What's the Most American Sport?

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Jake,

You make a good argument. So does Hampton. Baseball truly is an all-American pastime—as much as any bastardization of the British Empire's most enduring export, cricket, can be. And to borrow from George Will, football really does combine the two most salient aspects of modern American life: violence and committee meetings.

Still, both of you are wrong.

Baseball is so 19th century: agrarian and pastoral, a dawdling game for an analog nation, made tolerable by liberal application of beer, a sport so sporadically exciting that the players require chemical stimulants to stay awake. And football? 20th century, through and through, a brain-mashing metaphor for land acquisition via physical intimidation and harm, suffused with quasi-military language and culture and wrapped in a bow of technocratic inscrutability. Yossarian would fit right in.

Gentlemen, look forward. Not backward. Acknowledge that the most American of sports—here, now, in the 21st century, the age of the iPhone and the God Particle, if not yet the flying car—is, in fact, a video game. Madden NFL.

I'm completely serious.

First and foremost, Madden-playing is a sport. At least as much as poker. And chess. And golf. It takes physical skill, perpetual practice and surprising stamina. Winners are crowned; losers are humbled; mastery is rewarded. More to the point, you can make money playing it. Though that alone isn't what makes Madden America's Game.

No, what makes Madden the quintessential sport for our era is the game's connection to the zeitgeist, the way it contains cultural multitudes. Madden is a branding story: cover athletes, commercials, catch phrases, a fake national holiday, a titular celebrity endorser who—as Obi-Wan might put it—has become more brand than man. The game is a business story, too, one that mirrors the best (crafty entrepreneur with a dream creates disruptive hit product) and worst (too-big-to-fail corporate behemoth crushes competitors with cash to create de facto market monopoly) aspects of modern American aspirational capitalism.

Then there's this: Madden is exactly the way we now experience sports. And frankly, the whole wide world. Through display screens. In perpetually mediated fashion. Clickable, malleable, and customizable. We have seen the cosmos, and it is us. The Washington Redskins stink? Not after I'm done with franchise mode. Is Madden real? Does real matter? The game is as real as "Dancing With the Stars" and all things Kardashian. It's an entertainment product, and above all else, we are an entertainment culture. The only real sins in contemporary America are to: (a) be boring; (b) stay that way. In its endless iterating, its constant tweaking and changing and restless self-reinvention, Madden works hard to avoid that fate—as does America itself.

To put things another way: the beauty of America is that things always change. The Constitution is flexible. We're not wedded to the past. We barely remember it. Does anyone remember Madden's horrible passing cone?

Jake, Hampton, our great nation just celebrated its 236th birthday. Two-plus centuries from now, I don't know if we'll still be playing football (we're a land of spacious skies, amber waves, and trial lawyers) or baseball (we're going to need better amphetamines). But I'm sure we will still be playing video games. Which means, in a way, America will still be playing Madden. Even if it's simulating Rollerball.

–Patrick

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Sports Roundtable

Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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