns, Jr. in response to Delegate Burns, Jr.’s not-so-subtle insinuation that the Baltimore Ravens should prohibit linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo from speaking out in favor of a ballot initiative for marriage equality:

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful c*ckmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

From his response to a Minneapolis Start-Tribune op-ed written by Riley Balling entitled “Why same-sex marriage affects my marriage”:

When you state that “As we have seen, and understandably so, people in homosexual relationships are trying to change society to more readily embrace and promote their view of their identity. This is possible largely due to the disassociation between sexual relationships and procreation.”, what you’re really saying is “Those gay people do sex things that I find icky, and we should oppress them because they can’t have babies.” You completely ignore the fact that “people in homosexual relationships are trying to change society” not just because they want to have teh buttsecks (or rise and grind for the ladies), but also to avoid, oh I don’t know, things like being tortured and tied to a fencepost until you die (Matthew Shepard), shot to death while attending school (Lawrence King), shot to death for being transgender (Moses King), committing suicide by hanging due to repeated bullying and taunting (Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover), shot to death and burned while standing military guard (Seaman August Provost), stabbed to death after serving in the Vietnam War (James Zappalorti) – every single one of these attacks because of the victim’s sexuality. Let’s not even get into the over 1100 federal benefits gay couples are legally unable to obtain in this state because they can’t get married – things like health care, survivor benefits, legacies to pass on to their families (including children); things like tolerance, acceptance, and compassion.

And from his account of the events that preceded his release from the Vikings:

It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman, both of whom knew I was a good punter and would remain a good punter for the foreseeable future, as my numbers over my eight-year career had shown, but who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter…One of the main coaching points I’ve heard throughout my entire life is, “How you respond to difficult situations defines your character,” and I think it’s a good saying. I also think it applies to more than just the players.

Basically, Chris Kluwe is a must-read/must-follow for anyone who cares about anything related to LGBT issues, and keeping track of what he says comes with the added benefit of learning a ton about football.

So there you have it. If you’re new to the game and want to pick up a basic understanding without watching John Madden draw a phallus with the telestrator, here’s where to start.

Are you ready for some football?

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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