Is Football the American War Game?

Posted: 2010/09/18 in Current Issues, Football, Sports, Winning/Losing
Tags: , , , , , ,

“The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.” ~Dwight D. Eisenhower


Yesterday, I spent an hour watching a variety of homemade Oregon Duck anthems, from the famous “I Love My Ducks” to “Eugene Lean” to the very latest. It then started occurring to me what power a team has over an entire fan base. Victories and defeats really can pull us apart or bring us together. In fact, sports psychology has proven the whole “we” vs. “them” ideology for both good and bad times in a team.

Have you ever noticed that when our team is winning, we say, “Oh, we did so well against Tennessee last week.” But if they’re losing we ask, “Ugh why didn’t he make that pass? That would’ve saved them in the 3rd quarter!” This brings me to an even more specific point- If football has that kind of power over our language, what kind of power does it have over our psyche in general? Even further, does it draw parallels to other types of human activity?

Sports psychology, and psychology in general has always fascinated me. I wish there was a sports psychology program at the University of Oregon. Alas, getting back on track, let me ask you this question: Is football a substitute for war?
Now before you adamantly nod or shake your head one way or another, consider this- much of football’s language stems from war terms: blitz, bombs, and flanks. Play strategies are often configured the way war strategies are and vice versa. The rules of football today are like the rules of wars of old- clearcut, easy to understand, and with a clear winner after only a few hours of play.

In the last decade or so, wars have gotten much more complex. We’re finally out of Iraq but we’re onto Afghanistan. A whole generation of American children will have been born into these wars, with no knowledge of what peacetime America is like. Contrarily, Americans are tired of reading about and paying attention to our conflicts overseas. Our attention span is short, which is why it’s so easy to simply sit down to watch our favorite team play football.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion over this controversy. Frank Deford, dubbed as the “the greatest sportswriter of all time” by GQ, recently ruffled feathers by suggesting that fans are ignoring the increasing violence in the NFL. He was not the first person to compare football to war. He explains that football today is much more violent than any of our other sports, but that it fits into our very violent culture- from music to television to sports, we are a culture that thrives on watching people hurt one another.

Deford explains, “And for all the beautiful excitement in football — the kickoff returns, the long touchdown passes — the one constant is the hitting. We very much enjoy watching football players hit one another. That makes the highlight reel.”

The next day, war and peace columnist Paul Pillar of The National Interest responded with a firm agreement. He presented the idea that as wars got less conclusive, football became more so. He also discussed the fact that each week coaches focus on one opponent at a time and that each game’s goal is clearly about victory. Everyone participating and watching the game is clear about why they’re doing it.

Next week, we’ll go into further discussion about sports fans and about the “us vs. them” thinking that traps many of us. But for now, I want to hear from you- do you agree or disagree with this argument? At what point does the outcome mean more than the game itself, and what parallels does it draw to modern day conflict?

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