An Intellectual's Defense of Football


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Every intellectual who loves football has faced a moment like it.

Suppose you are out tonight at some sort of highbrow cultural event—a gallery opening, a book signing. Maybe even hanging around the local boho-friendly coffee shop. You may mention that the Monday Night Football regular season premier is tonight and kicks off with an unprecedented and absurd doubleheader. And suddenly, you might find yourself chatting with a person who doesn't like football. Not someone who merely ignores the sport, but truly believes that the game is a malevolent force in American life.

Most often, they will only be snobs—mere cynics who think popular culture itself is an oxymoron. For them, following football is indistinguishable from a larger lifestyle that includes eating fast-food, shopping at Wal-Mart, driving an SUV, and wearing unstylish clothing—all mortal sins.

What's more appalling about football for the cynic, though, isn't the game itself, but the unabashed affection hardcore fans have for it. Truly loving a football team—living and dying with every snap, getting decked out for games, hugging strangers after touchdowns—demands a sincerity and unaffected passion that's as painful to the cynic as daylight is to a vampire.

If the football-basher is an academic, the rhetoric tends to get much more specific, and more politicized. Words like "patriarchy" and "sexist" are tossed around. Almost inevitably the cheerleading squad is denounced as "exploiting" women's bodies—nevermind the men's bodies exploited on the field. Then comes a complaint about college football supposedly robbing resources from serious educational pursuits—apparently on the theory that those 80,000 people who show up for Crimson Tide games would otherwise be attending lectures on French Symbolist poetry.

But even reasonable people can have qualms about the game—the rampant commercialism, the slightly seedy, very intimate relationship with gambling. For the NFL, the very success of the league makes it hard to identify with the players. That is, unless you also happen to be a highly paid, oversized, world-class athlete who's been given special treatment since grade school.

Whatever form, and whoever makes them, the arguments against football boil down to one of two basic objections. First, the games simply don't matter—not in the grand scheme of things. Does anybody lose their house because of those 22 guys running after a little brown ball? Does anybody die because some kicker misses a field-goal that would have won a game for the home team?

Yes on both counts. First, if the kick was missed in Oakland or Philly, the kicker himself would be in deep water. And, given the aforementioned relationship between football and gambling, you can also be pretty sure that someone's life—or at least their thumbs and kneecaps—is riding on every point.

The larger idea—that football games aren't life-or-death for most fans—is true, but couldn't be more irrelevant. Of course, the games don't matter. That's the whole idea. Life is serious, confusing, and scary. Sports are a refuge from real-world problems—and a place to release all the angst they cause. To be a football fan is to enter a world where you can paint your face, whoop and holler, and wear the silliest hat you can find—provided it's in team colors. You can be primal, tribal in a way that's simply not socially acceptable in any other context. If life-and-death issues were at stake, it wouldn't be entertainment.

In football, unlike life, the rules are always well-defined, the end is always clear, and distinguishing between good and evil is as simple as looking at the color of a jersey. In football, wrongs are instantly punished, with any injustices corrected through replay. If the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas and still function, a fan must know that the outcome of a game doesn't matter one bit, yet simultaneously believe that nothing could ever be more important.

The other ubiquitous argument against the game, sport, national metaphor, way of life, and pseudo-faith of American tackle football is that it is violent.

Certainly, football demands speed and timing, meticulous planning, and pinpoint execution. The athletes are magnificent. The coaches, at their best, are chess grandmasters. Undoubtedly, fans also love the game for the feeling of community that comes from rooting for team, and the sheer sensory overload, and wild electricity of a packed, frenzied stadium. But the essence of the game is unquestionably brute force. The entire football-industrial complex—every beer commercial, every pom-pom and PSL—runs on the idea that Americans like to watch very large human beings smash into each other.

The plain, biological fact is that human beings tend to be violent—especially young men, brimming with testosterone—and they had that tendency long before the mighty scourge of pigskin befell the land. By teaching self-discipline, teamwork, leadership, self-sacrifice, and good sportsmanship, football—at its best, anyway—bridles all that unbridled masculine energy, channeling into something more socially constructive than, say, joining a street gang.

Football tells us that violence can be beautiful when performed for the sake of a greater good. As American society has become more genteel, that premise has become a cultural fault line—the assumption from which all other assumptions flow. You either believe violence can, in fact, be beautiful, or you don't. More specifically, you either think that football is a relatively harmless, darned entertaining outlet for the human need to compete, or, frankly, you just haven't been paying attention.

Violence, for good and ill, is the beauty of it. Except perhaps boxing, no other sport asks so much. That's why people pay to see it. And that's why so many of us won't go to a book-signing or gallery opening, but stay home—and up late—to watch a ridiculous-in-the-best-possible-way, eight solid hours of Monday Night Football tonight.