Saturday, October 13, 2012

Beauty & Violence: The Lure of Football

Football is far and away the most watched American spectator activity. It anchors  large domains of American culture especially for males and proves to be the only reliable way to get males 25-45 to watch television.  Midway through the college football season, my Washington Huskies have lost 14 players for the season, four of their five offensive linemen are out for the count. My fantasy football league is decimated. One of the most important pieces of news each week is how many players are out for the next game--injuries and violence permeate the game and are factored into the very press releases each week.

With this daunting remind of the violence and controlled force that permeate the game, I want to remember why watching football can be more than a celebration of violence and domination. A melding of force and beauty flows through the game that offers a unique and intoxicating American sensibility.


Common academic wisdom faults American violence and worship of militarism as the main cause for football obsession. Histories point out that football's first defenders touted it as a way to train men for war. After World War I whose static and reset battle fields startling resembled football, the defense of football as a way to build character and instill military virtues in men became even more strident and self aware. In the fifties and sixties the academic narrative insists that football became the symbolic and active response to a creeping "momyism" that was undermining the masculinity of American males. It also perpetuated the bipolar view of the endless cold war with Russia. The commentaries around football reeked with cold-war images that merely extended football's natural tendency to promote itself as a surrogate or preparation for war, take your pick.

This all may be somewhat true, and it is certainly entertaining to read left wing diatribes and textbooks. If you can ignore the jargon, however, there  might be more here than covert militarism and sexism. I believe there are more things at stake in watching football and for those who do watch the game, it goes beyond just enjoying team victory, violence and domination.

Lynn Swann is my number one evidence. My sister reminded me that he exemplifies the power and beauty of the sport. Watching him run, weave and catch a ball against opposition reminds me of ballet, a violent, armored ballet. If you think of the Greek ideal of athlete as one who contests and masters skills and deploys them in competition, Swann demonstrates how the mind, character and skill weave together into moments of sheer ferocious beauty amid violence.


Evan after intense tackles, Swann held onto the ball. How a player holds and protects the football itself involves practice, effort and unrelenting focus and technique. At the very moment of triumph, the catch, the other team tries to not just tackle but knock the ball out and take the triumph away. Holding on after the catch can demonstrate courage, focus, strength and technique as well as the catch.

Swann was a fierce competitor who helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to three super bowl wins. He played against defenses designed to stop him. Here is another dimension of football. It is a reset sport, which is why it really is not like real war at all. It stops the play, lets everyone go back to the huddle, plan and then execute again. This reset permits strong and smart coaches to watch for tendencies and call plays and try to outthink and outanticipate the other team. The whole game resembles a complex match of move, countermove and counter counter moves.

The other dimension that Swann epitomize is that football is not just about brute force or violence. Within the matrix of physical strength and swirling violence of player on player, individuals possess skill and speed and pattern recognition that permits them to excel amid the organized but chaotic violence of the field. Football is a field of combat, in no other team sport do players violentaly assualt each other so directly and consistently.


In football the strongest and most violent do not always win. Technique, misdirection, pattern recogniztion, speed can all compensate for and usually win over sheer brute physical force. What can be fascinating is how the other team is trying to aggressively disrupt your technique and formations, so that players must exhibit focused attention and physical courage to keep the form from disintegrating under the physical assault of other players. This is where Swann's catches surrounded by chaos capture the tantalizing power of football.


I still remember when Swann appeared on Mr. Rogers and demonstrated to my six year old how a great football player danced ballet and used the focus and beauty of ballet to augment his own technique and achievement. Swann also showed off his uniform and helmet but reminded the children that beneath lay a commitment to form and technique.

At its best the game demonstrates how force can be melded with technique governed by thought in competition against other trained and thinking opponents. The substructure may be controlled violence, but the superstructure can embody form, beauty and mind.


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