I went to a minor league arena football game the other day because the Odessa Roughnecks were hosting championship game. It was one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had in a long time and I don’t know if I can fully explain why. “Sensory overload” is maybe the simplest description I can give.
Being indoors is a lot of it. As you sit in your seat, you are utterly within the realm of control of the people running the event. It’s never quiet or still. Never. You paid money to be entertained and they don’t trust that the game itself will suffice, as fast paced as arena football is supposed to be. If you were outside, there would be distractions, but not of a completely different kind. Sun, wind, cold– basically nature and the real world to remind you where you are. But indoors, it’s almost a parody of something else, even though somehow it’s reality. Or whatever passes for reality these days.
You come inside with your ticket, get some junk food that’s doing its best to make your heart and kidneys explode, then go find your seat just in time for kick off because that’s what you came for anyway.
There’s a lull in the action. The speakers play hip-pop songs, or 90s techno, or oldies rock to get you through safely through it. Some of the songs have a tenuous relation to the events in the game, most don’t.
There’s a time out, children come out and have a hula-hoop competition to see who can go on the longest, or little boys race to put on shoulder pads and a helmet for a gift certificate to somewhere. If it goes on for too long, mascots run out on the field and help them finish.
The game stops mattering at some point. There’s a vague desire to cheer for the home team at appropriate moments, but that’s not really the point at all and except for a handful of diehard fans, everyone knows it.
Without really noticing it before, you see the seconds tick down to halftime and both teams leave to go to their locker rooms. Suddenly, a tiny Chinese woman on a fifteen foot high unicycle comes out with Oriental music playing in the background while she pedals around on a thin wooden board, then flings stacked dishes balanced on her foot onto the top of her head in another stack, receiving great applause. She leaves, and you’re left with a sense of numb wonderment at the non sequitur spectacle, but before you can recover, out walk eight or ten beautiful (West Texas Nissan) girls dripping with youth, sex appeal, and vigor.
The dancing girls come out throughout the game and entertain the crowd at lulls as well, but at halftime they change into non-matching casual wear which includes short shorts, tight pants, and skirts. They also wear high heels to properly accentuate all of these qualities. When they’re through performing their routine, spongy balls are thrown at a man-sized gopher standing on his head in the middle of the field and the one that lands closest to it gets something free. Then the dancing girls come back onto the field and spend a few minutes bending down to pick up all of the balls in front of the wolf-eyed crowd of hundreds.
A Brobdingnagian beach ball is rolled into the stands, but it’s not just any giant beach ball, it’s a “Pacific Tan giant beachball”! It rolls around for a bit, and is then taken away once again.
Yes, everywhere you look there are ads. As a culture we’ve grown used to it, but if you stop to really look, you can be amazed at the sheer amount and intrusiveness of them. Of course in the programs, but also the walls, and lining the rim of the field, and on the field itself. And then, it’s not just visual. Every ball that goes into the stands is announced to have been some business’ ball. There are no first downs in the game at all. Instead there are “Sonic Drive-in first downs”. And “Capital One field goals”. And “State Farm touchdowns”. “Best-selling” Nissan Tundras drove onto the field firing free T-shirts into the crowd, while the scantily-clad young girls sit atop it and wave.
I went to junior high and high school with those girls. I’m sitting around fifty year old men with beer bellies, lusting along with them at girls who two years ago I sat in class with and it would have been considered shameful to think about the things they’re celebrated for doing in front of us now. What a difference a couple of years make.
After a while, the game is pretty much over, my senses are completely overloaded, and I just want to go home and go to sleep. But as I sit there looking at all of this and as I finally leave, I can’t help but think about it and try to figure out what it all is and means.
It’s beer, and it’s soda, and it’s junk food. It’s kids running around screaming while their parents sit and drink, ignoring them. It’s advertisements, it’s sex, it’s meaningless free crap. It’s constant stimulation at the price of coherence. It’s violence in the context of a game most people don’t even care about. It’s loud, obnoxious, and overblown in every imaginable way. To me, that’s America and America’s desires wrapped up as neatly as three hours will allow.
But hell, I enjoyed it. Isn’t that what being an American is all about?