What's the Most American Sport?

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Is it baseball? Football? Or ...

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Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the sport that best defines America.


Independence Day is America's loudest party. This week we celebrate ourselves and our Creator-endowed, unalienable right to overeat and blow stuff up. On this Red, White, and Blue holiday, let's talk about the Most American Sport. Out of all the games we play and watch, guys which one do you think best represents the character of the nation?

Soccer is obviously out. Fútbol is the world's game, not ours. The same goes for golf, tennis, hockey, and most Olympic events. None of them began here, and the whole world plays them. Any game to be deemed "Most American" would need to be, like the country itself, blessed and/or cursed with a air of exceptionalism.

Basketball has that. The game started here, and was founded by an immigrant. It's also rigorously democratic. Every player is governed by the same rules. Everyone plays both offense and defense. Everyone can handle the ball and score. Freedom, baby, yeah!

Basketball, like America, has also been exported. Over the last century, the game has gone from an experiment solely for Young Male Christian Athletes in Massachusetts —shades of Plymouth Colony—to a game played at the highest level on every continent. In that sense, basketball's spread echoes the rise of American cultural influence in general, and the sport has become one of our calling cards overseas—a weapon in the arsenal of our cultural imperialism, just as surely as rock and roll, blue jeans, Twitter, Coke, and, duh, Nike are.

But hoops has too much flow. The Most American Sport has to be what Fitzgerald called one of "our nervous and sporadic games." That leave NASCAR out, too—despite having the most unflinchingly patriotic fans. Baseball has long been lumped with Mom and Apple pie as a symbol of Americana, of course, but I'd argue the incredibly obvious point that the game has always served as more of a refuge from modern American life, rather than a reflection of it.

Which brings us to the other incredibly obvious point. The most American Sport is pro football. It's the league with stars and stripes on its logo shield. The NFL—a technocratic, legalistic, half-noble, half-savage spectacle that can disgust you one moment and inspire you the next—is the game that, for better and worse, represents us the best.

Guys, you have the right to free speech, thanks to the founders. Anyone care to use it here and disagree?

–Hampton

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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