Alex Pappademas is a man of many talents—writing, most notably—and passions: comic book culture, cinema, the Kardashians, etc. Currently a pop culture writer for Grantland, his work has also been published by outlets such as GQ and The New York Times Magazine, covering everything from big-budget film directors to innovative guitarists, even contemplating the mysterious fig that is Ryan Gosling (though haven’t we all?). But sports is a subject that has long evaded his cognitive grasp, especially professional football. This naturally led to his amusing and insightful Grantland column, “I Suck at Football,” a season-spanning immersion project that examined his attempts to acquaint himself with the NFL from a novice perspective, often weaving in aspects of his personal life and discussing how the two intersect. At some point in the process, Pappademas aligned himself with the Cincinnati Bengals, a simultaneously entertaining and curious life choice. I chatted with Pappademas about the column, being a football virgin, and life as a Bengals fan.
Once you started writing the column, how and why did the Bengals fandom evolve? The Bengals aspect specifically came into it when I went to a sports bar with my editor, Dan Fierman. At that point I knew I was going to have to do this every week now whether I liked it or not, and I needed to do something to reduce the scope of football itself. It was too large, and I needed to know where to look from week to week. I realized I needed to start following a team. My actual decision, I think it took about three minutes. My editor started giving me the complete idiot version, one-sentence logline on each team. Basically stereotypes. And I didn’t want to follow anyone where it seemed like I was jumping on a winning team. I didn’t think that would be very interesting and that I would feel like a jerk who was just rooting for somebody that was going to dominate. So I thought maybe a team that didn’t win all the time would be more interesting to write about, choosing to sort of masochistically throw myself into this thing where people that grew up rooting for this team kind of have no choice about it. Plus I don’t think I know anybody who is a Bengals fan, so it’s not like I would be stealing anyone’s thunder. And then my editor explained to me about the Cincinnati “Bungles” which, first of all, hilarious pun. Really funny. And he sort of filled me in that in the past there was some criminal behavior among players on the team and that this was kind of the squad for me. I suspected that it would be more fun to write about a team that was kind of doomed, because doom was more interesting. And then it didn’t work out. It’s sort of a failed column about failure, because they ended up doing better than people imagined. They started winning, and from the perspective of the original idea I was planning to do, we were both going to fail. I was going to fail at understanding football and they were going to fail at playing it, and that was going to be the conceit. But then they started winning and it just kicked in—I just wanted them to win all of the time. So it’s not as if I’m a savant, but I only really know about one aspect of this thing. I can’t really have a conversation about football as a whole. I have to quickly turn the conversation to the Bengals and people who played the Bengals, because that’s my only frame of reference.
Did becoming a fan of the Bengals—or I suppose just becoming a fan of any team in general—aid your appreciation and understanding of the game? In the very basic sense, it’s a column about watching football on television and the experience of that. But yeah, absolutely, I was way more interested in watching football than I’ve ever been in my entire life, both Bengals and non-Bengals games. It helped to know who I was rooting for. It helped to get involved in it and make my brain absorb it, because that was always the problem I had.
You mentioned in one of the pieces around midseason that you were watching a game with your daughter, but it was difficult to explain to her that you were “rooting” for the Bengals ironically. But this is also about the time that the team started winning games and putting itself in the playoff discussion. Did you continue rooting for them ironically, or did you get sucked in and become a genuine fan of the team? This is the central question of the column. I just wrote the last one, and that’s sort of the unanswered question. Did I go Donnie Brasco and go native and actually, legitimately care about this, or was I actually doing it ironically? Because obviously the thing about watching it with my daughter, she’s 2 and 1/2, so it’s tough to explain [the ironic aspect], which is a guiding principle of my whole entire life. I will have to explain that to her. And who knows what kind of irony her generation will have? Post-post-millennial, what will they do? Will they like things, will they just be all about sincerity? I have no idea. But basically, I think there was a healthy dose of irony in that I knew I was not going to be bereft and punching walls if they lost. I knew this was a weird situation and that the team’s success was kind of atypical and that at some point it was going to come crashing down. But the game against the Cowboys, where the Cowboys won on the field goal at the last second, I legitimately at the moment that happened felt shitty and terrible. It was horrible, I was really bummed out by that. I think that was the most authentically connected I’ve been to the fortunes of this team and the most emotional reaction I’ve had through all of this. Because that was awful, even though it’s probably a pretty run-of-the-mill thing in football. I was really kind of crestfallen when that happened.
And that’s a very natural reaction for a genuine fan. It was probably the first time that happened for you. Yeah and I think that’s sort of the way I wrote about it. Once you can be disappointed by something like that, you’ll know you’re a real fan. And even when it was happening I wasn’t like, This will be good for the column, and I kind of have that voice in my head all the time as I’ve been doing this. But at that time I was like, This is terrible. This is not good. And it took me a little while to get over it. I was bummed out for the rest of the afternoon. That went straight to the soft, emotional part of my brain.
What has the reaction been like from Bengals fans? It’s such of mix of gratitude that someone cares, and then also the defensiveness of a dog that’s been kicked a whole bunch of times. Everybody was really cool about it for the most part, and most people were sort of happy that somebody was taking the time to follow the Bengals, but there was a lot of, “You have no idea.” Like I came to WWII in the last year with people that had already done three tours, and people were hollow-eyed and sad. I had a lot of people say, “Don’t do this to yourself. Get out while you can.”
Obviously you’re enjoying the games and understand the sport a bit better, but how deep does that go? Were you able to recognize who the better players were or which things were more successful for the team on a regular basis? That gets into certain nuances of football that I’m not very good at writing about, because I’m not very good at clocking them at all. The reason this column gets super digressive and personal and diaristic is because the more I write about other things that have nothing to do with football, the less space and verbiage I have to expend on what actually happened in the game, and that’s the part that I’m least good at writing about. I feel like Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin talking about sex when he hasn’t had sex yet.
Which things have you found that you enjoy most about watching football and being a fan? There are a lot of things. It was interesting that the ritual surrounding it was as important as what was actually going on. Participating in that—watching it at a bar with random clusters of fans—I found that tribalism, Model UN sort of things really awesome. The nerd activities that I’m into are not necessarily communal, so I liked that aspect of it a lot. Also, I don’t watch a lot of live television, so there was something about watching things happen live that was exciting. Having to watch live commercials and be subjected to that, I felt like I knew what was going on in the consumer psyche of America. When it became big-bow-on-the-car season I was very much aware of that and was like, I need to buy my wife a Lexus. And I enjoyed the games. Going from—it wasn’t 0 to 60 in terms of my understanding, but 0 to 30—it was so much more satisfying to look at a football game and kind of get what was happening and what the objective was. I’m not lying to you when I say I didn’t have an understanding of the game. I knew what a touchdown was, and I understood the snap, but everything that happened between those two things was sort of Greek to me. My football experience prior to this was schoolyard touch football games. I didn’t really get it then, and I kind of just wanted to go read comic books in the corner.
I was very intrigued by the piece you wrote about the impending Bengals-Steelers game, and how your wife had always been anti-football in a sense because of the negative connection she made between her ex-husband and him being a Steelers fan. The whole situation and how you wrote about it made me curious as to how you feel becoming a sports fan has impacted your life. The thing with her and the ex-husband, I told her I was going to do it and she was ok with it. But she kind of had a visceral thing about sports and life. It was like Silver Linings Playbook, which we went to see when all of this was happening. There is a moment when it is like sports versus the rest of the world. The climax of that movie is bringing sports and non-sports together in one redemptive moment for everybody. So the column was kind of like me proving to somebody—maybe my wife, maybe the universe—that I could be passionate about sports without being a dick about it. I don’t know if it was successful or not.
Do you think the whole situation made you a different person? Or maybe a better person, a better husband and father? It’s hard in a long-term, committed relationship to change something about yourself and keep everything else the same. You know on a deep level, emotionally and intellectually, that the person still loves you no matter what. But it’s weird when someone radically changes some aspect of things. In her view, me being a complete non-sports fan and then a fairly committed sports fan was a big change. It was about us sort of adjusting, and in a way, this whole column is about the adjustments we’re making. It wasn’t like this was really a strain on our relationship, but I was trying to write about one of those things that happens in a marriage when you have to recalibrate a tiny bit and people have to reaffirm to each other that the love is the same…you and I are now getting into some pretty heavy couples counseling stuff here.
Yeah, this got pretty deep. I go to this place of personal confession so much when I’m talking about this because it’s so much less uncomfortable than talking about football. This is much easier than talking to you about who my favorite and least favorite players are. That was really nerve-racking and I didn’t want to f@#& that up.
Does this continue? Whether you write the column again next year or not, will you still be a Bengals fan? I can’t see having another team that somehow wins my heart away, just because my relationship to this is so strange. Now actually having followed them, it would feel like a little bit of a betrayal [to pick a new team]. I can see myself doing fantasy football next year and probably paying attention to the Bengals. Probably not living and dying by them as much as I have this season, or hitching my emotional well being to their success and failure.
Well then I guess the most important question is, do you still suck at football? Yeah. I talk about that in the last column, I sort of grade myself. I suck at it in the sense that I’m unable to meet it on its own terms sometimes. The most I’m able to do is intellectualize the experience of watching it. There were a couple of moments where I felt really connected to it, but I’m jealous of the Bears fans singing the “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” song. And I don’t think it has anything to do with the Bengals not being able to offer that, but just that there is something about surrendering to it and being really caught up in the excitement of it, and I’m not necessarily there yet. I do think I suck less at it. But my inability to not be ironic about it—my kind of reflexive irony and not being able to turn that off—that sort of bugs me about it when I look back. The last column is very much about these issues.