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Football: elegant, smart and amped up

“First things I’m going to do is look at myself," said Brandon Williams after the loss to the Bengals. "Re-evaluate myself, get into the film, and figure out what I can do better." (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)

The New York Times Book Review publishes interviews with established writers that often include the question: Which books would we be surprised to see on your coffee table? During the fall and winter, every time I look in the direction of my coffee table, I am surprised to see Howie Long’s “Football for Dummies.”

Why the surprise? Because, until three years ago, I hated football and wanted nothing to do with it. In college, during the fall, I showed up occasionally at Cartier Field, now Notre Dame Stadium, on electrically charged Saturday afternoons. The games I did attend were for the convivial ambience, and out of loyalty to the school, but I had no idea what was happening on the field. I just didn’t get football, and my ignorance didn’t bother me.

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Then, about three years ago, I realized that football, during its best moments anyway, is elegant and smart. That epiphany sucked me in. What triggered this active response to something that was there all along, I do not know.

The Ravens started to look like a legitimate playoff team at the end of the season, but they really weren't.

Learning and growing require differentiating what we see and experience. During this process, we identity and integrate the parts that add up to the whole. For me, learning about football means progressing from watching an undifferentiated spectacle on a TV screen to gradually understanding how the game works. Listening to and learning from the analysts in the broadcast booth — particularly Cris Collinsworth, a former NFL player, who gets into the minds of players and coaches as the action on the field becomes progressively more complex and nerve-wracking — I also continue to discover how much about the game I still don’t understand. Frustration aside, part of the fun is wondering, if I stay the course, how much more of what Mr. Collinsworth says I will eventually be able to comprehend.

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I follow three teams: The Ravens (Baltimore), Notre Dame (it’s nice to see still shots and videos of the campus on TV) and the Patriots (even I can see they’re the best NFL team playing now, that Tom Brady is the No. 1 quarterback and Bill Belichick the No. 1 coach). The Patriots’ productive narcissism affirms my own productive narcissism.

We often hear that sports are a metaphor for life. But college and NFL football are not just metaphors. The sportswriter Frank Deford pronounced sports “another branch on the tree of culture.” As with all our efforts, the game of football unfolds on Shakespeare’s trademarked stage, where “all the men and women [are] merely players” (“As You Like It,” act 2, scene 7).

In fact, football offers us amped up real life: Two opponents fight it out, as both play against a ticking clock. To watch football is to experience time in a heightened way. Actual play is limited to one hour, which means that the elements of this real life-event come at us significantly faster than what we are used to most of the time. Often the winner is determined in the last minutes, or seconds, of the fourth quarter.

On Dec. 30, with 44 seconds remaining on the clock, the Ravens were leading the Bengals 27 to 24. It seemed almost certain that they had a lock on the win. Then the vaunted Ravens defense went to sleep, allowing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to throw a 49-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd. The game was lost, in these few seconds, along with Baltimore’s shot at the playoffs. This neophyte could not imagine the Patriots making such a mistake and wondered whether what happened on that Sunday was just another example of the widely recognized inconsistency that plagues the Ravens’ play, in contrast to the steel-like steadiness the Patriots show under just about all conditions.

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Just in case anyone is inclined to claim that the Ravens’ loss is metaphorical, and not real, because it occurred so quickly and so seemingly capriciously, let’s not forget that a life can be ruined, or taken, in even shorter intervals of time, and even more capriciously

René J. Muller (mullerrenej@aol.com) is a psychologist and the author, most recently, of “The Four Domains of Mental Illness: An Alternative to the DSM-5” (Routledge, December 2017).

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