x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

A feast of football with all the trimmings

As North America braces itself for an NFL Thanksgiving Day marathon, NBA fans could be lonely this Christmas.

Fans of the Detroit Lions are part of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day staple diet.
Fans of the Detroit Lions are part of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day staple diet.

On Thanksgiving Day, an annual tribute to gluttony, American preferences for side dishes run the gamut from sweet potatoes and green bean casserole to creamed spinach and candied yams.

For many Americans, there is but one essential accessory to turkey, the main culinary fare: a television set locked into football.

We sports types prefer to flavour almost any holiday with game-watching, and no special day of rest and relaxation is more closely associated with a particular professional sport than Thanksgiving.

We offer thanks for family and friends, for health and peace - and to the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys for being part of our turkey feast since almost forever.

During these breaks from life's grind, some cultures hit the pause button on their sports seasons. No work, so no play, goes the thinking.

In the US, they merely rejig the schedule, shifting events around to accommodate people on days with little on their plates, other than holiday food. NFL viewership on Turkey Day exceeds a typical Sunday by about 10 per cent.

The league is bound by history. These special games on the fourth Thursday of November date back a century, to an era when television was a figment of inventors' imaginations.

What, you do not recall the fierce rivalry between the Canton Bulldogs and the Akron Pros?

The Detroit Lions were first awarded the holiday home date in 1934. Other than a stretch in the early 1940s, when the nation was more focused on a world war, they have been a T-Day staple, as certain as your visiting cousins fighting over the last helping of cranberry sauce.

The annual game became must-see television when analyst John Madden - yeah, the football video game guy - would interrupt his analysing by digging into a turducken, which is a de-boned chicken stuffed into a de-boned duck, then stuffed into a de-boned turkey. Then, stuffed into the mouth of an adventurous eater.

In 1966, to one-up the rival American Football League, which was countering with its own game, the NFL made it a double header, with Dallas playing host in the nightcap. The Cowboys have missed only two years in the interim.

Other franchises complained, wanting in on the action. The league, unwilling to tamper with tradition, instead added a third game at night, with rotating participants.

Now, for 11 hours, we are blessed with a non-stop reel of football. One game for each meal of the day - turkey and all the trimmings, followed by seconds and leftovers, followed by thirds and crumbs.

Beyond Thursday, those who toss sports and holidays into a blender and stir it up should brace for disappointment.

The NBA has become embedded in our Christmas Day. For those immersed in football, it is a delayed opening day for professional basketball, two months after the actual tip-off to the season.

The league stacked up five games last year in a noon-to-midnight dribblethon. Somewhere, a hoops enthusiast realised as the final final buzzer sounded, that he had forgotten to unwrap gifts under the tree.

Alas, David Stern, the commissioner, and the players' union leaders have cast themselves as the Grinches who stole Christmas basketball.

Their inability to agree on how to carve up a pie almost certainly will wipe out the three games scheduled this December 25, perhaps along with the other 1,227 this season.

NBA coaches and players have long expressed distaste for having to sacrifice at least part of their Christmas Day for the entertainment of the masses.

Stan van Gundy, the Orlando Magic coach, said: "I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game."

He was fined for the remark. When he subsequently urged the league to expand the day's schedule, it did not appreciate his sarcasm. He was fined again.

"If you ask any player in the league, we'd rather be home with our families," said LeBron James, who apparently escaped a fine because, well, he is LeBron James.

"I think the people that even set the games up would rather be home with their family during this day."

And this, from Phil Jackson last December in his final season as the Los Angeles Lakers coach: "I don't think anybody should play on Christmas Day.

"It's like Christian holidays don't mean anything to [the league] anymore," he added with an odd sound bite, coming from a reported Buddhist.

In NFL circles, the games are tolerated more, especially in the host communities.

"I'd much rather be coaching on Thanksgiving than watching," Jim Schwartz, the Lions coach, said. "This game means a lot to this city and historically to the NFL."

Players appreciate the three-day weekends that begin on Friday, when they can kick back, play some Madden NFL 2012 on their consoles and, if they are lucky, chow down on some turducken.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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