Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thoughts about Football

My dire post the other day on Lehman Brothers was perhaps too placid, some very thoughtful comments on the blog notwithstanding; with Merrill Lynch about to be the latest victim to be placed on the pyre of the American financial system, we are looking at what is undoubtedly the greatest calamity in American finance since 1929, and the Bush administration, in its closing months, seems to have created a mess that combines the worst of the invasion of Iraq and the response to Katrina. But because today is Sunday, let’s talk about football.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about football recently, ever since a few weeks ago when I was in Atlanta for a wedding, and I had the distinct misfortune to stay in the same hotel with about 1,000 crazed and incredibly obnoxious Clemson football fans, who spent the night before the game running down the corridors, drunk out of their efffing minds at about 2:30 in the morning, screaming and generally making nuisances of themselves, and then leaving the hotel around noon to start eating and drinking for a game that started at 8 PM.
I was annoyed, sure, but I was fascinated as well. What it is that gives football this unholy fascination to so many? Baseball has fans; football has--I don’t know what to call them—cultists, initiates, acolytes of the mysteries of Isis and Osiris. Like most lefty intellectuals, I have always loved baseball, and sort of tolerated football, as something to fill the time between the final out of the world series and the day in early February day when pitchers and catchers report. But it struck me in Atlanta that this bias is wrongheaded , and whatever Jacques Barzun said many decades about having to understand baseball to understand the soul of America is just out of date; football intercepted America’s soul a while ago, ran it back for a touchdown, and is still prancing around in the end zone.

Reading some of the leading authors on football such as Michael Oriand it is clear that since the turn of the 20th century, the biggest difference between baseball and football is that baseball is a game, while football is a spectacle, where the event itself is an important as the game. And this is closely tied to football’s origins as a college game, born at a time when fraternities and other rituals of inclusion and exclusion were increasing defining college life. On the other hand, baseball started as a middle class leisure activity, really standing alone from other civic institutions, and basketball started as a game for the YMCAs and settlement houses, and migrated to colleges only when settlement houses started to fade. March Madness is a mere similacrum compared to the 100,000 screaming fans who can turn out for a football game.
Football has always been primarily a collegiate sport, later migrating to the high schools, and then to the pros, but it was only in the 1960s that the NFL surpassed college football in terms of fan interest. Watching Clemson fans, it was clear that what distinguished them from baseball fans was a sense of personal ownership and belonging that baseball rarely achieves; they were Clemson alums, and in a very real and personal sense, Clemson was their team, which they supported not only by their allegiance, but by their contributions as well. The reason why pro football took so long to catch on was because it was impossible, for a long time, to create the sense of spectacle that the college game enjoyed; but with the aid of props like the Super Bowl this was eventually achieved.
Baseball really only exists on one level, the major leagues. The minor leagues are great fun, and I love going to see the Rochester Red Wings, but it is hard to feel that passionate about a team that, after all, only exists as a collection of spare parts for the Minnesota Twins, with the knowledge that if anyone gets really hot, they won’t be around Rochester very long. Football exists on three separate levels, high schools, colleges, and the NFL, each with its own devoted fans. And if baseball, that is the only baseball that matters, is entirely a feature of the largest cities, football is much more decentralized, with almost every city, and certainly every state, having its own teams and fierce rivalries. The fruitless efforts to create a national championship in collegiate football is proof of its essentially decentralized nature.
And football reflects America in all of its contradictions, elitism and snobbishness against the presumption of equality. It is now in football, not baseball, that the racially complexities of American society are best glimpsed in a sporting context.(American blacks don’t play baseball, and American whites aren’t good enough to play basketball on the highest level—all exceptions to those two generalizations duly noted) it is on the football field where whites, blacks, Latinos, and others play side by side. (Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, about Texas high school football, is a classic along those lines.)
And perhaps the deepest contradiction in football, certainly in the college game, is between the amateur ideal and the reality of its quasi-professionalism, a conflict that has been going for over a century. (I was fascinated to learn that it really wasn’t until after WWII that the notion of the “athletic scholarship” was fully accepted by major colleges. Before that they paid players under the table and felt guilty about it, reflecting the basic contradiction in American life between its soaring ideals and its sordid underbelly.) It is, in the end, it is the sense of the “imagined community” that gives football its cultural potency. And it seems like this fall, as America's premier financial institutions, one by one, are tackled for big losses and forced from the game, we will need all the imagined communities we can join.

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