Our generation is the most well informed and technologically advanced in human history. We’re also the softest. Maybe it was the over-praising helicopter parents (thanks Generation X), or the participation trophies or the fact that social media can make a person’s actions when they’re 15 cost them a job when they’re 30.
Whatever the cause, somehow, some way, we have arrived at a point where little kids’ rough-housing is “misbehaving” and Tufts University sends out an email prior to the fall semester advising its 18- to 23-year-old student body to schedule 20 minute “worry breaks” throughout the day.Last spring the Daily’s managing board refused to run a punch to the gut/hit back harder metaphor in a lacrosse article for fear that it promoted aggressive behavior. Though we are incessantly coddled and see our natural aggression squelched and frowned upon by the powers that be, there is a small spark in many of us — buried deep in our gut, well beneath our politeness and good manners and just out of reach of our common sense — that just wants to throw some haymakers. And for us, there is football.
“Sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence” is a central element of serious sport, wrote Eric Arthur Blair, known by his pen name George Orwell, in 1945. Orwell noted that it was the most “violently combative sports” in the early 20th century, soccer and boxing, that had spread the widest. Of course, violent sporting events originated long before Orwell’s time. Ancient Romans were holding ‘last man standing' gladiator contests and chariot races that would make NASCAR pileups look like fender benders. The Greeks’ ancient Olympics included fierce combat sports, along with races where the runners wore body armor and swung weapons at their opponents.
Violence and sport have always gone hand in hand, so the appeal of American football, arguably the most physical and gritty team game there is, should come as no surprise. We can walk around our liberal arts campus and sit through our ethics classes pretending to be pacifists, but for some of us, that won’t prevent the adrenaline from shooting up our spines when we see a strong safety streak across the field and lay out a receiver. It won’t prevent our eyes from widening with delight as we watch a 6-foot-4-inch, 325-pound mountain of a man who runs a five-second forty come off the edge and sack some poor quarterback who never saw him coming.
I have never played a down of organized tackle football. At 5 feet,10 inches and 150 pounds, most college punters would look like Aaron Donald standing next to me. My mom was born in Finland to a German father and Finnish mother, and my dad is the son of two English immigrants who arrived in Boston a few years before his birth. None of my grandparents knew a thing about American football. Nobody in my extended family has ever played a down of football. Yet, I can’t remember a Thanksgiving without the Detroit Lions on my TV (the Lions play every year on Thanksgiving, believe me, we don’t go out of our way to watch them). It should come as no surprise that watching football became a tradition in my immigrant family. Football, more than any other sport, is woven into the fabric of American life.
On Friday nights, the neon lights shine over high school fields in small farming towns, sprawling suburbs and urban neighborhoods alike. Thousands of Coach Taylors (for all the “Friday Night Lights” (2006–11) faithfuls) give locker room speeches to tens of thousands of Tim Riggins, who proceed to sprint onto the gridiron in front of hundreds of thousands of family members, classmates and neighbors. Middle-aged men at diners and bars across the country take a sip of their ice-cold beers after a long work day and feel a smile come to their faces when they think of the big play they made decades ago. Country star Luke Combs sings to sold-out crowds, “I was a third-string dreamer on a second-place team/ But I was hell on wheels with a full head of steam/ When coach put me in/ And I’m still proud of that hit.”
Every Saturday in the fall, college games and rivalries cause boatloads of students (except in the Northeast where college football is, well, just not the same) to stuff hundred-million-dollar stadiums to celebrate traditions that reflect their schools’, and oftentimes states’, unique spirits and histories. There’s the “Jump Around” (1989) at the University of Wisconsin, Howard’s Rock at Clemson University and Ralphie the Buffalo’s pre-game run at the University of Colorado Boulder. Then there are the phrases that became gospel. Two or three words that, when said, can bond two strangers in seconds. There's "Hook ’em Horns" at the University of Texas at Austin, "Roll Tide" at the University of Alabama, "War Eagle" at Auburn University, "Go Blue" at the University of Michigan and "Boomer Sooner" at the University of Oklahoma.
College football matters so much to so many that Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the 69-year-old heir to Bear Bryant, considered by many to be the best college coach ever, recently said that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi “probably” has a more important job than him. A lot of people at 9 a.m. Saturday morning tailgates on the Gulf Coast would disagree. The state school college football spectacle is enough to make any football fan at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast scratch their head and wonder what in the world they were prioritizing while choosing a college during their senior year of high school.
And then there are Sundays. For years, professional football has been mired in controversy over chronic traumatic encephalopathy, greedy and morally corrupt owners and incidents of despicable off-the-field player behavior. But come kickoff at 1 p.m. on Sunday, millions of us can’t look away. The Super Bowl is routinely the most-watched television event of the year, and our country doesn’t even have the space or time to pay attention to a professional league for the “futbol” that the rest of the world obsesses over.
Every Monday in the fall, you can walk into any of the more than 1,000 Dunkin Donuts in Massachusetts and strike up a conversation with a stranger about Sunday’s New England Patriots game. Same goes for the Buffalo Bills at any gas station in upstate New York or the Green Bay Packers at any Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Wisconsin. Football runs deep.
After the football gods and referees once again smiled down on Tom Brady on opening night against the Cowboys, the sport’s ultimate golden boy was asked by NBC Sports’ Michele Tafoya about Dak Prescott, the Cowboys’ quarterback who played beautifully in his first game since suffering a gruesome compound ankle fracture early last season.
“It’s what sports are all about,” Brady said. “They push us to understand who we are, what our character is out there … he came out and played a hell of a game.”
Perhaps a transcendent game like football can also push us, the fans, to understand who we are. Maybe we watch because deep down we crave a sense of aggression and physicality that evades us in our everyday lives. Maybe we watch to be a part of a crowd of 100,000 that claps, cheers and cries with but a single heartbeat. Maybe it’s immoral that we watch despite the dangers the game poses to those who play it and the well-documented crookedness of those who profit most from it. Or maybe it’s precisely what we’re meant to do: to come together with our schools, our hometowns and our families. For better or for worse, football, more than anything else in American life, represents exactly who we are.