Football: America's Most Liberal Institution?

When George Will described American football as a liberal institution in his weekend column for The Washington Post, the missive was discarded as an outgrowth of Will's reactionary crankiness.

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When George Will described American football as a liberal institution in his weekend column for The Washington Post, the missive was discarded as an outgrowth of Will's reactionary crankiness. "George Will is a longtime hater of liberalism, and a longtime hater of football, so it makes sense that he would try to align his hatreds and write a column arguing that college football is an expression of liberalism," wrote New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait. Since we're talking about Will, the same guy who thinks trains are inherently liberal (and rotten), that initial assumption made sense. But what if Will's onto something? What if football really is a beacon of American liberalism?

Oddly enough, Will is not alone in this contention. Liberal HBO host Bill Maher thinks it's true. So dues New York Times Magazine ethicist Chuck Klosterman. But each concur in different ways. Put together, you have a case for why football, most beloved by America's reddest states, is America's strongest liberal institution:

Football is liberal because of its economics. If you think about it, the NFL's revenue-sharing and draft rules are basically ripped out of a page of the Communist Manifesto: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. A point Bill Maher makes well: 

The NFL runs itself in a way that would fit nicely on Glenn Beck's chalkboard - they literally share the wealth, through salary caps and revenue sharing - TV is their biggest source of revenue, and they put all of it in a big commie pot and split it 32 ways. Because they don't want anyone to fall too far behind. That's why the team that wins the Super Bowl picks last in the next draft. Or what the Republicans would call "punishing success."

Football is liberal because it discourages individualism. This is a favorite of Will's. "Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity," he writes. He actually tracks back the inspiration for the sport to a need to have a societal power that is the "moral equivalent of war," according to Harvard philosopher William James. "Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production."

Football is liberal because it encourages change and experimentation. If you track the rapid succession of modifications in the sport since the early 1900s, no other American sport can match football's constant embrace of change and evolution. That's a notion Chuck Klosterman picked up on in his 2009 book Eating the Dinosaur. "It feels like a conservative game. It appeals to a conservative mind-set and a reactionary media and it promotes conservative values," he writes.  "In tangible practicality, football is the most progressive game we have. It constantly innovates, it immediately embraces every new technology, and almost all the important thinking about the game is liberal." From the inclusion of the forward pass imposed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the no-huddle offense pioneered by Sam Wyche to the Run and Shoot popularized by Darrel "Mouse Davis," to the addition of in-helmet radios for NFL quarterbacks to instant replays: the sport is always changing.

One example he looks at closely is the rise of the read option play. "Twenty-five years ago, the read option didn't exist. Coaches would have given a dozen reasons why it couldn't be used. Ten years ago, it was a play of mild desperation, most often used by teams who couldn't compete physically," he writes. "But now almost everyone uses it. It's the vortex of an offensive scheme that has become dominant. But ten years from now -- or even less, probably -- this play will have disappeared completely. In 2018, no one will run it, because every team will be running something else. It will have been replaced with new thinking." To Klosterman, the evolution of the read option is representative of the sport. "This is how football always evolves," he writes. "Progressive ideas are introduced by weirdos and mocked by the world, and then everybody else adopts and refines those ideas ten years later."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.