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Trying to like football

There is nothing more serene than a football spiraling in a slow and perfect arc through the autumn air. The thunk of a toe against a football may be the most musical sound in sport, as deep and resonant and solidly ample as notes from a well-fed basso.

The much favored metaphor that compares a wide receiver, catching a pass in the end zone, to a ballet dancer may be a slight exaggeration. But as an athletic tour jete goes, it is not entirely off the mark.

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Why then does the heart sink like a missed field goal at the prospect of another season?

This year we folks who are less than absolutely mad about football need not feel so lonely. ABC's Monday night football telecast dropped to its lowest rating since 1979. A Thursday night telecast reached its smallest audience in 14 years. This decline - anywhere from 6 to 20 percent per game - encourages a football dissident to assemble his objections and hunch them up to the line of scrimmage.

First of all, may we call your attention to the ultimate in action-as-lethargy? For every split second of spiraling grace and satisfying thunk, there are long, flat stretches of non-event that make soap opera look like the Keystone Kops. Players huddle. The camera pans over the numbers on the uniforms like a would-be sleeper counting sheep. Then it's take-your-positions time (hup, hup). After scanning the defense and thinking it over, the quarterback calls the signals. Slowly. These are the only speaking lines in football; our star makes the most of them.

At last the play develops, as they say. This means that, for a couple of seconds, a running back (the one you weren't watching) sprints a couple of yards to the right (the direction you were ignoring) and gets buried under a whole bundle of jerseys, like a sock at the bottom of a laundry chute.

The other most likely alternative is that the quarterback fades back and throws a spot-on pass - that gets deflected by a defender at the last instant.

For the benefit of the camera, the intended receiver will remain on the ground, miming frustration, heartbreak, and shame until, at long last, he shuffles back to the huddle.

After that, the entire non-happening will be run on instant replay, with plenty of slo-mo and charts with dotted lines to show what went wrong. What is the ratio between a moment of action and all the moments-between in football? Our own random survey comes out around 20-to-1 in favor of still life.

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Players, spectators, commentators, we all seem to be psyching ourselves up - terrible phrase! - as if without this psyching up we might notice how little is taking place. And what do all the euphemisms about ''getting the adrenalin flowing'' mean when decoded? After all the poesy about balletic grace, the things a linebacker will do to jar the football from the arms of a receiver belong less to the realm of asthetics than to the criminal code covering assault and battery. And here lies the heart of our grievance. Football seems to be the only sport besides boxing where the ''hit'' - or the escape from the hit - is the unvarying climax of every play.

Whatever it started out as, football has become our Sunday afternoon stand-in for war - the Roman circus where you can't tell the lions from the gladiators. A sport that lives on the borderline between boredom and violence has some explaining to do.

On clear, crisp autumn afternoons we remember earlier touch-football games - nonstop, with plenty of contact, but well shy of the standards of mayhem.

There were spirals. There were thunks. Above all, there was camaraderie - there was friendship.

That seemed like real football. It still does.

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