Football is the most red-blooded, über-masculine, über –American 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.
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.
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.