My Turn: Is football ‘America’s Game’?

  • Dartmouth’s J.B. Wolff leaps over the line of scrimmage in a game against Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y., on Nov. 17, 1930. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 2/3/2019 12:25:02 AM

Today, as we Americans gather for one of our high holy days – Fourth of July, Election Day, Super Bowl Sunday – it’s a good time to ask whether football has become America’s Game.

Hockey, of course, is Canada’s Game. It evolved from a stickball game, called baggataway, played by the First Nations people. The French admired the rough-and-tumble violence of the game and renamed it lacrosse. In 1867, George Beers, a Montréal dentist, declared that Canada should reject the genteel game of cricket, the game of British colonizers, in favor of lacrosse, which more nearly reflected Canada’s rugged character. Lacrosse evolved into hockey shortly thereafter, and the rounded edges of a hockey rink recall backyard hockey ponds and the cold, frozen landscape of the Canadian North.

Basketball has a claim on being America’s Game because it was invented in the United States – albeit by a Canadian, James Naismith. A native of Ontario and a graduate of McGill University, Naismith was studying at the YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) in Massachusetts when his instructor, Luther Gulick, challenged Naismith in 1891 to come up with an indoor game to occupy young men in the interval between the baseball and football seasons. Basketball is the quintessential urban game because it asks the players to maneuver in a constricted space without impeding the movements of other players. (Some early games of basketball had 50 players for each team on the court at the same time.)

Baseball has long billed itself as America’s Pastime, and there is no denying the inherent beauty of the game. (It’s the only game mentioned in the Bible, after all: “In the big inning, God created the heaven and the earth”!) Beyond the balletic artistry of baseball – a shortstop’s pivot on the double play, a base runner’s stalking of second base, a relay throw from the outfield – baseball is the quintessential immigrant game. The object is to return triumphantly home, and it’s the only major sport where the defense controls the ball; the offensive player, whose task is to disrupt the defense’s control of the ball, is outnumbered nine to one. The odds against him are so great, and defense is aligned with such malevolent effectiveness, that success merely three times out of 10 virtually assures enshrinement in the sports version of sainthood, the Hall of Fame.

Baseball is also the only major sport not governed by a clock, the icon of the Industrial Revolution; the base runner, in fact, circles the bases counterclockwise as though baseball aspires to subvert the passage of time. Even today, despite efforts to speed the game, it remains stubbornly resistant to change.

Judging by fan allegiances and television ratings, however, America’s Pastime may have passed. Immigrants are not much in favor these days, and in this age of email and Instagram, we Americans don’t have much time to spare. Roger Kahn, the sports seer, saw this coming long ago. “There is no denying America’s love for baseball,” he wrote in 1960, “but increasingly the greater excitement seems to be coming from football fields, and that is where it’s likely to be coming in the future.”

So has football become America’s Game?

Let’s start with the origins of football. It has roots in various mob games, beginning with harpaston in ancient Greece, where the object was to carry a ball across the opponent’s goal line. The rules for an early form of “football” were codified at the Rugby School in 19th-century Britain. In America, students at Princeton played “balldown” in the 1820s, and by 1827 freshmen and sophomores at Harvard were facing off where Memorial Hall now stands for annual games of football. The game functioned as a kind of hazing ritual at Yale.

Violence was part of football from the beginning. Broken bones and noses were common, and Harvard’s game became known as “Bloody Monday.” New Haven outlawed the game because of its violence in 1860, and Harvard did the same the following year.

The battlefields of the Civil War rendered football a more explicitly military game, concerned as it was with the conquest and the defense of territory; it is no accident that the first intercollegiate game took place in 1869, five years after the end of the war. Thereafter, especially with the replacement of “scrummage” with a line of scrimmage in 1880, football adopted both the nomenclature and the strategies of war. Just as the Union and the Confederacy faced off across battle lines at places like Chickasaw and Gettysburg, now opposing teams sized up each other across the line of scrimmage.

The language of the military prevails to the present. The quarterback, who has a “cannon” for an arm and typically begins play in a “shotgun” formation, is the “field general” who “mobilizes his troops” to “invade enemy territory.” He does so with both a “ground game” and an “aerial attack” of “bullet passes” and “long bombs,” very often to a wide receiver, also known as a “flanker.” The linemen toil in “the trenches.”

As military strategies have changed, so has football. The game in the early and middle decades of the 20th century relied on the run, the ground game, akin to bayonet and tank warfare. Running backs like Paul Hornung and Jim Brown dominated the field, and the legendary Vince Lombardi was famously satisfied with “four yards and a cloud of dust.” But as war itself changed, so did football. The use of airplanes in World War II and, later, missiles and drones prefigured the rise of the passing game in football. (During the 2018 regular season, NFL teams averaged 34.5 passing attempts per game versus 25.9 rushing.) 

The affinities between football and warfare endure. Walter Camp, the “father of American football,” noted that the game “calls out the qualities which make the soldier – bravery, endurance, obedience, self-control.” Charles D. Daly, a quarterback at Harvard who coached football at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy, was more direct. “Football appeals so strongly to the American public because it is a war game,” he said. It evokes “the fundamental battle spirit ... its strategy and tactics are those of war.” The medic’s battlefield gurney is not all that different from the stretcher wheeling a hapless football player off the field.

And here we circle back to the question of whether football has become America’s Game. At one level, football, like other sports, provides a pretty good approximation of a meritocracy, where only the best athletes prevail. It also pursues the American ideal of egalitarianism, at least at the professional level; the owners (though oligarchs themselves) divide television revenues equally, and the worst teams receive the highest draft picks in an effort to make them more competitive.

Although the NFL boasts that concussions were down 23.2 percent this year, football remains a violent game, and the United States is, by any measure, a violent, pugilistic society. We tolerate violence in video games and other forms of entertainment. We sometimes go to war recklessly and needlessly. Our politicians routinely pledge to fight for one constituency or another. 

Violence is part of our history, our DNA. The westward march of Manifest Destiny exacted a fearsome toll on Native Americans in the 19th century. Minorities, especially African Americans, have suffered untold violence throughout our history, and violence against women persists. One has only to recall the place names of recent shootings to be reminded that we are a violent nation: Columbine, Blacksburg, Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Orlando, Charleston, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Parkland, Pittsburgh.

Most of us profess to abhor violence, and yet we are drawn to it. We tolerate it – on the movie screen, in the streets and, yes, on the gridiron, where we participate vicariously. Sometimes we even celebrate it. As Daly, the Harvard quarterback and West Point coach, observed in 1921, “Football appeals so strongly to the American public because it is a war game.”

Yes, football is America’s Game.

(Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion, teaches a course called Sports, Ethics & Religion (among other courses) at Dartmouth College in Hanover.)

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