You should know that what follows is an utterly biased blog post. I am a lifelong football fan, specifically of the St. Louis Rams (farewell, Sam Bradford). So many cherished memories include the blending of football and family that often I find myself using NFL games as a shorthand to identify particular snapshots of memory. As far as I can recall there has never been a time in my life that watching, playing or “Maddening” football has not been featured.
Football matters to many people. From a numbers standpoint, pro football has graded out as the country’s #1 sport for a generation. That doesn’t even take into account the Leviathan known as college football, or the head-spinning salaries of some high school football coaches in places like Texas. Much, much more than a pastime, football has become a cultural ritual, uniquely American and irresistably populist. Let’s face it: You know you’re kind of big deal when mainstream media campaigns for your championship weekend to be a federal holiday.
Setting aside the financial and cultural gravitas, why does football matter? If you believe that a society’s sporting does not matter because it’s, well, sport, you can stop reading now. This isn’t a defense of sports or a case for the cultural significance of games. Those can be read elsewhere in much abler hands. But I believe that football in particular is a game that encapsulates parts of what it means to be human, and does so in a way that elevates the human spirit and will in the context of brotherhood.
Football is obviously more invested in brute strength than basketball, but what many people miss is the very strategic and controlled strength that football requires. You can’t simply be 6-7, 310 lbs, have a temper and expect to succeed in football. The sport requires a player to identify certain kinds of strength and be able to apply them in specific situations. Protecting a quarterback, for example, requires a much different application of power than blocking for a running halfback. Whereas the latter demands forward drive, directional blocking and good acceleration, the former requires patience, timing, placement and discipline. The goal of un blocking is gaining ground, while pass blocking is about standing your ground.
Wisdom is often defined colloquially as the practical application of knowledge to life. That’s not far from a workable definition of biblical wisdom. In his book Jesus the Sage, Ben Witherington says that the wisdom of Proverbs often means “knowing the right thing to do, or how to judge and evaluate various options presented to one.” This Witherington identifies as biblical discernment. Even in football’s seemingly most non-cognitive aspects, it highlights the importance of discernment–specifically, discerning use of physical strength. This kind of discernment is of great value to the development especially of boys, whose growth into maturity can often be measured by how well they identify which attitudes and behaviors belong where. A confrontational situation with a member of the opposite sex frequently demands a much different set of attitudes and actions than a similar situation with another male peer, for example.
That brings me to another virtue of football: Required awareness of surroundings. This is especially important for the so-called “skill positions,” such as quarterback, wide receiver, and halfback (running back). This is non-negotiable for the quarterback, who must “read” what the defense is planning to do before he calls for the hike; if he judges that the defense is running a scheme that will neutralize the offensive play call, the quarterback bears the responsibility to change the play. A failure to read what the defense is going to do is usually disastrous for the offense. The same principle holds for wide receivers, who must anticipate what the defenders covering them are going to do in order to get open to make a catch. Likewise a running back has to read where the “hole” in the defensive line is that he can run through. Neither the receiver nor the halfback can simply close eyes and carry out the rudimentary actions of their position. They must be alert and able to identify the situation. This too is a quality of a mature mind.
And of course there’s that most clichéd of things–teamwork. Now almost every other major sport in America has teamwork. But football is teamwork with higher stakes. Every good basketball coach preaches teamwork, yet the sport is certainly individually oriented around players who can shoot and drive. “Ball hogs” are common in basketball and often their teams succeed because of their talents. Baseball is certainly team-oriented defensively but not so much offensively. By contrast there’s no corresponding aspect in football where one can identify holistically individual success. Even a quarterback who runs the ball in for a touchdown by himself must have two things: teammates who block and a center that can hike him the ball. The eleven players on offense must coordinate together to call a play that will succeed; despite what some fans might say about guys like Barry Sanders, “Just get the ball to _____” is not an actual strategy.
Football’s more violent nature requires a higher degree of trust amongst teammates. Physical safety is imperiled every play during a football game, and so it is imperative that players have conviction that the teammate next to them will perform as best they can. This feels like Emerson’s famous quote about war and “man measuring man,” and that’s not an inaccurate comparison. In an age in which men in particular are experiencing tremendous isolation and friendlessness, football necessitates the trust and solidarity foundational to meaningful male relationships. The teamwork of a football team is more than collaborative effort to win, it is concentrated battle to preserve one’s friends.
Football matters because in many of its aspects it demands exemplification of fundamental human values. Talent and courage are necessary, yes, but just as necessary are discernment, propriety, friendship and commitment. Football as a game is certainly not above needing improvement, which I expect it will see in large quantities in the coming years. Efforts to make the game safer are inherently good, yet should be careful to not blithely encroach on the person-building aspects of the game. Football is a sport worth preserving and supporting, whether as a die-hard fan or just someone acknowledging the potential of this kid’s game for positive social good.