From August 16, 2006: Football as society

On the John

Football as society

Originally completed on August 16, 2006

Johnny U, seen here leading his troops into enemy territory with a deadly accurate aerial assault.
Johnny U, seen here leading his troops into enemy territory with an aerial assault of deadly accuracy.

As we approach the NFL’s regular season, I find myself reexamining my favorite sport: football. Ah, football. America’s sport. Not America’s pastime, mind you. That spot is taken, and well-deserved. No, football is America’s sport, the one game played here and nowhere else. While the rest of the world can square off in soccer, basketball, baseball, tennis, swimming, track and field, and even hockey, only football—the game of the gridiron—can be held as ours and ours alone.

It is a fascinating sport, this football. A physical game, football sits square in the middle of the violence in sports debate. Some (often women, American women) argue that it is violence without purpose, that these “warriors” are simply utilizing their inner caveman instincts by running around and beating the hell out of each other. “No!” we protest. “There are plays! There is order! Very specific things are happening! I swear!” They turn and walk. On the other end, we are lambasted by our Aussie and Kiwi counterparts who scoff at our nancy-boy game of pads and helmets and eight yard slant patterns. For them, it is purpose without violence. Get tough, they yell. Again, we stand by our set plays and formations, knowing that it is football’s unique structure that separates itself from all other team sports.

Like basketball, hockey, and soccer, football is a game of two equal sides attempting to advance a ball towards a goal, while the other team stands in front in an attempt to prevent them from doing so. Basketball is done on a smaller scale; there are set plays, but scoring is much easier—obviously—thus making for significantly shorter possessions than in football. Hockey is also played on a smaller scale, though with a scoring rate closer to soccer. Soccer, of course, has the numbers and field size of football, but the action is much less designed and deliberate. Baseball is the only team sport other than football that is largely situational, but it is a game of space, not time. Only football combines the situational play of baseball with the back and forth of the other three.

Football’s situational angle seems to be the differing factor when measured against the other team sports. Why have we, Americans, so greatly embraced a game that the rest of the world ignores? Meanwhile, why do we largely ignore—at least by comparison—a game, soccer, that so completely captivates everyone else? Perhaps it is not so much that we love violence, but rather that we love organized violence. Far more than any other sport, football has always been compared to warfare. The linemen play in the trenches. A strong offense marches down the field. The quarterback is the field general, and if he has a real cannon for an arm, he is likely to throw a bomb, which will hopefully allow the offense to march into enemy territory. Hopefully.

Personally, I am not enamored with war. But I do love football’s structure, which I find fascinating for a different reason. Football is built upon very specific situations—1st and 10, 2nd and 5, 4th and inches—and it is this element of stop and start that makes football appealing beyond the realm of sport, because it is this element that allows it to be a model for an efficient society. The offense runs a screen pass, and gains five yards. The defense then makes an adjustment, and figures out how to stop the offense. The offense then makes an adjustment, and figures out how to get around the defense. Action, reaction, and back again. Football is a game in which participants are constantly reevaluating themselves, looking for flaws, and are never satisfied with success until it can be proven consistent.

And unlike in government, where candidates would rather use their own mediocre idea than succumb to the horror of someone else’s good idea, football encourages copying. It is not a mark of incompetence, but rather one of intelligence. The Rams won the Super Bowl in 1999 with a spread offense and a speed back, and all of a sudden every team went to a spread offense. In 2000, the Ravens set the trend of a power defense anchored by two massive defensive tackles. The Patriots employed a 3-4 defense in 2001, thus giving birth to the 3-4 renaissance. Then came the Bucs and their unique Cover-2 defense; three years later, the top three defenses in the NFL were using the “Tampa 2.”

And of course, football doesn’t simply encourage copying; it creates an atmosphere of extraordinary adaptability. Bill Walsh introduced the West Coast Offense during the ’80s, which was countered by the zone blitz, which was countered by the fast-scoring spread offense, which was countered by meaty defensive lines, which was countered by smaller, slimmer offensive lines, and so on. The game of football is constantly evolving, with success stemming from one’s willingness to acknowledge another’s wisdom. To be stubborn or close-minded in the name of vanity is to be out of a job. Football is not simply survival of the fittest—it is free enterprise. The best idea wins. It’s American as apple pie. Or war. One of those.

Copyright 2006, jm silverstein

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The football as warfare analogy is not necessarily my own, even though I did come up with it on my own. That’s how ideas are, right? Floating around, just waiting to be plucked out of the sky. But it would be silly to run this column without acknowledging the man who so brilliantly illustrated the language overlap between the trenches and…the trenches.

And so, because you deserve it…

[The whole thing is good, but head to the 4 minute mark for the gooooood schtuff.]

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