Football: The Final Frontier

Much of our national life can be defined according to frontier and hinterland attitudes. Take our two national pastimes, football and baseball. Football is a frontier game, because it has to do with the conquest of territory. The aim of the game is to invade the other team’s land and settle there until you’ve crossed the goal line. As on the frontier, time of possession is everything.

Football is a metaphor for land hunger, a ritualized reenactment of the westward movement, going back to colonial times. Look at the names of some of the teams in the NFL, the Patriots, the Redskins, the Cowboys, the Broncos, the Forty-Niners, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Buffalo Bills, and the Oilers, all names connected with different stages of the frontier epic. Look at the way a first down is measured. Officials bring out the chains, which are a vestigial replica of the surveyors’ chains and a reminder of the men who marked off the wilderness, dividing it into ranges and townships and sections.

On their hundred-yard-long turf-covered universe, football players act out the conquest of the frontier. And just as they fought the taking of their land on the real frontier, Native Americans today protest the appropriation of their past on the football field, in the use of team names like the Redskins and Chiefs, and in the hoopla of fans painting their faces, wearing chicken-feather headdresses, and waving foam-rubber tomahawks. In the game itself there are emulations of Indian customs, such as the huddle, which is a stylized Indian pow-wow, and the gauntlet that each player must run upon entering the stadium.

Football breeds a defiant frontier attitude, because someone is out to get you and you’re not going to let him. As the late linebacker Lyle Alzado once said: “I don’t think there is anyone on earth who can kick my ass.” Another great linebacker, Lawrence Taylor, once said that his purest joy was to hit someone so hard he could see the “snot bubble out of his nose.” And here’s the Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka defining the frontier ethic as well as the game of football: “It’s people hittin’ each other, that what it’s all about. I’m tired of skill.” Skill gets taken for granted, while there’s a degree of physical punishment reminscent of  life in the wilderness. The limits to that punishment are suggested by some of the penalties, such as “piling on,” “unnecessary roughness,” and my personal favorite, which has a colonial ring in its phrasing, “coming unabated at the quarterback when offsides.”

–Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (1993), p. 14.

It’s a telling confirmation of Morgan’s interpretation of football that Tom Bowden of the Ayn Rand Institute defends “the joy of football” as a dramatization of successful “goal achievement,” and defends Christopher Columbus on essentially the same grounds.  But read the two interpretations in sequence, Morgan’s and Bowden’s, and decide for yourself which one you find the more plausible.

1931.6.1_2a.jpg (678×600)

First down and continent

Let me just add, in an unapologetic spirit of “piling on,” that when Lawrence Taylor played for the Giants, I delivered his newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger. Wealthy as he was (and is), LT never paid me–not once, not for a single paper I delivered to his execrable door. But he was, my boss told me, a big star, so I kept delivering his papers in expectation of a payment that never materialized. I don’t begrudge LT all the bubbling snot in the world, but as far as I’m concerned, he still owes me $50. Flag down: offensive holding of money owed in an ancient but unpaid debt.

When I was a graduate student at Notre Dame, I regularly used to throw the complimentary Notre Dame football tickets I got into the trash, taking the opportunity to visit the university’s wonderful art museum while everyone else was at the game. The closest I ever got to the Notre Dame football team was when I had to grade their illiterate philosophy papers (and they really were illiterate: the only person in my teaching career to pronounce “Socrates” as “Soe-Krayts” was a Notre Dame football player). I guess the second closest I got was when the makers of the film “Rudy” forced me out of my classroom in order to film a scene in it. (And no, I haven’t watched the film and don’t intend to, not even for the Gipper.)

A provocative feminist book goes by the title The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. I appreciate the sentiment, but it doesn’t happen to apply to me. Indeed, just the reverse is the case: the stronger women get, the more I hate football. This isn’t because there’s any particular causal relationship between the development of female strength and my hate for football. No, the common factor is the passage of time: as time passes, women get stronger–and as time passes, so intensifies my hate for football.

Oh, by the way:


In nearly five decades of life on this planet, I have yet to learn the rules of football–and have no intention of putting a minute of effort into the task. I prefer poring over studies that indicate a positive relationship between football and traumatic brain injury.   I’m also partial to stories that explain why helmet re-design is unlikely to be a fix, and stories that explain why we need special legislation to ensure that football coaches don’t maim or kill our children in pursuit of gridiron glory.

So what will I be doing while everyone is watching the Super Bowl? Most likely, I’ll be on a train, heading home from a class on Freudian psychoanalysis, to an apartment that lacks a television.

That said, I will regret missing Justin Timberlake during the half-time show. But I think that’s preferable to the regret I’d experience by watching him.

Super BowlVerified account


The Super Bowl. Enough said.


16 thoughts on “Football: The Final Frontier

  1. I’m watching the game. Go Pats! The ageless Brady! The incomparable (and slightly devious) talent-sniffer and coach Belichick! Woot!

    (The more tools/wisdom we can provide to help football folks balance out the costs of brain (and other) injury with the lofty benefits of all-too-humanly finding something absurd to get excited about and then getting excited about it – at least in sports it is easy to know, on some level, that this is what we are doing (compare to religion, nationalism or any other ideology) – the better.)


    • The most obvious wisdom we can offer football is to suggest that they change the sport so as to turn it into a completely different sport. If you leave football in its current form, the laws of physics (and of anatomy and physiology) dictate that there is literally no “tool” or “wisdom” any human being can offer to balance out the costs or injury against any supposed benefit anyone gets from the game.

      Every responsible sports scientist is agreed: the problem with football is not a technical matter of tweaking the equipment but the sheer force that football players exert against each other as an intrinsic part of the game. You don’t prevent concussions by putting your head inside a super-sophisticated helmet and then smashing it against something just as hard as the helmet, coming at you with equal velocity. You prevent concussions by not smashing your head against hard surfaces. This is obvious to everyone except football fans and the NFL. But it is obvious. Boxing, wrestling, and martial arts are all violent sports–arguably gratuitously so–but their practitioners and fan base are less into denial than those associated with the NFL and NCAA.

      This is going to take a lot out of me, but I’m going to give Justin Timberlake the last word:


  2. Skill, strength, agility, speed, timing, strategy, creativity, individual excellence mixed with co-operative teamwork, all together with only five players at a time — if I’m going to watch a bunch of guys get way too serious about a ball, I want all of that at once.


      • Yes, and most of us have to dance to soccer in order to entertain ourselves for the vast majority of the game in which nothing whatsoever of any consequence appears to be happening. There’s a reason why soccer is best enjoyed in large groups with copious quantities of alcohol. (Or, as I suspect, by people who like being teased).


        • I could, in principle, take the bait at this point, and drive this hitherto elevated conversation into the depths of a mere insult-fest over whose sport is better, etc. etc. But I will instead exhibit the magnanimity for which soccer players and soccer fans are widely known and refrain–merely leaving things at the observation that discerning eyes can see things of “consequence” that less discerning eyes miss, and at least soccer isn’t based on an ancient Aztec ritual of human sacrifice. And Pele.

          Pele: “Nothing of consequence my ass!”


          • Hey, I did say appears.

            And do you really mean to suggest that there is not a substantive philosophy-of-sport discussion to be had about what is the best sport? C’mon.


            • And do you really mean to suggest that there is not a substantive philosophy-of-sport discussion to be had about what is the best sport? C’mon.

              Oh, but surely Rawls conclusively resolved that dispute ages ago, right? In favor of baseball?


              My favorite moment of this article is when Rawls suddenly realizes, toward the end, that he’s forgotten all about cricket. Which then leads to things like this.

              More edifying would be a debate about which sport led to the best movie, involving a playoff between such gems as “Rudy,” “Victory,” “Lagaan,” “White Men Can’t Jump,” and “Field of Dreams.”

              (I couldn’t find an English version of “Lagaan,” but the plot is almost exactly the same as “Victory.”)

              And if street fighting can be counted as a sport, I’ll make a case for the clear-cut winner:

              “Baseball the best of all games” my ass. Kevin Costner vs. Jean-Claude Van Damme? C’mon.


              • Rawls, inventing ingeniously elaborate rationalizations for his pre-theoretical preferences? Shocking.

                Basketball, though, is constantly adjusting its rules in good part in response to the extraordinary creativity of its players. Perhaps baseball’s rules have changed so little because there’s such relatively little room for creative innovation and style? All good sports allow for creativity and individual style, but is the style of a 1980’s baseball game as noticeably different from a current game as the styles of 1980’s basketball and today’s game are? I honestly don’t know, because though I was a fanatic baseball fan in my early youth, it’s been more than two decades since I could sit through an inning of baseball without being bored out of my skull.

                I’m with you on Costner vs. Van Damme, though it might depend on the Van Damme. To bring things ’round back to basketball in an absurd way, Double Team must be one of the worst movies I have ever seen.


                • I checked out of JCVD’s movies after “Double Impact.” I didn’t want the later JCVD to ruin the early JCVD for me. Let me go out on a cinematic limb here and declare “Lionheart” hands down the best film of all time. It inspired me to do martial arts in grad school–five years of Sho Rin Ryu karate, and about a year of kung fu and tai chi–by far the most memorable thing I did in grad school. While everyone else was doing boring stuff like publishing in Analysis, Phil Review, and J Phil, I learned how to break a cement block with my bare hands (alas there was no social media in those days, or I’d show you the remains of the block I broke). “Two paths diverged in the woods,” yada yada yada.

                  Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not a fan of football myself but Morgan’s explanation is pretty silly and the complaints about “cultural appropriation” even sillier. In fact it’s on par with talk of “cultural invasion” on the right

    Another thing to add to the issue of TBI is all the hoopla about the “strong woman” which to me sounds like the female version of the “no man is an island”. Just who are those individuals who aren’t fragile about one thing or another and are somehow not interconnected at some level with others


    • I don’t see what’s so silly about Morgan’s explanation. Football is only too obviously a game of gratuitous violence, literally intended to enact a certain dramatized conception of interpersonal conflict–of repeated escalating invasions, by brute force or force-via-stealth. It resembles ice hockey, soccer, and basketball in outward form, but it outstrips all three in violence (including hockey). In this country, it also outstrips all three in the amount of time, money, and attention lavished on it. All of that needs–calls out for–a special explanation.

      Morgan’s comparison of football to our other erstwhile pastime, literal invasion, strikes me as apt. Perhaps it’s an accident that the paraphernalia of football mimics that of the frontier epic, as Morgan suggests, and maybe it’s a coincidence that Americans tend to be very defensive about that paraphernalia (as witness our attitudes toward Columbus and Columbus Day). But maybe it’s not. I’m inclined to think not. Though I didn’t quote it, Morgan’s account of football is enhanced by his account of baseball as a hinterland sport. But you’ll have to read it yourself to judge.

      I have mixed views on the “cultural appropriation” issue, but I commented on it in my Halloween 2017 post, so I won’t repeat what I said there. Since then, I’ve encountered the phenomenon of the Israeli (or as its marketers like to call it, “Semitic” keffiyeh)–an obvious, and to my mind, transparently offensive instance of cultural appropriation. It’s little more than a cynical ploy to cash in on the fashion panache of the Palestinian keffiyeh, appropriating it for Israel, while whitewashing the literal appropriation (or expropriation) of Palestinians through the Israeli settlement enterprise.

      There is a literal, physical analogue to the “Israeli keffiyeh” approach to cultural appropriation: as it happens, there are, in many instances, two different towns in the West Bank with the same or similar names, one a Palestinian village and the other, its successor, an Israeli settlement. In the case I know best, Tekoa, the Palestinian town is besieged by the army; Israeli settlements ring it, encroaching on it. The long game seems to be: wipe out the Palestinian town so that the Israeli settlement remains. Again, it could be a coincidence that Israelis like to pretend that keffiyehs and falafel belong to them in the way that the West Bank (“Judea and Samaria”) does. It could also be a coincidence that they have to insist on Israeli versions of Palestinian apparel as they insist on Israeli versions of Palestinian towns. But I’m inclined to think not. I’m inclined to think that both activities are of a piece, and suggest a general ethos of appropriating what belongs to others–whether in the literal physical sense or in the loose cultural one.

      The difference between Morgan’s analogy and the right-wing talk about a cultural invasion is that the settlement of North America really involved an invasion, but immigration doesn’t.

      Distant as it is from football, I leave you with the following thought.

      You have to admit, this is the only blog where a post on football quickly turns into one on the conditions of initial appropriation.


  4. Look at the names of some of the teams in the NFL, the Patriots, the Redskins, the Cowboys, the Broncos, the Forty-Niners, the Chiefs, the Raiders, the Buffalo Bills, and the Oilers, all names connected with different stages of the frontier epic.

    This isn’t critical one way or the other to the main point being made, but it seems like a bit of free-associative special pleading. Baseball teams have names like: the Texas Rangers (*), the Indians, the Braves (also with a variety of offensive caricature-based mascots, fan chants, etc.), the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Spanish-colonial San Diego Padres; the Oakland Raiders use pirate not frontier iconography, but Major League Baseball also has the Pirates; the Houston Oilers are not really part of the frontier epic in the same way, but rather a local industry name like the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Pistons, etc.

    (* (!) Truth be told, that’s my team, if I am watching baseball. But, really, I mean, the rinches? Imagine you had a cricket team that you decided to set up a local club called Belfast Black & Tans, or maybe a team named the Amritsar Massacre.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • LOL. Well, in fairness to Morgan, the football/baseball comparison turns on more than just the names, but on his whole comparison of the one game to the other. And I didn’t quote his last paragraph on baseball:

      There’s no unnecessary roughness penalty in baseball, a game with a refined hinterland sensibility,which was gentrified from the start, when A.G. Spalding organized the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club in 1845 in Manhattan, for “men of high taste.” Baseball teams seem to be named by bird-watchers (the Orioles, the Blue Jays, the Cardinals), zookeepers (the Cubs, the Tigers), and believers in the Supernatural (the Angels). In baseball, there’s no fighting over territory, since the convention has been established that the teams will take turns occupying the same field. In baseball, you play out the inning no matter how long it takes, and there’s no time anxiety, but in football, you’re running against the clock, it’s a game of seconds, just as life and death on the frontier were determined in seconds. In baseball, there’s always a team sitting in the dugout, but in football, there are always two full teams on the field, man on man, and until the fifties, the same players played both offense and defense. Unlike baseball, in which games are called on account of rain, football is still mostly played in frontier weather conditions of rain, snow, and ice. Baseball players might work up a sweat running bases, but that’s pretty much the extent of their discomfort, because there’s comparatively little physical contact. Baseball is a game of the civilized hinterland, while football harks back to the epic qualities of the frontier, which continue to live in the American psyche. (p. 15).

      Come on, there’s something to that?

      Your comment about cricket made me curious to look up the names of Pakistan’s cricket teams. About as unimaginative as a zoology textbook:

      If that isn’t revealing of the national psyche, I don’t know what is.


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