Why Americans Really, Really, REALLY Love Football

Football fans, even those dedictaed to the lowley Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizzarre new levels.

Football fans, even those dedicated to the lowly Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizarre new levels.

Football is the most red-blooded, über-masculine, überAmerican thing on planet earth. That’s right: FOOTBALL. No, I’m not talking about that ridiculous spectacle in which namby-pamby, ethnically ambiguous European men in short shorts traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field trying to catapult a checkered spherule into a large trawling net without using their hands as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Americans have a word for that: it’s called soccer, and we use it to keep our 2.5 suburban children occupied after school on weekdays.

No, the football I’m talking about puts those European pantywaists to shame. REAL football — AMERICAN football — is a completely non-ridiculous, unquestionably heterosexual sporting spectacle in which gargantuan men in tight pants traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field while trying to tackle each other with the ultimate goal of carrying a prolate spheroid far enough to win the right to kneel down and praise their sky-dwelling prime mover — all as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands.

Indeed, American football IS America. While baseball might be America’s past-time, football is where America lives in the present: it represents everything that is glorious, patriotic, absurd, contradictory, and vulgar about the Land of the Free®. Now, before I go any further here, I must confess to being that most curious of creatures: I’m a straight, white male from the American Midwest, and I don’t like football. I don’t get football. I never have, and I never will. It’s boring, it’s kind of sexist, and it has overtaken intellectual and academic inquiry as the raison d’être for the existence of America’s schools and universities. Needless to say, this position always made me a bit of an outlier in a culture that widely embraces football as the ultimate civic religion. Indeed, I’m an unrepentant heretic: I don’t worship at the pigskin altar, but millions of my fellow Americans do, and I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to figure out why in the hell that’s the case.

I’m writing this piece on the eve of Super Bowl 2015, and while millions of my fellow citizens have likely already begun to stuff themselves with tortilla chips, cocktail weenies, and enough cheap beer to fill half of the Great Lakes, I’ve decided to examine the appeal of football to the American cultural hive-mind. First and foremost, I’m not being facetious when I describe football as an American civic religion. Football is a distinctly modern phenomenon (even as sports themselves are ancient practices), and it fills a deeply American need to have collective, transcendent experiences that also openly embrace the nation’s unquenchable thirst for organized violence and displays of capitalistic conspicuous consumption.

In a cultural sense, the annual Super Bowl is the most important example of American civic religion.

In a cultural sense, the annual Super Bowl is the most important example of American civic religion.

As scholar Michael Mandelbaum writes in The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What they See When They Do, organized professional sports like football provide a sense of community and mass spectacle in a modern age where traditional organized religion no longer fills such needs. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Aren’t Americans the most deeply religious people in the Western world?” Indeed, they are, but religion as practiced in the modern U.S. has itself been overtaken by capitalistic ritual — just walk into any non-denominational, big-screen-dominated, stadium-sized mega church like that of Texas feel-good pastor Joel Osteen for evidence of this development.

But the inherent sectarianism of American religions mean that they can never compete with football in terms of a widely shared, universal spectacle open to all, in which a small “d” democratic laity from all backgrounds can celebrate their mythical heroes and partake in adrenaline-producing mass-ceremony. “Team sports provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first-century-Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered,” Mandelbaum writes. These include “a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate.”*

In addition to serving as the centerpiece of mass-spectacle and entertainment, football also fuels Americans’ emotional and nationalistic need to witness organized violence on a grand scale that is nonetheless contained and sanitized. Americans have always been a violent people, but apart from their bizarre firearms fetish, traditional violence is no longer something that they can enjoy in their daily lives. Enter football.

Mandelbaum describes football as “The Spectacle of Violence” that satiates the primal need on the part of civilized humanity to consume violence in a communitarian fashion. Hell, this desire goes all the way back to the Romans and beyond: what is a football game if not the sanitized re-creation of the gladiatorial combat of the ancient world? For a nation like America, whose residents like to fancy themselves as a violent, warlike civilization that rivals Ancient Rome in terms of worldly breadth, power, and influence, football is an appealing national ritual. Mandelbaum catalogues the obvious similarities between war and football. “War involves the organized, deliberate use of force to attain a goal, often the control of territory. So does football,” he writes. Moreover, “like opposing armies, football teams seek to conquer and defend territory,” and just as war constitutes “a series of battles, so a football game consists of a series of individual plays, which are small-scale, non-lethal versions of battles.”*

Thus, football games are re-enactments of traditional Western battles, where Americans can experience the blood, carnage, heroism, conquest, moral values, and collective nationalistic pride that they believe characterize their country — all while safely hooting from the stands or screaming at the plasma-screen from the sanctity of a plush, Dorito-strewn sofa.

So, does this make football a bad thing? Of course not. But, like the country in which it is celebrated, American football is a paradoxical mishmash of heroism, violence, arrogance, national pride, physical prowess, and shameless consumerism. Football embodies the good and bad that characterizes modern America, and, in that respect, it’s worthy of admiration and study, as well as disdain and dismissal. But whatever you think about football (I still think its boring, sort of sexist, and often the embodiment of mindless American group-think), there’s no questioning the fact that football embodies the spirit of the United States — for better and for worse.

Football is America's version of ancient Roman gladitorial combat. All great powers need their own specific types of public dick-measuring contests.

Football is America’s version of ancient Roman gladiatorial combat. All great powers need their own specific types of public dick-measuring contests.

The history of the National Football League (NFL) itself parallels the history of modern America. In his book NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime, historian Richard Crepeau reminds us that football was the product of an American society that became obsessed with pursuing leisure and consumption; a society that chased new media technologies with unrivaled vigour, and a society that sought new ways to embrace “expressions of masculinity through vicarious violence” in a modern era that is still trying to reconcile “an increasing concern over issues of masculinity in a sedentary world.”*

With this in mind, millions of football fans can rest-assured that when they gather together to view the mass annual spectacle that is the Super Bowl, they’re also contributing to the cultural construction of modern America. With each downed Miller Light; with each inhaled Tostitos bag, and with each shamelessly painted beer-gut, American football fans continue the long national experiment that is their country. Again, this is both a good thing and a bad thing, even as most football fans would never view it that way. But regardless, football — in all of its violent, consumerist, sexist, gladiatorial, character-building glory — will never go away. So while I still could care less about this sport, millions of other Americans care a whole lot — and it’s their right to revel in football just as it’s my right to critique their revelling. No doubt that the ghosts of Rome’s many Caesars would be proud.

* See Michael Mandelbaum, The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What they See When They Do (New York: Perseus Books, 2004), 4, 128.

* See Richard C. Crepeau,  NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014), xi.

 

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17 Comments

    • Thanks! Honestly, I have no idea. I didn’t even know who was playing in the game until yesterday when I Googled it. That’s how much attention I pay to football.

      • Oh I know. I’m yanking yer chain.

        I always thought George Carlin’s classic bit on football and baseball was excellent and truly powerful–especially considering he first gave it during the Vietnam War. The militaristic characteristics of football are too obvious.

        On the other hand, do you know why so many intellectuals like baseball?

        It’s the only game that moves slow enough for them to understand.

      • I love that Carlin bit. And you know, I used to be a massive baseball fan (even though it is quite dull and George Will likes it…), and I still hold out hope that my beloved Cleveland Indians will win a World Series in my lifetime. But in recent years I’ve pretty much drifted away from sports in general. Except tennis. Go figure, I love tennis.

  1. Jarret, You nailed it! For someone born and raised only two miles from the NFL Pro Football Hall of Fame, I could not have said it better myself.

    Bruce

    • Thanks, Bruce! I’ve driven past the Football Hall of Fame many a times on my trips to visit Holmes County, but I’ve never gone in. Maybe some day I will just for the heck of it.

  2. I’m not much of an NFL fan, but I do love college football — at least, the SEC and most especially the Alabama Crimson Tide. (The playoffs this year?… Oregon, Ohio?… potayto, potahto….)

    However, I could warm up to soccer, in which you can actually see players’ faces, if more of ’em looked like Yoann Gourcuff …. http://bit.ly/1CPG3jg

    There is a facet to the attraction of certain sports that perhaps doesn’t register with you, being (presumably) a heterosexual male. At least, you didn’t mention it in your blog post. 🙂

    • LOL. Well, I can’t say I share your particular interest in dude soccer players, but I understand it: tennis, after all, has it’s share of easy-on-the-eye female players.

  3. Baseball for the win! It is the most cerebral of all sports while also requiring people able to hit a ball thrown at 90 plus MPH. Those that can do so consistently are a tiny percentage of all people. Those that can throw the ball 90 plus MPH and hit the corner of a strikezone while playing a mental game of “Guess Where It is Going?” with the batter are just as rare. To excel as one of those two types is to be quite special.

    Baseball players have to be strong, but more importantly, they have to be able to throw, run, catch, and hit a ball while playing an incredible mental game where they fail more than half the time in doing what they’re trying to do when batting. That is mental toughness!

  4. Something that intrigues me about the differences between baseball and football has to do with immigrant communities in America. During baseball’s heydays, it served as a vehicle for the integration of immigrants – the Dimaggios were famously the sons of Italian immigrants, and in the 1890s the game was dominated by Irish-Americans. It doesn’t seem as though football plays the same role vis-a-vis more recent immigrant communities – Latinos seem to be more prominent in baseball than football. I’m not quite sure the significance of this, but it is curious.

    • Hi Wes, thanks for reading! That’s a really good point actually. This is just off the top of my head, by I suspect that baseball retained much of its immigrant-friendly culture because it originated in urban American settings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cities like New York were heavy with new immigrants at the time, and that may have forged a connection between them and baseball. Football, by contrast, grew out of uber-white Rugby and has much of its origins in elite university settings. The first American football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers for Pete’s sake. This elite background probably wasn’t a fertile environment for pro-immigrant, non-WASP cultures to take root. But, again, that’s just an educated guess on my part.

  5. The Pro Football Hall of Fame is in Canton to connect it to the working class side of the game, as opposed to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which is connected to the Abner Doubleday myth about baseball’s origins. The most prominent figure in the football hall of fame is Jim Thorpe, the great Sac and Fox athlete who, among other accomplishments, helped ruin Dwight Eisenhower’s knee in a game where the Carlisle Indians defeated Army. The Indians took the field that day after a pep talk from coach Pop Warner where he invoked the memory of the massacre at Wounded Knee! I find football preferable to baseball because, despite its flaws and faults, because it is not just for the elect who have the arm to throw and the hand eye coordination to hit a pitched ball. One can succeed as a football player based on grit and determination (see “Rudy” as the prime example of this aspect of the football myth). And football, rooted in the progressive reform ethic that Teddy Roosevelt urged upon it, can evolve, whereas the rules of baseball have barely budged as football has nudged it out of first place in the hearts of American sports fans. Whereas the NFL and NCAA money machines are loathe to lose their profits, the liability and and safety issues that are preventing parents from steering their boys into football are likely to prompt gradual change in a game that is ultimately rooted in reform.

    • Thanks for the insightful comment. The game does indeed have lots of progressive qualities (Green Bay Packers public ownership and the draft setup, for example), but I still find the game a bit dull. Thanks again for commenting.

      • Ironically, the stop-action pace of football, as opposed to the constant action of soccer or basketball, makes it the TV favorite and potentially boring. I went to a Division II game with family a while back, and after a particularly confusing play my sister and i looked to the scoreboard for a replay and then realized no such razzle dazzle equipment existed at the small stadium. We had to retrain our selves to pay closer attention to the action that we were only going to see once. It reminded me that, at root, American football is a gang fight run by lawyers.

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