Football as American Sanctum


Part three of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Click here for part one and part two.

Every weekend in America, from August to January, there is a cultural phenomenon that binds millions of us in passionate spectatorship: football. On Friday nights it is high school, Saturday is when the colleges go at it, and then Sunday—the climactic moment in the pigskin orgy—we have wall-to-wall NFL action.

For countless Americans, the Sunday ritual of church in the morning and then NFL all afternoon is one of the most treasured rites of seasonal passage. Sure, there’s a lot to be disgusted by in the whole rigmarole: excessive TV watching is not good, and neither is the emphasis on bad beer, scantily-clad cheerleaders, inflated egos, etc. For these reasons, I often prefer the college football scene—which has some semblance of that “love of the game” fidelity that make movies like Rudy oh-so-moving.

But regardless of its good and bad qualities, football is unquestionably a HUGE part of American culture. I, for one, am smitten, and unashamedly so. But what is it that’s so attractive?

In the September issue of Christianity Today, Eric Miller attacks this question head on in his cover story, “Why We Love Football.” He argues that when we watch football we “see our world far more roundly than we ever see it on CNN. Many of us feel it as fully as we feel it anywhere. The NFL is us.” But what is in football that is a microcosm of real life? Miller thinks there is plenty:

The phenomenon of professional football—with its relentless specialization, its inordinately complex ‘strategic planning,’ its rapid assimilation of new technologies… it’s rhythm of quick bursts and pregnant pauses, its gleaming sensuality of (safe!) violence and sex, its worship of the youthful body, its intense drive for the jolting climax—spits our way of life back on us in neat three-hour packages.

I think this is all true, but I also think there are more rudimentary levels at which our attraction to football is forged. It has to do with our human impulse (highly encouraged in America) to be psychologically preoccupied with competition—with the separation of every human activity into winners and losers, victory and defeat.

Football is the poster-child for competition as product, as commodity. Many sports and games are similar in this way, but football is especially so. It’s a site where people can do (and must do) things totally taboo in the real world: like smashing into each other with all the rage and force one can muster. It’s a place where the consequences for losing are less severe than in our real life battles, and yet the glories of winning are doubly as sweet.

We might think of our everyday human lives as an assemblage of battles and struggles—to make money, to find food, shelter, a mate, etc… Everyday we face the stresses and traumas of battles lost and won. Sometimes we get knocked down and have a hard time getting up. It’s a constant uphill battle, and the consequences are life and death. It’s no wonder we spend so much of our free time invested in sports—where the battles of our everyday lives are condensed, lightened, and made entertaining. Watching sports like football offers us a time to live in a high-intensity game (which we can relate to) without the fear of personal defeat or real-life consequences.

In game theory there is a term called the “magic circle”—the space within which a game takes place, as differentiated from “real life” outside the circle. But why do we enter in to and spend so much of our lives within the artificial sphere or “magic circle” of games? I think it is probably because of the control we have over it via the consciousness which allows us to establish and maintain the circle in the first place. We are the creators of things like football, and we determine the rules—what is or is not allowed. In our real-life struggles we often have no control over the rules—and yet we must still live under and work through them. Games, however, are our created spaces of agency and escape—where we empower ourselves to feel in control, to feel strong and victorious: something in life that is much harder to experience.

2 responses to “Football as American Sanctum

  1. WOW! How insightful! I wonder if this is the reason I like games so much? Cuz I’m in more control and I understand the rules. Maybe that’s why I don’t have a girlfriend?

    Just kidding, but the thought is insightful.

  2. Sometimes we get knocked down and have a hard time getting up.

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