04 February, 2019

On the American Football Game

I die—but first I have possess’d,
And come what may, I have been blest.
—Lord Byron
This clip has been played 87 million times on Facebook and another seven million times on Youtube.

It's inspirational. It's powerful. I get why it has as many hits as it does.

But there is something more to it, and this something speaks to some of the cultural divides we have in America right now.

Most foreigners don't get football. They think it is just bunch of angry men crashing in to each other. That is mostly because they don't know the rules. When you know the rules of football you understand that this sport is one of the smartest games out there. It is a bit like playing chess with grown men as your pieces. The game is strategic.

But that's not why its popular.

There are also a large number of Americans who don't get football. You will occasionally hear cries from these folks that the sport ought to be banned (dangerous as it is), that the money spent on athletic programs is wasted, that it embodies a form of toxic masculinity, and so forth. Occasionally you will find old footballers among these critics, but most were not athletes themselves when they were a teenager—or if they were, they were on the cross-country team. Now, there is nothing wrong with being on the cross-country team. There is nothing wrong from with forgoing athletics altogether. But the folks from that world where football does not matter will always have a bit of trouble understanding the souls from the world where it does.

I get this. It is easy to caricature the football player and his fans as brutish and violent. It is easy to caricature the small towns whose seasons are divided by the calendar of the local high school football team as backward and out of touch. And lets be honest—any sport that revolves around smashing into someone as violently as possible does have something brutish about it; any town where the high school home-coming game is the most happening thing really is not a very happening place.

But there is more to it than this.

If you were to pick out people from that homecoming crowd—and I speak here of grown adults, especially the men, but also many of the mothers—and were to ask them, "so what does all of this football stuff mean to you?," you wouldn't hear about strategy and tactics, nor the joys of smashing into someone with all of one's force (though joyful that can be). The stories and feelings that you would hear would be of the kind seen in the clip above. You would find in football the school of life and fields of purpose. The football stadium is the place where one boy after another learns lessons their  school teachers could not teach them.

There are many paths through the wilds of life that promise to fill the journey full with meaning. There are untold ways to discover the lessons most worth learning. But for so many millions, this is the path and the way laid out before them. Between two end zones lies the proving ground of their strength and their grit, the place where words like sacrifice, struggle, love and belonging stop being words and start being lived realities. For them, the football field is a field of meaning.

The indifference of the critic disheartens. "Say you tear it all down," I often wish to ask them. "Say you send the boys home. Say you cut apart the living tempo of the small towns. Say you rip to pieces the solace of the downtrodden. Say you sever the chain tying sons to fathers. Say you crush a rare institution that forces young men to take seriously stalwart and caring old men. Say you strip away the rare chance for the boy who is not bookish to thrive in a world that forces his sort down into the gutter. Say you destroy this field of meaning. What will you replace it with?"

The world is not wanting for ways of meaning. The ritual role of the football field may plausibly be filled with waters drawn from some other well. This is true—but it is also so much easier to say from the outside. Others' treasures never have the same weight as those clutched close to our own bosoms. I suspect that replacing one treasure with a new one is another feat easier said than done. It is easier to destroy communities than it is to build them.

A few years back, the popular country singer Kenny Chesney released a paean to American football titled "The Boys of Fall." It is beautiful in its own way, a tribute to the ritual role football plays in the social life of its players. The song's eight-minute long music video begins with a pep-talk delivered by a high school football coach. At one point the coach chokes up and tells the team:
There are so many people that live vicariously through you. I would give anything tonight to jump in one of these uniforms with you. That feeling goes away. It goes away and it does not come every Friday night. It comes when you get married. It comes when your first child is born. So you get it, but you just don't get it every Friday night. You are going to miss that more than anything in the world. [1]
Pathetic, some will think. And in some ways it might be. Any young person optimized too far for athletic excellence is in for a rude awakening. The athlete peaks young. If the American athlete is lucky, his or her excellence may pay their way through college. But those are the lucky few.  Fewer still are the athletes whose years of toil and practice can pay their bills at 30. Those who devote their lives to the football field run the risk of cresting there, living out their remaining days in the shadow of their high school glories.

But is that actually so bad? At day's end, those who mock the foolishness of the man on the football field will be seen for what they are: no less foolish. As the shadow grows, it becomes ever clearer that the fields they have chosen for achievement last no longer than those that fill them with disdain. Financial derivatives may be packaged and repackaged, businesses may bloom or bust, books and doctoral theses may be typed at for years on end—but none survive the setting of the sun. You cannot take them with you. Too late we stumble upon that old discovery: what matters most in life is that which does not last. It is a truth the poets best express:
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream. [2]

You live, you die. A flash of light in the dark deserts of eternity. But within that flash come joys and loathings, great beauty and great sorrow. It is our doom and our glory to live our lives on the cresting wave. But given how ephemeral our attainments must be, who then can rightly criticize the man on the football field? Standing on that field is a man who has found a sense of place and a source of strength. There he has been wrapped with bonds of love. There he has coursed with glory. His game is short—but while it lasts, it brims with passion and with purpose.

My we all find as much before the close of day.


[1] Kenney Chesney, "The Boys of Fall," Youtube Video, published 3 September 2010.

[2] Earnest Dowson, "They are not long," An Anthology of Modern Verse, edited by A. Methuen (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), accessed on poetry archive on 4 February 2019.