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The Moral Equivalent to Football

Americans, from William James to Jimmy Carter, have been searching for a “moral equivalent to war”: some commitment to high purpose which benefits mankind yet evokes the same degree of discipline and self-sacrifice that war does. Because the vision of such a state is so attractive it has figured rhetorically in the expressions of many presidents, most notably Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Mr. Carter. But in all cases, the ideal seems rarely to have been incorporated in reality; only a mocking echo remains of the countless calls to make the world “safe for democracy,” to create a “Great Society,” or to make “any sacrifice” to defend “liberty” around the world. It hardly seems likely that the American people will find saving energy any more inspiring an ideal or that they will voluntarily sacrifice to the extent necessary to turn this latest ideal into a reality.

While all efforts to transfer the values of discipline, sacrifice, and courage from warlike to peaceful pursuits seem fruitless, there is one area in which this transfer has been successfully made. That area is sports, and in particular the sport of football as it is played in America from the high school to the professional level. But while most of the values and many of the strategies of war can be transferred directly to the game of football (at a tiny fraction of the cost in killed and wounded), most intellectuals would deny that the game serves any moral or even useful purpose. Football is variously discussed by intellectuals under the heading of amusement, recreation, business, or mayhem. Those identified with the game, such as Gerald Ford as a player, or Richard Nixon as a fan, are pitied for having played the game too long without a helmet or for being unable to distinguish right from wrong.

Criticism of America’s preoccupation with football runs the gamut from Senator Eugene McCarthy’s comment that a football coach is a man smart enough to be able to get his team motivated for the game, and dumb enough to think that it is important; to Henry Steele Commager’s reaction to a reporter’s question of the importance of the National Football League in American history (the subject of an NFL essay contest for boys and girls). “You can describe it in five words,” Commager responded. “It has no importance whatsoever.” Commager at least knew what the NFL was. Many of the other historians queried by reporters had never heard of the organization. Almost all intellectuals would, with Christopher Lasch, in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books (April 28, 1977), deplore football as one of the games which enlist “skill and intelligence, the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of utterly useless activities, …”

I must take issue with my friends and colleagues in the historical profession who can see little connection between football and American history. Any activity which engages not only the numbers of individuals who play and watch football, but the intensity of their commitment, deserves study. The game of football is a better barometer of American character than any other aspect of our culture because it reflects the true--and not the ideal--nature of our people. The brutality and insensitivity (along with the courage and intelligence) that characterize the game are integral parts of our national character. A game which recognizes and utilizes these characteristics is more consistent with our actual nature than one which appeals to our “better” nature.

In both war and football, however unjust and immoral it may seem, “there is no substitute for victory.” The link between the two activities is well stated in a quotation from General Douglas MacArthur inscribed upon the walls of the gymnasium at West Point: “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that, upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.” The intensity of feeling about winning in war and football is derived from the knowledge (of those in charge) that success and failure is often measured in inches, in the chance bounce of a ball, or in the temporary attitude of the contestants. In the military the fate of a battle and of a nation turn on the want of a nail for the shoe of the horse. In football too it is the single missed assignment, the single chance operation of fate, that spells the difference between winning and losing. No wonder coaches insist on drilling their players and organizing their resources to minimize the workings of chance and any other factor that can affect the outcome of the game. Spectators show an equivalent concern with excellence of performance. As Norman Podhoretz has noted, “excellence is relatively uncontroversial as a judgment of performance” in sports, and is applied by an audience which tends to be more sophisticated in determining excellence than the theatergoer or concert listener.

The “commercialization and functional rationalization of college football” developed at Yale University in the last quarter of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, as two sociologists, David L. Wesby and Allen Sack, have observed in a recent issue of the journal of Higher Education. The hallmarks of this movement, initiated under the guidance of Walter Camp, Yale’s coach, were and continue to be, centralized authority and decision making in a single man, the coach; a high degree of specialization and task differentiation (line coaches, platoon systems, kicking specialists, etc.); systematic recruitment; collection and analysis of masses of information about one’s own and one’s opponent’s players; invention of new strategies; and comprehensive control over the players’ life activities (training tables, bed checks, etc.). All these aspects of the modern game of football developed at Yale rather than at Harvard, the other school which adapted to American conditions English-style rugby football (in which the ball is carried rather than kicked). Camp, a self-made businessman, possessed the same intense desire to win and achieve that characterized the newly rich industrialists, railroad presidents and bankers who moved into positions on Yale’s Board of Successor Trustees in the same period. Meanwhile the Fellows of the Harvard Corporation continued to be drawn almost entirely from the patrician class of Boston Brahmins, their philosophy expressed by President Charles W. Eliot who, in referring to his participation in a 1858 crew meet, said, “I had rather win than not, but it is mighty little matter whether we beat or are beaten--rowing is not my profession, neither is it my love--it is only recreation, fun and health.”

Just as football has evolved in accordance with the evolving business ethic of American society, so has it evolved in accordance with the changing strategic assumptions about war. The development (or rebirth) of the T-formation in football coincided almost exactly with the development of a new era of mobility and speed in warfare best exemplified in the Blitzkrieg tactics of the German armies in Europe in 1939-40. The T-formation soon overwhelmed the “Maginot Line” mentality of traditional football, based as it was on rigid lines and massive concentrations of defensive and offensive power. While the single-wing formation prevalent before the war (and during the early stages of the war) telegraphed ahead the point of attack and minimized the possibilities for deception, the T-formation (and some of its variations) allowed the quarterback, standing immediately behind the center, to whirl in any direction and hand off the football to any of three backs who sought to penetrate the “line” at any point along its length. Only a quick opening provided by the offensive linemen was necessary to spring the running back into the “secondary” defenses of the opponent. No longer did the offensive line have to rely so much on “double-teaming” an opposing lineman or holding a block until the running back coming at an angle to the line was able to penetrate the principal line of defense. All that was necessary for the T-formation runner to clear the line was a stand-up block by an offensive lineman and a split second. The result was understandably widespread adoption of the T-formation and the creation of defenses in depth to counter its effects. Instead of a six- or seven-man line with one or two linebackers, coaches created defenses in depth with four-or five-man lines and three or four linebackers, as well as installing looping, slanting, and other complex defensive movements for the linemen.

Football also reflects the American preoccupation with time and its organization. Unlike baseball, tennis and some other sports, football is played within the rigid limitations of a precise time frame. Games cannot go on forever as they can (theoretically) in baseball. One must constantly calculate the time available in terms of its amount and value at any particular moment in relation to one’s opponent. No characteristic of American society differentiates us more clearly from Oriental and American Indian societies than this active manipulation (rather than passive acceptance) of time. Whether we are “making” time or “wasting” time in everyday matters, or engaged in a “two-minute drill” to score as the clock is “running” down, the consciousness of our acting upon rather than within time is nowhere more clearly impressed upon us than in football.

Football has until recently been exclusively an outdoor sport open to the elements. The carefully manicured grass field where football and baseball are played has been compared to a natural “arena in which men can become heroes.” It is the American West encapsulated as an oasis in an urban landscape, a “vestigial remnant of the rural landscape” for which we all subconsciously long. With the introduction of domed stadia like the Astrodome in Houston, the link to nature has been all but severed. The Astroturf carpet is painted green and looks like grass. The plexiglass dome faintly resembles the sky. But both player and spectator have been cut off from the ties to the sun and earth which echo the ancient act of natural survival from which the modern game evolved. Both players and spectators are in danger of becoming part of an entertainment industry: the players serving as objects for spectator amusement rather than standing as “champions” linked with their constituencies in a human bond of love or hate.

Whether the use of the domed stadia, artificial turf, and constant room temperature (the term “synthetic era of American sport” coined by Michael Oriard is an appropriate characterization of the phenomenon) will change the character of American football is uncertain, Judge Hofheinz, creator of the Astrodome, envisaged baseball changing from a rowdy spectacle to comfortable entertainment emotionally detached from the passions of the fans. Certainly the purist will lament the absence of blinding snow storms, swirling dust or numbing cold which have characterized some of the great football playoff games of the past, even if experienced vicariously through the medium of television. Who can forget the first overtime playoff game in the National Football League between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants in 1958? Or some of the early Green Bay Packer championship games on the frozen fields of northern Wisconsin? Perhaps the reason recent Super Bowl games have tended to fall flat has been the attempt to produce as entertainment in a pleasant controlled environment what should essentially be a test of physical survival against a hostile environment as well as a hostile foe Perhaps our national character is being changed imperceptibly by settings which insulate football from nature and make it an indoor game. I fear for its longtime effects.

It might be argued that football suffers as an exemplar of national values because it is almost exclusively a male concern. Of all sports in which women engage, women compete least effectively with men in football. This is not only because women lack the necessary size, strength and speed which are so essential to the game as played by men, but because women have not been as fully indoctrinated into the tradition of winning (with its anguished corollary of losing) as have men. Sports for women have rested heavily upon values of recreation rather than of competition, though that emphasis has been changing rapidly in recent times.

But one can counter the objection by asserting that football represents the true and not the ideal American character. To the extent that American national character is male and chauvinistic, football reflects that character. Women are relegated to cheerleader roles, admiring the efforts of males, but not challenging their exclusively male preoccupation with defeating their opponents. Even the taboos on sexual contact for athletes in the period immediately prior to a game reflect the primitive concern with male contamination by women characteristic of tribal societies, particularly during periods of military adventures. In the world of football and of men oriented to its values, the woman can support, either by her presence or absence, male values; she can never fully participate, or impose contrary values.

The idyllic society of gentlemen who engage in sport tor recreation exalted by President Eliot of Harvard no longer exists. The rationalization and commercialization of the game, introduced by Camp at Yale, has become accepted virtually without question in American society. Just as the new organization of football in the late 19th and early 20th centuries reflected the values of the growing commercial and industrial leadership to the country at that time, so does present-day football reflect the even more specialized and complex economic and political organization of our country today. This is not to say that there is no dissent from prevailing values, just as a significant minority of the American people expressed vociferously its disillusionment with American involvement in the Vietnam war, so have there been voices of dissent from the prevailing acceptance of the values of contemporary football. Dave Meggyesy of the St. Louis Cardinals may stand as an example of that dissent. In his book Out of their League, he has written of his growing disillusionment at the “dehumanization” characteristic of professional football: its casual cruelty and commitment to winning at all costs. But Meggyesy remains an exception to the prevailing acceptance of the values of football--dehumanizing and cruel as they may be--in our society.

More positively, one can argue that football in particular (and sports in general) is the great entering wedge of the “meritocracy” that has erased the distinction between upper and lower classes, between blacks and whites, and between professionals and amateurs. School football as well as professional football not only integrates players of different race and social class backgrounds, but also integrates diverse elements of both school and society. It achieves this end by the application of the same values which, when distorted, lead to the dehumanization that Meggyesy speaks of. The commitment to win becomes so great that all other values are subordinated to it: friendship, racial preferences, even medical caution. The unity established in football may crumble in defeat or in recrimination, but so does the unity established in war or in other human pursuits.

Football, to repeat, is not a pastime in our society. It is a profession, whether one is paid in dollars or in admiration. In our society the football player is paid in both. There has always been, and I hope will continue to be, a place in our society for those who detest the values of football (and of war) or who, like some of my historian friends, are unaware that such values exist or that they can be taken seriously. But their position is philosophical or moral, not historical or scientific. As an observer of my society--as a historian--I see a general acceptance of the values of controlled physical violence in our society, expressed most clearly in the approbation and support of football at all levels. It may not be the moral equivalent of war, but it is an equivalent that satisfies the majority of the American people.

Wilcomb E. Washburn, director of the Office of American Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, played first string tackle at Dartmouth in the days when Dartmouth played Notre Dame.