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Football and War: The Oddly Similar Comparisons
Violence and Entertainment Entails The History of the Most Popular Sport In The World. But Where's It Headed In The Future?
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I still remember this very clearly and it comes up every now and then.
A few years ago at Boston University, my philosophy professor asked the international students in my class “what is the strangest thing you observed when coming to America?”
One kid said all the food options. Another kid mentioned how different people are depending on which state you’re in.
Then it was this girls turn from Scandinavia.
She introduces herself, where’s she from, and what she’s studying. Then the professor goes “What is the strangest thing about America?”
She looks up and says “American Football. It’s two sides of men trying to kill each other and advance down the field. It’s so warlike and is only really played in America.”
Wow. I had never even thought of that before, but it still shocks me to this day of how right she is.
Let’s dive in 👇
The History of American Football
The first American football game was played on November 6, 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton using rules based on soccer at the time. Rutgers won the game 6–4.
A set of rule changes drawn up from 1880 onward by Walter Camp, the "Father of American Football", established the snap, the line of scrimmage, eleven-player teams, and the concept of downs.
Despite these new rules, football remained a violent sport. Dangerous mass-formations like the flying wedge resulted in serious injuries and deaths.
19 fatalities occurred in 1905, which resulted in a threat by President Theodore Roosevelt to abolish the game unless major changes were made.
In response, 62 universities met in New York City to discuss rule changes in December of 1905. These proceedings resulted in the formation of the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, later renamed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Today, nearly 1.1 million high school athletes and 70,000 college athletes play football in the United States annually.
The National Football League (NFL) is the most popular American professional league and has the highest average attendance of any professional sports league in the world.
The Super Bowl ranks among the most-watched club sporting events in the world.
The NFL has an annual revenue of around $13 billion, making it the most valuable sports league in the world.
On November 12, 1892, Pudge Heffelfinger was paid $500 to play a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association in a match against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
This is the first recorded instance of a player being paid to participate in a game of American football, although many athletic clubs in the 1880s offered indirect benefits such as:
helping players attain employment
giving out trophies or watches
paying double in expense money
Football was founded not long after the Civil War, which I find as no surprise that it CLOSELY resembles war.
Football and The Similarities of War
Football and many combative team sports are really just modern expressions of warfare.
Here are the main ones:
Like the Roman Colosseum.
Like war. There’s an offense and a defense. How you align your players and put them to their specialties matters.
Offensive coordinators sit high like a spy plane.
Anything to get an advantage. Cough Cough the Patriots.
Two armies rushing at each other in war.
The generals and decision makers.
Help injured players off the battlefield.
Padding and equipment for protection and to enable fearlessness.
War, not a battle.
Long seasons, as you’ll lose some battles but the best warriors and generals come out on top at the end.
Top warriors were famous, just like the top football players enjoy similar benefits.
Soldiers might suffer from PTSD, where as NFL players suffer from CTE or other chronic pains.
America Loves War (And Football)
Just like the Romans use to pack in a colosseum to watch the top warriors fight.
Americans pack into modern day colosseums to watch the top armies fight it out.
Great warriors were the highly-paid stars of days past and enjoyed the admiration of the people.
It is in ancient Rome that we get a great comparison between the warfare of times past and the warfare we see on fields across the earth today.
The Romans were warlike and organized, and they were used to winning. They built large stadiums in order to watch their bloodsports.
Deriving from the broader football-as-war analogy, athletes become warriors or soldiers, whilst coaches are regarded as generals.
The offensive coordinator sits high above the fray (in the skybox), cold-bloodedly calling individual plays that are then executed by the team on the field. Each of the players is a cog in the machine as every one has been drilled and drilled until they do exactly as they’re told.
There is minimal decision making on the field, especially as wireless technology has improved.
In football, you’re always facing one direction, always trying to advance the ball towards the end zone.
American culture loves our individual heroes and we actively seek them out. Football seems tailor made for this, particularly since the NFL deliberately spotlights specific players.
The weekly sports shows, fantasy football, and pregame build ups intentionally pick “good guys” and “bad guys.”
They love a special interest story, and play to American hero worship as much as possible.
American culture is far less responsive to sports that limit individual heroics. How is this a problem?
In football games, opposing teams often try to limit individuals instead of playing a fluid team sport. In war, military efforts often look for specific individuals to assassinate or capture.
But where is the game headed?
The Future of Football
I think there’s a chance football will go extinct at some point in my life.
“No Way!” is what you’re probably thinking. But hear me out.
Americans just want to be entertained and have a sense of pride in something.
We use to get our entertainment in blood and death.
We now get it through physical violence, but not in death.
Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and it’s only a matter of time before it catches up.
If e-Sports successfully merges with VR and AR, then that might be our new entertainment.
The best players will be playing in a virtual world with fans and no death or physical violence.
Definitely a possibility.
I hope you enjoyed this deep dive!
You might watch the Super Bowl on Sunday with a slightly different perspective.
I encourage you to share this article with someone else. Thank you!
Enjoy the weekend,