The NFL will be visiting London this year. Three regular-season games are set for Wembley Stadium, where the NFL has touched down annually since 2007. It’s not surprising that the NFL wants to expand into new territories. Under the logic of capitalism, nothing stays still: You expand or you decline — there is no other possibility.
But will the NFL expand with real success into England or Europe, or much of anywhere else? Could American football ever become what soccer (football for everyone else) is, a truly international game?
I doubt it. I think football is a deeply American game, that it reflects our national identity and national values and that its export is a dubious proposition. The game is played in Canada, to be sure. But I think it’s possible that Canadians are absorbed in the game roughly to the extent that they are absorbed in the values and worldview of their neighbor to the south.
“Baseball is what we were,” wrote Mary McGrory, longtime Washington Post columnist. “Football is what we have become.”
What exactly have we become that makes football the American game?
The best answers are sometimes the simplest. Football is a warlike game and we are now a warlike nation. Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people.
Until the end of World War II, it was possible for us Americans to think of ourselves as warlike only by accident. Europe had pulled us into the First World War — there were a great number of Americans who wished us to stay out. And when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, we had no choice but to fight. The soldiers who returned from the war by and large believed that the United States was now finished with conflict, at least for a long time to come. The U.S. was a peace-loving nation and it had earned the right to peace.
But then came Korea, Vietnam, three wars in the Middle East and no end of flare-ups around the world. One may think that our military engagements have been justified. One may think they have been necessary. But it is no longer really possible to think that America is a deeply peaceful, or even a peace-loving nation.
That kind of thinking smacks of the era when the national game truly was baseball. That game is skill-based, nonviolent and leisurely. Grunting effort has almost no part in baseball: It’s about subtle prowess, well deployed. You can win a baseball game without hating your opponents: In fact, too much passion will probably undermine your skills. But in football, as skilled as its players are, you had best hate your opponent, or at least simulate some hatred for the space of 60 minutes of play.
Football is urban, tough and based to a large degree on the capacity to overwhelm the other team with sheer force. Football is a tank attack, a sky-borne assault, a charge into the trenches for hand-to-hand fighting. Football is following orders and sticking to the strategy; it’s about acting as a unit and taking hits for the group. Football is generals (coaches) and captains (quarterbacks) and the enlisted guys who play on the line.
Football is about destruction. Sure, you win by getting more points than the other team, but to get more points, you generally have to slam the life out of your opponents. You try to do away with their skill players — by violence. Knock out the first-string quarterback and chances are you will win.
It is beautiful, to be sure. The wide receiver competes with the ballet dancer in grace and style. The runner recalls the flashing leopard, the tiger on the move. It’s lovely to watch. War can be beautiful too, one understands. The bombs create a memorable light; the crack of rifles is its own music.
The rise of football over baseball is about a change in America’s self-image. We’ve been ready to fight always (ask the Indian tribes or the Spanish who controlled much of the Southwest), but we haven’t been ready to admit it. Now it’s harder to escape the truth.
When people are willing to get publicly enthusiastic about football, they are showing a willingness to get enthusiastic about struggle and strife — maybe even about war, if they feel it is necessary. Granted, almost all games are sublimations of war. But no game is as close to war without slipping over to war as football is.
Aristotle thought that the purpose of a violent spectacle was to purge dangerous feelings from the audience. Tragedy discharged the excess of pity and fear that built up in individuals. They left the theater feeling clean. But Plato says something different. Plato fears that we become what we behold. See violence enacted on a stage and your capacity for violence will increase. To Plato, football would feed a national capacity for violent action and be fed by it in turn.
From this point of view, football and war could enter a mutually energizing relation with each other: the more football, the more war; the more war, the more football. If the modern world is truly a place where a nation must be ready to fight constantly in order to survive, then perhaps football serves a general good. But whether the only way to thrive as a nation and a people is through the capacity for warfare, one can certainly doubt.
The poet William Blake looked forward to a day when the wars of swords would be over and when men and women would hash out their differences through argument and imagination, through what he called the arts of mental fight.
May that day come soon.
Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of the just published book “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.”
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