The Sport of Empire
Last summer my twelve-year-old nephew excitedly told me that he was finally going to get to play real football. That meant being on a school team, wearing a uniform, pads, and a helmet, and tackling. He was excited not only by the prospect of playing the game but by entering a standard rite of American manhood.
I couldn't echo his enthusiasm. Nor could I bring myself to try to explain what was wrong with football. All I could do was to remark on how fast he was growing up.
In November, 2003, when military officials said that U.S. troops would be in Iraq until 2006, I thought of my nephew. In 2006 he would still be too young to join the army or be drafted. But by 2009 he would be eligible, and football would prime him, along with millions of other young men, to take orders on a deadlier battlefield.
Growing up in Wisconsin in the 1960s, I lived in a football-loving culture. The stars of the Green Bay Packers -- Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Forrest Gregg, Willie Davis, Herb Adderly, Jim Taylor, Max McGee, Ray Nitschke, Jerry Kramer -- were minor gods. Vince Lombardi was Zeus.
During the fall, my grade-school buddies and I played football every chance we got. We could talk for hours about teams and players. Every week we made token bets on which teams would win and lose.
On Sundays I watched games on TV with my dad and uncles. They were otherwise stoic men, and I loved seeing the emotion that sports brought out in them. Watching games together also allowed me to be part of the masculine world of the older men whom I admired.
But already by high school my interest in football began to wane as I got involved in other fall sports. After I left for college, I rarely saw a game unless I was visiting home. I still scanned the sports pages to see how the Packers were doing, because that was sure to be talked about at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I didn't think much about football until years later when a friend invited me to watch the Superbowl with him. I declined, saying that I had work to do. But in fact I was put off by the prospect of watching football, and I tried to figure out why.
Had I become a snob, or was there more to it? One thing I realized, in a time of U.S. support for the terrorist contras who were trying to undermine the Nicaraguan revolution, was that I had no desire to revel in a metaphorical enactment of war.
Football, like many games, involves penetrating an opponent's territory. But unlike chess or basketball, violence is integral to football. To like football, you have to enjoy seeing large men hit each other. You have to enjoy a clash of small armies and the drama of combat.
The war metaphor fit in other ways.
In football, a few elite men, coaches and quarterbacks, order beefier men to do the brutal dirty work. And while those on the field are often praised for their courage and strength, it is those who are safe and far from the front lines -- team owners and media corporation shareholders -- who reap the greatest profits.
The sexism of football was also troubling. At a game, men are the serious actors. Women are there only to cheer and provide decoration as sexual objects. A more vivid microcosm of patriarchy would be hard to find.
But at the end of the day, the problem with football isn't metaphorical. The problem is how it shapes us as a people, and the larger consequences that follow.
Football, as both game and spectacle, teaches us to take pride and pleasure in the use of force to dominate others. It reinforces male supremacy. It conditions Americans to cheer for their warriors after the Star-Spangled Banner is played.
Football also begins to turn boys into soldiers. My nephew will learn more than how to block and tackle. He will learn to use his body as a weapon.
He will learn to judge his worth by how much pain he can give and take. He will learn to ridicule those who show vulnerability. He will learn what to call boys who fail to show sufficient emotional toughness: sissies, wimps, girls.
When we read of U.S. soldiers callously killing Iraqi civilians; when we read of them demolishing the homes of relatives of insurgents; when we read of them making mass arrests and brutalizing detainees, we wonder how this could happen. We wonder how our fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, and nephews could do such things.
Part of the answer lies in military training to follow orders and repress feelings of empathy and compassion. Part of the answer lies in fear and a desire to survive. And part of the answer lies in how they are indoctrinated into violent masculinity by sports like football.
Football is just the paradigm case. Other sports can also teach boys to value force, to exult in dominating others, and to embrace an illusion of male superiority. Sports that teach these lessons help to prepare the empire's next generation of stormtroopers.
In a peaceful, nonsexist world, football, if it existed at all, might be seen as a ludicrous anachronism, like a Renaissance fair reenactment of a sword fight between medieval knights. But in a world fraught with war and sexual violence, football remains part of the problem. Anyone who wants a more peaceful world should conscientiously object.