Hampton Stevens, who I like, writes an “intellectual’s defense of football.” In response to those snobs who say the game doesn’t matter and is lowbrow and violent, Stevens says it matters to the gamblers and players. I actually think Stevens doesn’t answer the question properly. Anything can be meaningful to a person paid to do it. Anything becomes meaningful when you bet on it.
I’ll buy into a lot of what the snob would say. Going to a football game is often the apogee of pointless conformity. You have to do everything a certain way, react to everything the way the group does, or it’s supreme disloyalty. Gender roles are different today, a lot of men don’t fight world wars or club dinosaurs, but they still define being a man that way. I am suspicious that a lot of guys use sports fandom as an ostentatious attempt to establish masculinity. I am suspicious that a lot of people like teams largely because their family or community tells them to. I think football culture has too much cheap masculinity and cheap tribalism. I like the game more than the culture.
But, think about the game itself. For one, it’s exercise. If a treadmill has a purpose then football does too.
You put two teams of eleven guys on a field. One tries to move the ball to the end zone, while following certain rules and while the other team tries to stop them. There are tons of different physical challenges. There is a position for almost any athletic body type. There are strategic challenges. There are interpersonal challenges. Teamwork, discipline, sacrifice, chemistry and respect matter. These are virtues of the game.
And there are unique things about game that really can’t be found elsewhere. There are the distinctive uniforms, the great touchdown scenes, the great tailgates, the football weather. What else would we do with a specimen like Barry Sanders? Or Deion Sanders for that matter? Or Ray Lewis or Ronnie Lott or Brett Favre? Hell, I’ll say it. Michael Vick? Football fans could tell you the amazing things those guys could do, and how special they were on the field. In what other endeavor could those players share their rare talents with so many people in such an exciting way?
What would American masculinity be like without the cultural meaning of a school’s or NFL town’s starting quarterback?
Football games are high energy, because they only come once a week, and there are only 16-20 games in a pro season. Playoffs are single-elimination. Each game only last 60 minutes of actual playing time. Football has tremendous action, and that’s a thing all by itself.
My other point is that, while football has meaningful purposes and meaningful uniqueness, I don’t believe that violence has to be anything more than an incidental part of it. I don’t deny that for many people, violence is a big part of it, and for some, the biggest. But, the running and throwing and touchdowns are more of a skill game. We give the big awards and big attention to the skill players, the guys at positions least predicated on violence. Families don’t go in the backyard and practice run blocks from a three-point stance. They throw the ball around.
Even for the tackling/blocking positions, we can focus not on the violence, but on the stamina, the strength, the proper form and execution of one player’s assignment that allowed another to score. I don’t deny that the big hits are a big attraction, or the game isn’t dangerous and rough. I don’t deny that the players and coaches often create a brutal culture to the game. But, there aren’t many brawls or fights or riots in football. Hitting is more about a group goal, rather than individual skirmishes. Men wear pads and helmets. Points are only awarded for what happens with the ball. The rules have cut down on some of the roughness, and there isn’t a lot of obvious player-imposed justice.
I think a lot of the criticism of football is more about the culture than the game. And the culture isn’t highbrow or always very sophisticated, but life has room for variety. I think a game or sport have simple recreational meaning, and that’s enough. Football is a legitimate sport, and it can be a lot or a little bit about violence.