It’s no secret that I have a bit of a love hate relationship with American Football, lean more hate for the NFL and more love for the actual sport. It’s primal, it’s war on grass, it’s exciting, it’s a tax haven for rich assholes who trick cities and states into funding their stadiums, and it’s killing people at a fairly astonishing rate and age. Although the episode hit the airwaves nearly a year ago, Radiolab hit the nail on the head with their episode on American Football and if you haven’t heard it it’s certainly worth a listen.
Radiolab picks up its story with analogues of the sport in post Civil War America and ends with the modern game of American football. Football began in the ashes of the Civil War and the western frontier campaigns when young men were looking to establish their masculinity in a country that no longer offered proof via the glory of war or slaughter of natives. Football sprung up on campuses such as Harvard and Yale were without war, team sport took its place.
Hosts Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad interview a number of well qualified people for the show. Sally Jenkins, guest expert on early football and author of The Real All Americans, puts forward the following questions: What if archeologists dug up our civilization thousands of years from now? What would they make of our colossal stadiums? Our love of this game is quite literally stamped on the earth. You may be able to ignore it, but historians wouldn’t.
“American Football” will make you think differently about the game, whether you love it or hate it, or harbor a bit of both. The story on Radiolab starts in an unlikely place with an unlikely people. Richard Henry Pratt, a former Indian fighter, founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century as a way to integrate American Indians into white American culture. Motivated by a change of heart, Pratt decided to preserve the culture he had once tried to eradicate. Unfortunately, Pratt’s idea of cultural acceptance through assimilation amounts to nothing more than cultural genocide and in the case of his school an attempt at actual genocide as some 200 plus students died of malnutrition, poor health or distress from homesickness.
Pratt found a rather improbable partnership with Sioux leader, Chief American Horse. The Lakota chief agreed that sending youngsters to Carlisle would help preserve his race and could be the best path to negotiating peace. The thought being that if the younger generation could learn the white language and customs, perhaps there was a chance the nations might survive the next brutal round of negotiations with the white government.
The Pennsylvania school was meant to be about shared language and culture, but then football hit Carlisle when a former Ivy Leaguer came to campus as a dormitory master and taught the game to the students. At first it was nothing more than a club sport at Carlisle, but it took on a bigger role as the participants were won over by the camaraderie of the game.
It’s not far fetched to imagine how a group of Indian boys confined like prisoners to a white institution might take solace in team building and sport. In a matter of a decade, Carlisle had a competitive varsity squad and fought Yale to a famous near-stalemate in October 1896. It was after that game, a game in which even impartial fans raucously cheered for the spirited Carlisle squad, that the small Indian school announced itself as a football contender.
The metaphors become obvious; American Indian versus the white an, football as war, football as a fight over land. When guest Chuck Klosterman mentions that football has always been a metaphor for the military with “the idea of taking land,” you can’t help but think about the U.S. government pushing Indians on to reservations.
Chuck Klosterman ushers the podcast into its second half to explain the lingering conflict we all have about football. The duality of the sport takes center stage. It’s a game, he claims, that welcomes change and evolution in game mechanics and strategy, but at its core it’s about violence and the “strongest, toughest win.” To evolve that second half would be to destructively change the sport. Does its physicality trump any suggestion of progress?
To get another perspective, the hosts bring on NFL royalty. Monet Bartell, the daughter of an ex-player. Her entire family is seeped in football lore. A full thirteen family members have played in the NFL. These are fortunes, entire livelihoods, made possible by talent on the field. When her son was born huge, a physical specimen made for the game, she could hardly wait to see him in a uniform. Yet she began to see the writing on the wall when a relative began showing signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy from his time playing the game. Despite the known risks, she continued to push her son toward football, a fact that bewilders even her. However, he decided football was not for him after he rubbed an opponent’s face in the dirt on the football field.
It’s this kind of violence that surfaces again and again. It’s the whispering of war and gladiatorial entertainment that sits on the tips of our tongue.
In Tim O’Brien’s brilliant short story collection about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, he writes, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”
Malcolm Gladwell is one prominent writer who believes that football will recede from it’s current popularity. In the 1980’s tennis and boxing were popular enough to be considered the “fourth sport”. Sports Illustrated in 1994 ran a cover predicting that the NHL would overtake the NBA as the most popular winter sport and it certainly seems to be well on its way. In the 1960’s, the three most popular sports in America were baseball, horse racing and boxing. For some reason I think it not only could happen, but that it is happening and it could happen very fast. The popularity of sports is not as embedded as people think.
Can we separate the history and beauty of the game from the very old and terrible lie? All that’s left, as Klosterman notes, “Killing dudes for money,” as well as a game that we love because of its noble ideals–just as we love our country, our history, ourselves.