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Game of “grunts and huddles” highlights warrior camaraderie

Baseball, football and basketball, the three most popular American games, are uniquely reflective of the American character -- American dreams, ambitions, achievements and defeats -- and Americans often watch them as morality plays about their own conflicting natures, argues American writer and professor Roger Rosenblatt.

The following is an excerpt from the article “Reflections: Why We Play The Game” that appeared in the eJournal:USASports in America.”

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Reflections: Why We Play the Game (Excerpt)

By Roger Rosenblatt

If baseball represents nearly all the country's qualities in equilibrium, football and basketball show where those qualities may be exaggerated, overemphasized, and frequently distorted. Football and basketball are not beautifully made sports. They are more chaotic, more subject to wild moments. And yet, it should be noted that both are far more popular than baseball, which may suggest that Americans, having established the rules, are always straining to break them.

Football, like baseball, is a game of individual progress within borders. But unlike baseball, individual progress is gained inch by inch, down and dirty. Pain is involved. The individual fullback or halfback who carries the ball endures hit after hit as he moves forward, perhaps no more than a foot at a time. Often he is pushed back. Ten yards seems a short distance yet, as in a war, it often means victory or defeat.

The ground game is operated by the infantry; the throwing game by the air force. Or one may see the game in the air as the function of the "officers" of the team - those who throw and catch - as opposed to the dog-faced linesmen in the trenches, those literally on the line. These analogies to war are hardly a stretch. The spirit of the game, the terminology, the uniforms themselves, capped by protective masks and helmets, invoke military operations. Injuries (casualties) are not exceptions in this sport; they are part of the game.

And yet football reflects our conflicting attitudes toward war. Generally, Americans are extremely reluctant to get into a war, even when our leaders are not. We simply want to win and get out as soon as possible. At the start of World War II, America ranked 27th in armaments among the nations of the world. By the war's end, we were number one, with second place nowhere in sight. But we only got in to crush gangsters and get it over with. Thus, football is war in its ideal state, war in a box. It lasts four periods. A fifth may be added because of a tie, and ended in "sudden death." But unless something freakish occurs, no warrior really dies.

Not only do the players resemble warriors; the fans go dark with fury. American football fans may not be as lethal as European football (soccer) fans, yet every Sunday fans dress up like ancient Celtic warriors with painted faces and half-naked bodies in midwinter.

Here is no sport for the upper classes. Football was only that in the Ivy League colleges of the 1920s and 1930s. Now, the professional game belongs largely to the working class. It makes a statement for the American who works with his hands, who gains his yardage with great difficulty and at great cost. The game is not without its niceties; it took a sense of invention to come up with a ball whose shape enables it to be both kicked and thrown.

But basically this is a game of grunts and bone breakage and battle plans (huddles) that can go wrong. It even has the lack of clarity of war. A play occurs, but it is not official until the referee says so. Flags indicating penalties come late, a play may be nullified, called back, and all the excitement of apparent triumph can be deflated by an exterior judgment, from a different perspective.

Where football shows America essentially, though, is the role of the quarterback. My son Carl, a former sports writer for The Washington Post, pointed out to me that unlike any other sport, football depends almost wholly on the ability of a single individual. In other team sports, the absence of a star may be compensated for, but in football the quarterback is everything. He is the American leader, the hero, the general, who cannot be replaced by teamwork. He speaks for individual initiative, and individual authority.

And just as the president - the Chief Executive of the land - has more power than those in the other branches of government that are supposed to keep him in check, so the quarterback is the president of the game. Fans worship or deride him with the same emotional energy they give to U.S. presidents.

As for the quarterback himself, he has to be what the American individual must be to succeed - both imaginative and stable - and he must know when to be which. If the plays he orchestrates are too wild, too frequently improvised, he fails. If they are too predictable, he fails. All the nuances of American individualism fall on his shoulders and he both demonstrates and tests the system in which the individual entrepreneur counts for everything and too much.

The author is a journalist, author, playwright, and professor. As an essayist for Time magazine, he has won numerous print journalism honors, including two George Polk Awards, as well as awards from the Overseas Press Club and the American Bar Association. The essays he presents on the public television network in the United States have gained him the prestigious Peabody and Emmy awards. He is the author, most recently, of the novel Beet (Ecco, 2008).

March 25, 2008


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