AMERICAN FOOTBALL BLENDS MARTIAL FERVOR, CLOCKWORK PRECISION
American football incites passion that exercises a rare, unifying pull in American society. Nothing else can bring 100,000 people together on a weekend afternoon. And if the game nurtures aggression, it also fosters an appreciation of sacrifice, teamwork and discipline, says American journalist and author Mark F. Bernstein.
American Football Blends Martial Fervor, Clockwork Precision
Baseball may be America’s pastime and basketball its sporting gift to the world, but football offers a clearer window into America’s psyche and its soul.
Each February, the Super Bowl -- the professional championship game -- becomes a secular national holiday, the busiest day of the year for pizza deliveries to game-watching parties. Hundreds of millions of dollars are wagered on games during the fall. Every self-respecting high school fields a team and countless small towns across America derive their identities from squads composed of boys barely old enough to shave. There is even a thriving indoor league, played in converted hockey arenas.
Clausewitz called war politics by other means. Football might be called war by other means. Reduced to its essence, it is a game of territorial acquisition and force. Two teams of eleven men (and they are almost always men -- still very few women play full-contact football) face off against each other. By throwing the ball or running with it, the offensive team must advance at least 10 yards on four tries or turn the ball over to the other side. The object is to move down a 100-yard field and cross the other team’s end line for a touchdown. (Points can also be scored by kicking the ball over goals at each end of the field.)
The defensive team stops their opponents by knocking down their pass or throwing the ball carrier to the ground -- hence the heavy protective equipment. Although football has been called a contact sport, Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once observed that it is more accurately called a collision sport.
Football began on college campuses shortly after the end of the American Civil War (1861-65), and it has been suggested that the game, with its violence, celebration of physical sacrifice, and emphasis on conquest provided young men in a peaceful age with a substitute for the martial outlets available to their fathers and older brothers. Many feared that a society whose frontier had recently closed was growing soft, and football provided a way to preserve the continent-mastering virtues.
When Harvard College considered abolishing the game at the end of the 19th century because it was too rough, Charles Francis Adams, the son and grandson of U.S. presidents, leapt to its defense, arguing that football “educated boys in those characteristics that have made the Anglo-Saxon race pre-eminent in history.”
The elite “Ivy League” American colleges where football was born were influenced not only by the English boarding schools -- Waterloo being won, as Wellington is supposed to have said, on the playing fields of Eton -- but by the classical ideal of a sound mind in a sound body. It is no accident that two of the first big football stadiums -- Harvard’s (built in 1903) and Yale’s (built in 1914) -- are modeled on the Greek stadia and the Roman amphitheater, respectively.
The gladiatorial dimension of football is seen in the pomp that surrounds it -- in the marching bands, the waving banners, the mascots, fight songs, and cheering fans. It takes little imagination to recognize those helmets, face masks and bulging pads as the modern equivalent of knightly armor.
Even the game’s terminology evokes struggle and warfare. A long pass is called a bomb. It can be thrown from a formation known as the shotgun. Running through the middle is called taking it up the gut, a style of football sometimes referred to as “smash mouth.” It is not surprising, too, that while the game last lost some appeal at places like Yale and Princeton, schools which still produce the country’s intellectual elite, football retains an almost religious following in the south and west, Texas especially, where the military tradition is most deeply ingrained.
If football celebrates the medieval, it also reflects the industrial age. Where baseball has its roots in our bucolic past and basketball, like jazz, rewards improvisation, football is a mechanical game and deliberately so. In basketball, soccer, rugby, hockey -- indeed, most other team sports -- anyone on the field can score. In football, only a few players on offense are permitted to touch the ball; their teammates must spend their time running interference or holding off the defense.
Walter Camp, the man who, more than any other, created American football during nearly 50 years at Yale, also held a day job as president of a clock company. He took a game that began with the chaos of rugby and broke it down into its component pieces, mechanizing it like a clock, or perhaps more fittingly, like an automobile assembly line. Although Camp is often called the George Washington of American football, he could just as well be called its Henry Ford.
In these respects, football sits at the intersection of the martial and the mechanical. The clock is the game’s essential element and, unlike in soccer, time is kept precisely to the second. Even the field is calibrated with white chalk lines so progress can be measured down to the yard. Football is also the most corporate of games. Team rosters can swell to more than 100, each man with his own specialized job to do, supervised by as many as a dozen assistant coaches.
In football, action does not continue, free-form, as in other sports. After each play, the teams regroup in a huddle to plot their next attack, each man receiving his particular assignment before they line up again. No wonder that U.S. columnist George F. Will (a baseball fan) once observed that football combines two of the least attractive aspects of American life: violence punctuated by committee meetings.
And yet, say what one will about medieval tournaments, they must have been fun to watch. So is football. Like all sports, the passion it incites exercises a rare unifying pull in an increasingly fractured society. Nothing else can bring 100,000 people together on a weekend afternoon. And if the game nurtures aggression, it also fosters an appreciation of sacrifice, teamwork, and discipline, virtues that are too often neglected in this modern age.
Mark F. Bernstein’s work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the author of three books, including Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). He has just completed a documentary film Eight: Ivy League Football and America.
March 31, 2008
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