How Football Explains America

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by Charles Stampul

     

I used to be a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. Though my interest in the team probably peeked when I was 11 or 12, I continued to watch a lot of games.

A book called How Football Explains America by ESPN NFL analyst and U.S. Navy Veteran Sal Paolantonio shows how the game of football was designed around war. The quarterback, Paolantonio explained in an interview, is a field general taking territory. He throws a long bomb in the face of a blitz. A coach will rally a squad devastated by injury and, after gaining an early advantage with an aerial assault, will turn to a devastating ground attack to bring home a victory.

During every NFL game there are about a dozen or more propaganda ads for the U.S. Military. During every Thanksgiving Day broadcast there's a segment about troops fighting overseas, and well wishes from troops coming in and out of breaks. The Super Bowl begins with the national anthem, and a word from the president honoring the players fighting to win on the field and the troops fighting for our freedom overseas. Then fighter planes fly overhead.

Just how much has college and NFL football contributed to war and nationalism? And can one even casually follow professional football without oneself contributing?

Recently my 12-year-old nephew, because he is big, was approached by some self-styled community leader coach person to play little league football. I don't spend money to go to professional football games, or purchase NFL merchandize or even pay for cable to watch the sport on television. But I have been known to discuss teams, players and coaches. When my nephew talked about joining youth football, I couldn't give him a reason why he shouldn't.

I suggested to him that he practice punting and if he's really good he can join the high school team and maybe get a scholarship to college. I wanted to plant the seed that the big kid who refuses to play organized football, or will only join the team as a punter, is cooler than the one who follows some coach into battle, as it will appropriately be called.

Football players are gladiators and it is a cast system just as it was in Ancient Rome. Only a tiny fraction of football players ever see any money. Most only get their brains rattled and joints twisted. When a self-styled community leader coach person encourages a bored 12-year-old to play organized tackle football, he is guiding him into the lower class.

I agree with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who said: "You can look at football and see the heart of America." Americans are willing to give their young people over to strangers to instill discipline. To round over individual talents and personalities. To give them numbers and uniforms and orders to follow.

Middle and upper class Americans fall in love with poor youths from cities across America who play for the team where they live, but develop an irrational hatred for similar young men drafted by the team's rivals. Americans will go to parades to watch marching soldiers, but will turn the channel when they see men with crew cuts without arms and legs. Americans will hold to myth in the face of fact.

Two years ago, NFL Films eliminated military and fighting allusions from all new films. President Steve Sabol described the decision as a matter of common sense. "They were basically clichés… coaches say u2018That's a guy I want to be in a foxhole with,' they've never been in a foxhole and they're trying to articulate that to a player who has no idea what a foxhole is." But why did it take 40 years for this distaste of cliché's to surface?

Perhaps while Americans were feeling good about America's efforts in the two World Wars, despite failures in Korea and Vietnam, war speak was good marketing. Today, with even ardent supporters of the U.S. military calling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan failures, and acknowledging the role of military expansion in skyrocketing debt, it is less so.

Many have called on the talking heads of football to stop describing games as battles and players as troops. These pleas are misguided. Football games are battles. Players are troops. Youth football is early soldier training.

January 19, 2011

Charles Stampul [send him mail] is the author of Progress.

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