Historically and deservedly, baseball has been this country’s favorite sport. Playing baseball has been encouraged because it teaches valuable life skills: it allows each individual a turn to demonstrate personal ability to connect bat with ball, to run, to catch and throw. Baseball teaches teamwork: throwing the ball to the next fielder, hitting the ball in such a way that other players can score, providing the pitcher with infield and outfield backup. Being a “good sport” means giving others a turn at bat (“turn at bat” being a phrase in our national lexicon), accepting losses graciously, cheering when others succeed. Like real life, baseball teaches individual skills, encourages self esteem as well as team pride, teaches that all players and the game benefit when each one is allowed to perform well.
Baseball is an intelligent game; it is a thinking person’s sport, whether as a participant or spectator. Spectators can think with each play, can anticipate each movement, can focus on individual efforts to perform each task. Its plays and movements have beauty and grace and charm.
None of these skills and values particularly capture the spirit of football.
In football, the primary focus is to stop other players from performing. Only two players on a team actually accomplish anything: the one who throws the ball and the one who catches it. The others are there to stop the whole process; to knock someone down; to impede the opponent’s progress. Instead of giving each other a turn, players must prevent the opposing time from covering any ground.
Football appeals to our aggressive natures (hello! reptilian brain); it lumps a group of players together who grunt themselves up or down a field with nothing but a number to distinguish them; it focuses on preventing, blocking, hitting, striking down. Football began in the mid-19th century as a violent sport that was soon adopted by military academies to prepare cadets for the rigors of war.*
Like war, virtually every play in football carries with it the threat of injury to players. Like military training, football builds solid teamwork based on two premises: for the sake of your team, do whatever is necessary to stop the opponent; for the sake of your team, be willing to endure or cause personal injury. The bond among players is like the bond among soldiers: together we live or die.
Yet today, rather than than baseball with its inspiring life lessons, it is violent football that is marketed, not just during playing season, but 365 days a year. Even during baseball’s World Series, greater focus will be on whatever is or isn’t happening in football. Football try-outs for next season are given more publicity than the most intense baseball game. Every football contract, every player draft and, increasingly, every player misconduct is treated as a national event.
Whence comes this increase in popularity of a mean sport? Whether it is commercial television news or a gameshow, every anchor, guest and contestant makes some comment to cheer on the beastly game of football. Is everyone who appears on a television screen a heart-and-soul devotee of the game? Or have they actually been ordered to promote football?
With tailgate parties, football caps, shirts, jackets, fantasy games, ad infinauseum, our consumer souls have been cleverly marketed, seduced, bought and paid for.
How did this happen? Clearly, in my mind, the shift from baseball to football was not accidental. But who is responsible for putting the pressure-cooker plan into gear? Who lit the fire under the behinds of sports advocates and media owners? Who are they who see their own goals aligned with the aggressive and more violent animalistic nature of football? Perhaps we should follow the money.
Obsession with football suggests (to me) a connection with those who have a vested interest in promoting violence, which includes anyone marketing weapons for domestic or international use, anyone who sees their future brightest if they succeed in keeping the people cheering violence and aligned with war.
Timing suggests to me the possibility that the film “Field of Dreams” planted the seed of envy and spawned a determination to “sack” baseball, whatever the cost. (Admit it: In no way could a similar story could be told about football.) That film probably set sharply on edge the teeth of those who, rather than the healing outreach of son to father for a “game of catch,” want us to admire “manly” men, who after being bowled over by several hulks in uniform, stagger to their feet; men who defy, even court pain.
War used to be something the United States considered as a last resort; today war has become a way of life, an enormously profitable business that sucks up most of the money our citizens pay into taxes.**
This 21st century has provided more than enough war to promote the battering, bruising, brutal game of football. Respond to violence with violence; promote a sport that teaches the value and valor of violence; promote a sport that can also serve as Military 101. Somehow, commercial media was enlisted to bathe football in the aura of glory, to voice breathless praise of this unpraiseworthy sport, turning the game into a year-round obsession. Toward that end, football is now advertised and promoted 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
To those who seem intent on exploiting to its utmost the financial benefits of war, how better to keep popular support open to war’s inevitability than to whet the national appetite for a sport that is fed by those same energies, loyalties and passions? If we align the endless necessity of war with endlessly in-your-face football, the entire nation will be on the same page for the bright (and for some the prosperous) future of endless conflict.
*”Football Shaped by Military,” 2012, http://news.discovery.com/history/military-influence-football-120203.html accessed September 20, 2015.
**After working on this blog for some time, I saw an article in the October 19, 2015, Los Angeles Times on this very point by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, who is the author of “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.” Look for the article. Read the book.