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.



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[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.

12 comments:

Unknown said...

Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

No comments? Can’t let that stand: This is an excellent piece. You gave my day a shot of joy. -Matt

Lexington Green said...

As someone once said, about an older, better America: Everything in American life that is not actually football is merely the continuation of football by other means.

lcrees said...

Football is contemporary America in microcosm: if what some argue is correct, then well-intentioned efforts to further domesticate yet another supposed barbarous relic have once again given birth to a whole new something which, while cosmetically safer than the bad old something, is now armed with its own new-age viciousness.

lcrees said...

When reading some hip new phrase like "toxic masculinity", I have to smile: those who would promote something like legalized this or legalized that are usually those who are consistently in favor of prohibition of this other, and, currently legalized, this or that. They'd justify their own promotion with a line like, "If you prohibit it, you'll just criminalize it and drive it underground, leaving much mayhem and suffering in your unwoke wake."

And they're right, after a fashion: mortality, as that brief spark in eternal dark, is about trade offs: you can chose how you act, but you can't choose all of the consequences of your action. You can choose how you react to the consequences of your action, but you can't choose the consequences of your reaction to the consequences of your action. The snake swallows its tail in eternal recursion.

But mortality is also gridded about with two-way streets, you can't automatically ban something like football or Superfund site level masculinity without criminalizing it, driving it underground, and leaving much, much mayhem and suffering in your equally unwoke wake. If you open your mind and step into the other lane, you will still be struck, only now from the other direction.

I'm sure the novelty will be comforting. But the irony will sting.

Matt said...

Hmmm.... While this is all about an intra-American cultural discussion, I feel I should comment on where you touch on talking about foreign views of American Football. I don't feel like foreign people, at least in the UK, are mainly turned off by American Football as involving too much aggression or anger.

It's more the weird vibe of commercialism, pageantry and servicing of the business cycle that seems to be around it. It can, from a distance, seems more like a "show" made with lots of show business, with half time songs, and cheerleaders, and stop-start play with lots of room for advert breaks, and integration with lots of patriotic celebration and pride (all that saluting the flag and playing the anthem and whatnot).

The vibe that there a contradiction and hypocrisy in that the game is both thoroughly pimped out, figuratively selling its body and soul on the street, to serve a consumer culture, while selling up its stars as moral heroes with "character" and "grit", their actions of full of meaning and lessons (which everyone knows that they're not).

The same reasons Europeans always give, really, for disliking any aspect of American culture that we don't like - kitsch, mediocrity, schmaltz, artificiality, superficiality, the quick fix of emotional saccharine, the odor of salesmen concocting a broadly appealing "good-enough" substitute for authentic folk culture to make a quick buck. (The stuff that's absent in the elements of American culture that cultured Europeans idealize - the bluesman of the deep south, the architecture of New York city, the open, wild nature and stark beauty of the American plains, and so on and so forth.)

Premier League Football or the Bundesliga, or even in the US, basketball, doesn't seem to have that going on - no one is under the illusion that the players are much more or less than young men who are bit skilled with a ball, and the commercialism is far less obtrusive.

This is not to say this is a fair read on Americans, or their sport, by any stretch of the imagination. But this is the general, if exaggerated, impression that is commonly felt, which I'm trying to communicate.

The only other thing commented on, commonly is that the padding also tends to lead to the players being dismissed as wimps compared to rugby union (yes, the opposite argument is that they go harder because of the padding, but this tends to cut little ice in discussions; motivated reasoning &c.).

T. Greer said...

Matt--

Depends on who you talk to of course. I have def encountered the "this is just brutes smashing into each other" line.

The NFL, NCAA, and high school state leagues are different experiences. I know many people who only watch college games because they feel like they are less showy, commercialized, and more fun to root for. And of course at the high school level--which is really what this post is all about--there is nothing commercial about it whatsoever.

Notice that all the inspirational football movies are set at the high school or college level.

Jim from BC said...

This tugs at the heartstrings but it's silly. You could replace football here with any other team sport and the cultural and emotional value it would provide would be nearly identical- there's nothing, or almost nothing, unique to football that couldn't be provided by a different sport that didn't involve constant, repetitive head trauma as a constant, essential part of the activity. Don't get me wrong I'm aware I'm casting stones from a glass house here, in my country the sport that gets us all hot and bothered is Hockey. Except playing Hockey on its own doesn't cause enough brain damage so we throw in a bunch of stupid amateur fist-fights in the middle of it whenever we play on a professional level.

But the point is I don't see any good reason why the sport that teaches boys to be men and all that jazz (I'm not an athlete as I'm sure you can tell, the activity that turned me into a man was doing night call on vascular surgery as a Medical Student) couldn't be something that only involved a moderate amount of brain damage. In different societies at different times you might have written (and other men did write) a similar piece about the virtues of dueling or bull fighting but we've since found other activities with fewer negative externalities on which to test the mettle of our youth and that seems to have worked out okay. Within living memory the national pass time of the USA was Baseball not Football and I see no good reason why the zeitgeist couldn't shift again and, if it does, why not to some activity that involves only a moderate amount of brain damage instead of a ludicrous amount?

jimbo@35 said...

The coach giving the speech in the video is Sean Payton. He is the head coach of the New Orleans Saints. He references that he stood in that locker room when he was in high school. The high school is Naperville Central High School, which is located in Illinois.

Vikram said...

I did college in the United States, and my school won the national championship when I was a junior. It is not hard to observe that the sport provides a higher purpose and a site of devotion for millions across America.

What I am curious about as a foreigner is why football ended up occupying this space rather than baseball. Baseball has a much richer history, and grew organically as the American system spread. Football seems much more manufactured.

Incidentally, one reason I could understand the American passion for football against mountains of European derision, is because as an Indian, I have seen equal, if not more disdain by non-Indians for our sport of record.

T. Greer said...

Folks, sorry for the long resonse. These comments were going into the spam.


Jim, you are half right here. Any sport feasibly could play the same ritual role in these folks lives. But let me put it this way: I live close to a very small town where the entire population shows up for every Friday night game. If you closed those games down, what would they do? Would they start showing up at the soccer games instead? Or would they just stop showing up altogether?

How you answer that question will shape how you view everything else I've written here.

random observer said...

This was the best thing I've read on the web in ages.

I don't get football either -- Canadian, not at all sporty even in youth, though it appeals more now -- but I teared up at that video and a little more at your essay.

I think I see plenty of where Jim from BC is coming from, and I'm old enough to remember pop culture being full of nostalgia for baseball's slow loss to football, so I could see where it could rise again and do less damage. Better than soccer, which for too long already has carried with it the aura of being a forced substitute, the sort of thing the upper class wishes Americans would play. Imagine switching sports at this level of community passion just because someone from the culture tells you to.

And that's what it comes down to. Sometimes you cling to a thing because it's yours.