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.