Almost from the birth of this nation, there has been a cottage industry in explaining America to the world — and, no less important, to Americans themselves.
The French have been particularly adept at this. And long after Alexis de Tocqueville, but well before Bernard-Henri Levy, the cultural historian Jacques Barzun opined that to understand the heart and mind of America, you had to understand baseball. It certainly sounded plausible and, in a simpler, more homogenous America, might possibly have been true.
But even as Barzun's pronouncement was establishing itself as conventional wisdom, the country was beginning its drift away from the individualistic, pastoral and timeless idyll that was baseball and onto the gridiron where the game was team-oriented, technological, militaristic and replete with deadlines.
Today, more than a half-century later, it would be hard to quarrel with the notion that baseball's emotional stranglehold extends no further than Baby Boomer nostalgia, while Super Bowl Sunday — XLIII, Steelers vs. Cardinals, this weekend in Tampa — is firmly ensconced, along with the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, in the holy trinity of national celebrations. So it's not surprising that a new book offers an entirely different sports metaphor for the path to the heart and mind of this nation: "How Football Explains America" (Triumph Books).
What is surprising, however, is that the book, with its broad historical perspective, is the work of a mainstay at ESPN, hardly a beacon of high culture.
Author Sal Paolantonio, who covers the National Football League for ESPN, gets points — a two-point conversion at least — for offering up a clever riposte to Franklin Foer’s “How Soccer Explains the World.” Foer’s 2004 book was a smart exploration of tribalism in the face of globalism. But while it journeyed from England to Italy to Serbia to Iran, it made little effort to include America under its “football” umbrella.
Paolantonio argues that Foer’s book doesn’t try because it can’t; it is our own football woven out of the very fabric of this nation that provides that key. And that game of football is so thoroughly American that — by contrast with other homegrown games like baseball, basketball or volleyball — it hasn’t traveled successfully at all.
He ignores the fact that the games that have traveled well, like soccer and basketball, are fundamentally simple as well as inexpensive to play. And he refuses to accept the most common argument: that football flourished here because its linear nature was the perfect fit for the little screen of America’s exploding television culture. Instead, he weaves an extravagant American tapestry that links everyone — from Davy Crockett to Teddy Roosevelt to Douglas MacArthur to Johns both Wayne and Coltrane — to our football core. (Somehow even Tocqueville fits in.)
Like all the best talent at ESPN, Paolantonio can riff. And he has some beauties. The 19th-century addition of yardage markers and downs was quintessentially American. Unlike the circuitous flow of soccer or the random rugby scrum, football established clear-cut territorial goals that symbolized this nation’s Manifest Destiny. As a team marches down the field, you don’t have to close your eyes to see the wagons rolling across the frontier. And what is the huddle — largely absent in most other sports — but a representation of our treasured value of assemblage? (Never mind that the values within the huddle are far more despotic than democratic.)
When you go long, as Paolantonio did throughout the book, there are inevitably going to be some touchdowns. And there is no doubt that football embodies many of the tastes and trends — TV, technology, corporate, military, violent, gambling, grilling, boozing, another round of beer, scantily clad women, male bonding — of America in the latter half of the 19th century and into the new millennium. All explain why football is a compelling entertainment, with last year’s Super Bowl commanding a TV audience of some 100 million Americans, and why Americans abroad, like my daughter in Cape Town, arranged for bars to stay open all night so they could remain part of the American collective.
But entertaining America is different than “being” America. The National Football League, the pinnacle of the game, doesn’t exactly represent all-American values real or putative. One could even argue that it is fundamentally more Soviet than American with a corporate culture that is cooperative — at least off the field — rather than competitive. I suspect your college Capitalism 101 course didn’t spend much time on the concepts of parity, revenue sharing and salary caps. Moreover, the league doesn’t simply disdain individualism — don’t take off your helmet on the field, no dancing in the end zone — but punishes it, having worked diligently to earn itself the sobriquet of the No Fun League.
The truth is that America in the year 2009, on the cusp of an Obama presidency, is too diverse and complex to be defined by any one game. Certainly not by a game that relegates one half of the country to the sidelines and, even there, casts them in roles right out of Hugh Hefner’s 1950s playbook. Not by a game that, at its highest level, largely excludes the nation’s fastest growing ethnic groups, Hispanic- and Asian-Americans. Not by a game that, in many parts of America, is played by far fewer kids than soccer. Not by a game that hasn’t dented the political vernacular the way “soccer mom” (or “hockey mom”) did. Not in a nation where our new president is undoubtedly a football fan, but unmistakably a basketball man.