I like to think of myself as a very casual fan of America. I do not vote or say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem except when I am afraid of scandalizing companions who wouldn't understand my decision, which is grounded in a certain 1973 Supreme Court decision. Nor am I a huge believer in progress. As far as I am concerned every century since the 10th has been radically worse than the one that came before it.
The exception to all this is sports. Here I am comfortable being absurdly jingoistic and applauding progress.
America should be given her due. We have a short and mostly unedifying history almost entirely lacking in the romantic appeal of virtually any other nation (including Canada), barely any meritorious literature, and very little attractive architecture. But we did invent jazz and the Banquet Beer and Terminator 2 and all the best games.
We may not be artistic geniuses in this country, but we are very good at taking other people's stuff and making it better. Sometimes we even manage to make it perfect — like we did with football.
Football's predecessor is soccer, which is not a sport per se; it is an activity best suited to entertaining very small children, like playing with Play-Doh or making castles out of popsicle sticks and glue. It's easy to understand why it's popular: its "rules," if you can call them that, are absurdly simple, and all you need to play is a generic round ball.
Football, on the other hand, is soccer as it might have been if peasants in medieval England had had more time and guile on their hands; the difference between chasing a randomly chosen vaguely spherical object into a gap between posts and the autumnal stratonic glory of football is like the difference between a yurt and Strawberry Hill. Soccer is like checkers, which anyone can play even though it is simple and boring; football is like chess, which anyone can play but even genius-level intellects can sink their lives into studying.
This is all nonsense. Football is great.
All of the best would-be arguments ever made against football are, to my mind, exacting descriptions of its appeal. Malcolm Gladwell once dismissed it as a "dumb and violent 19th century game." That's like saying jazz is "dumb and loud early 20th century music." Of course it is. That's why it's great. As George Carlin, who preferred baseball, famously put it:
Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. … In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line. [George Carlin]
What more do you need to say? Football is a varied, engrossing, mentally and physically demanding pastime; it is tag, Risk, kickball, and the Commentarii de Bello Gallico all rolled into one. It is also a ready-made mythology for a young country devoid of legends. In the United States it is impossible to revere much of our history because we are too close to it; it is easier to have romantic attachments to a remote past — and even easier to channel all these instincts into something essentially meaningless, to take anger and factionalism and the desire to triumph over one's enemies into a Saturday or Sunday afternoon spent outdoors and leave them there.
What I find baffling is the idea that this game is not a suitable one for children. President Obama, perhaps the biggest football fan to occupy the Oval Office since Richard Nixon, declared in 2014 that if he had sons he probably would not allow them to play. Participation in youth football has been declining steadily for years. Some of this can be chalked up to smartphones and video games, but coaches acknowledge that fears about head injuries have made many parents wary of allowing their sons to play.
When I was in elementary school we played football every day at recess until there was snow on the ground, generally tackle football as long as the recess ladies weren't paying attention. They usually weren't — or so we thought: Probably they just understood that we were having fun and didn't feel the need to interfere. At the same age, my favorite books were The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood and The Three Musketeers. I liked Spielberg movies a lot. My mind ran on legends, fantasies, visions, enchantments. There was no conceivable distinction between nerds and jocks: Luke Skywalker and John Elway were both glorious heroes.
My mother would not have had an easy time convincing me that I shouldn't want to play Pop Warner, much less schoolyard pick-up football, because however romantic, it was also dangerous. After all, danger and romance were basically the point.