American football is about to start up again– the professional teams have already played their first exhibition games, the college teams are busy training. So it’s a good moment to revisit that eternal question, what is it with us Americans and football? I mean, it’s by far our favorite sport, while most everywhere else in the world it’s a freak-show curiosity. (The NFL tried establishing a branch in Europe, but it never caught on.) On this one, at least, American exceptionalism is alive and well. So if football is one of the things that separate us from the rest of humanity, what kinds of self-knowledge should it teach us?
Of course some of the lessons are pretty obvious. If football’s a window into American psyches, it’s clear we like violence and bright, crayola-style colors. We admire size; we like military discipline, fancy uniforms, and dictatorial leadership. No other sport gives as much power to its coaches, or so consistently tells its players to just shut up and do exactly what they’re told. Not just on the field, either. The coach in Philadelphia makes his players take a urine test every single day, to make sure they’re eating and drinking properly.
You might also think football shows that Americans believe in competition and that we take winning really, really seriously. After all, the NFL’s championship trophy is named for a guy who went around saying “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”– and (so Wikipedia teaches us) he wasn’t even the first football coach to use that line. Given American fondness for winner-take-all, everything-on-the-table capitalism, you can see how football fits in.
But here’s where things get complicated, because a lot of what goes on in football doesn’t quite track with a win-at-all-costs philosophy. Take the hiring and firing of coaches. Especially among the professionals, unsuccessful coaches get hired by new teams over and over; here in Buffalo, they just hired a guy who directed his previous team to a 48 percent winning record over six years, and he’s locally regarded as a huge catch. Meanwhile San Francisco just fired a coach who’d been fantastically successful, apparently because he pissed off the owner’s family.
Sometimes it’s the same with players. Just before last year’s Superbowl, I recounted the story of Marshawn Lynch, right now probably Buffalo’s most famous ex-resident. Lynch is a terrific player, whom the Buffalo citizenry pretty much drove out of town after a few minor misadventures. Since leaving, he’s taken the Seattle team to two championship games, while Buffalo has stayed mediocre– but I haven’t heard a peep of regret about his leaving. On the contrary, the main emotion has been complacency; you could sum it up as, “now the rest of the world will see why we didn’t like this guy.” (In fact it hasn’t played out like that, and Lynch has made it onto the list of adorable American sports stars, on the Shaquille O’Neal model– check out the videos of him gaming with another Superbowl star, playing kickball with kids in Oakland, and embracing another athlete’s mother at a celebration in San Francisco.)
Back in January, I thought Lynch’s story just showed the pleasures of moralizing. My line was, my Buffalo neighbors would rather be judgmental about bad behavior than watch their team win games. But now I’m having doubts, partly because Buffalo has just brought in several documented bad actors, without anyone getting too agitated about it. In fact the local paper ran a “he deserves another shot” column about the worst actor of the bunch.
So we’ve got something of an intellectual mystery here, and in those cases (as I’ve argued before) turning to the Great Philosophers can sometimes help. Where football’s concerned, I think we can do worse than turn to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). The basic Nietzsche story, in case you haven’t encountered it before: he was a boy-genius professor of Greek, who turned increasingly to philosophical questions, became increasingly strange as he did so, and eventually went completely off the rails. Almost no one read his philosophical work during his lifetime, but that changed fast after his death, and for the last century he’s had hall-of-fame status among the Euro thinkers.
Nietzsche can help us divide the universal-human-nature layers of our football question from the what’s-with-us-Americans? layers. On the universal side, he thought that most young men liked bashing into each other, and that we all like watching acts of violence and cruelty. So he’d say there’s nothing especially unusual about football-style games or about masses of people showing up to watch them. They express the basic human condition.
What he would say is distinctive about our football situation is the organization, and here the relevant idea comes from his 1887 Genealogy of Morals: “all utilities are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it.” Which I take to mean, more or less: “lots of social arrangements look like they’re practical means for getting to reasonable objectives, like winning games or making money, but that appearance is deceptive. Really those social arrangements just show that one group has taken power over others, and thereby taken to itself the power of defining what constitute ‘practical means’ and ‘reasonable ends.’ The real story is about the power of some people over others.”
Or to put it more crudely: making grown men take daily urine tests isn’t a means to victory, it’s just a humiliating demonstration of power. Imposing your will on others is the objective.