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Le sport

Do We Really Want Nonstop Action From Football?

“Just keep matriculating that ball down the field, boys!” So went the Hall of Fame coach and broadcaster Hank Stram’s famous malapropism, a directive which meant: In football, you advance on your opponents gradually, with grit and guile, forcing them to yield terrain until you attain the sweet fruit of a field goal or a touchdown. Supposing you don’t know what the word “matriculate” actually means, it makes the entire enterprise sound like a military exhibition; you imagine Hannibal painstakingly matriculating his elephants through Spain and into the shadows of the Roman goal line. For most of its long history, this was how the sport was watched. N.F.L. games run only slightly shorter than awards ceremonies, and sometimes you look outside at a nice autumn Sunday and wonder why you are inside watching four hours of tedium.

More than a decade ago, before everyone else realized modern media were headed in the direction of full-blown dopamine overload, the N.F.L. unleashed a remedy for this problem: N.F.L. RedZone, a Sunday sports channel dedicated to the live broadcast of every touchdown. Or if, God forbid, there were no touchdowns for any meaningful amount of time during the 13 or so games broadcast on a typical Sunday afternoon, it would show the near touchdowns. This nonstop action is like getting to eat doughnuts for every meal and can make you feel similarly unwell. It becomes hard to keep track of any single game; in a way, the difference between them seems not to matter. Football, once so orderly, begins to feel unruly and avant-garde. Events unmoor themselves from context. “Here is a thing that happened,” RedZone seems to cackle. “Figure it out for yourself.”

On the second-to-last Sunday in September, RedZone showed me 26 teams and 66 touchdowns — long returns and screen passes, pick-sixes and goal-line pile ups. In the first five minutes of the first nine games, very little happened, but the impeccably smooth, hugely square-jawed host Scott Hanson did not panic; he’s like a man with an unbeatable stock tip, the cat that ate the canary. Things would pop off soon enough, and peak toward evening, as the imperative shifted to covering as much action as possible in real time. “Triple box!” Hanson bellowed. “Drama in the late window!” He meant that three of the games that began between 4:05 p.m. and 4:25 p.m. were being decided in the final minutes, and we were going to try to follow all three at once. RedZone often plows through the action with the subtlety of a barge, but the “triple box” is where it becomes balletic, leaping among the Cowboys last-second field-goal attempt, the Vikings’ back-and-forth with the Cardinals and the Titans heading to overtime against the Seahawks. It was as if Hanson were M.C.-ing three separate parties at once; astonishingly, he handled each with complete lucidity.

There was a time when I found RedZone off-putting; it made me feel lost and overstimulated and seasick, and I soon went back to experiencing games the boring way. Now, though, revisiting it after several years, RedZone made more sense. Something had happened to me. I did not not like it. I did not feel woozy in the same way.