Comment: Is there something about Americans that makes us soccer addicts?
I teach a course on the intersection of sports and religion in North America and I ask students if there is something about American society that draws us to violence in football. Why, for example, despite the best efforts of the NFL, American football has not gained popularity in other countries of the world, while by most measures it is the most popular game in America?
Of course, violence erupts from time to time in other sports – the aftermath of a fight or accidental collision in the heat of competition. Sure, hockey has its fair share of violence, but unlike that sport, violence is in football itself, as we were reminded when we saw DaMar Hamlin collapse during Monday night’s game between the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals.
Violence has always been part of the game. Almost every description of the 19th century football game I’ve read has the words “brutal” or “brutal” in it.
American football, a military game associated with the conquest and defense of territory, developed from the English game of rugby in the years following the American Civil War. Yale’s Walter Camp, generally considered the father of American football, disliked the chaos of rugby tackles and sought to introduce more strategy into the game. He finally managed to convince his fellow Ivy Leaguers to trade the scrimmage for the line of scrimmage, which allowed for more strategic opportunities and, he claimed, reduced the violence associated with the game.
Whether the latter worked is debatable. Splitting up teams between downs may have reduced the anarchy of skirmishes, but it also allowed players to build momentum before crashing into opponents. Bleeding bodies, dislodged teeth, broken and amputated limbs were commonplace. The Journal of the American Medical Association tallied 12 deaths from football in 1902, and at the end of the 1905 season, the Chicago Tribune tallied the season’s “death crop” with 159 serious injuries and 19 fatalities.
An injury to his own son while playing on Harvard’s freshman team prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to summon representatives from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard to the White House. At a meeting attended by even the Secretary of State, Roosevelt shouted, “Change the game or leave it!”
In response, the college administration created the Intercollegiate Athletic Association and eventually changed the rules. Among other changes, they eliminated the flying wedge and allowed the forward pass, making the game a bit safer. In 1909, however, the toll rose again, with two fatalities and a Navy quarterback paralyzed in a game against Villanova University.
Violence is a big part of the appeal of the game, then as it is now, and the history of American football shows that fans and players are willing to endure injury to continue the game. “It’s violence in sports,” Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman noted. “Violence in sports draws us to the game.”
Which brings us back to the question of whether there is something about American society that draws us — including me, by the way — to the football carnage.
By any standards, the United States is a violent society, an observation confirmed in the daily newspapers and nightly news with horrific stories of mass shootings and homicides. Consider the unspeakable violence of slavery in America’s past, the statistics of rape and hate crimes directed against ethnic and racial minorities. The emergence of the game of football coincided with the push toward the West in the 19th century under the banner of Manifest Destiny, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War.
The earliest football games reflected the military objective of destroying the enemy. The Big Three football powerhouses – Princeton, Harvard, Yale – regularly destroyed their assignments on the gridiron. In 1888, for example, Yale outscored its opponents 698 to 0; two years later, Princeton defeated four opponents, 50-0, 60-0, 115-0 and 85-0. “The game of football is a battle,” noted one of the contemporaries, the goal of which is “destruction (figurative) or victory over the enemy.”
“Football has such a strong appeal to the American public because it is a war game,” observed Charles Dudley Daley, Harvard quarterback and later West Point head coach, in 1921. in football”.
Perhaps this American affinity for militarism is what draws us to soccer and allows us to tolerate the violence embedded in the game.
(Randall Ballmer is a professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Passion Games: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America.)
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