What's the Most American Sport?

Is it baseball? Football? Or ...

Is it baseball? Football? Or ...

AP Images

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?


I'll exercise my oh-so-American First Amendment right, Hampton. Has football been known for nearly 100 years as "America's Pastime"? Did former U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes give football its own special antitrust exemption because it was a series of exhibitions, rather than a business? Is the quintessence of Americana, as you so succinctly put it, Mom, apple pie, and football?

No on all counts. Baseball is the thing, and from its history to its tirelessness to its egalitarianism, it is the most American of sports.

First of all, baseball's been around for more than 150 years, and the MLB started in 1876 (or about 32 years before the Cubs won their last World Series). It was the first sport to move a marquee franchise to the West Coast (the Dodgers and Giants) and the first league to implement full-scale racial integration. It has a pedigree that even football can't match—to wit, there have been 46 Super Bowls and 107 World Series.

Baseball also captures a key American value: working until the job is done, no matter how long it takes. Is it truly American to simply go home when the clock runs out, as in football and basketball? What are we, Greeks? Here in AMERICA, we play all nine innings, all 27 outs, and we'll gladly go to extra innings if it means getting the job done right. The clock never runs out in baseball, and there's something very "Mom and apple pie" about that.

Baseball's also a sport for people of all body types, from David Eckstein to Pablo Sandoval to the literally one-handed Jim Abbott. Sure, the NFL had Tom Dempsey and his clubfoot, but baseball had ol' one arm himself, Pete Gray. No matter how you slice it, baseball is more inclusive a sport.

All that's noise, though, compared to the real reason. Football, with its sideline "cheer-babes," overcommercialization, Bud Light ads, heavy hitting and heavier bragging, may well be what American is. But baseball, with its crisp summer evenings and pristine visages occasionally interrupted by the refreshing crack of bat on ball, is the America we'd like to be.

Is there a sport out there we missed, Patrick? Or are we on the right American track?



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.