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.
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.
The Super Bowl. Enough said.