Tackle this: football as an American ritual

Guest post by Peter Wogan

In preparation for Super Bowl Sunday, there is something we should stock up on, along with the nachos and beer: anthropological analysis. Yes, it is a great time to step back and ask ourselves how football reflects American culture. Such an extremely popular sport must resonate with some underlying aspects of our culture. Otherwise, we could be getting ready right now to watch Super Shot-Put Sunday or the Big Badminton Bowl (BBB).

Football action. Photo credit: JSmith, Creative Commons, Flickr
Football action. Photo credit: JSmith, Creative Commons, Flickr

The best way to understand American football is to compare it with basketball. The comparative perspective should induce culture shock and throw football’s essential qualities into relief.

In football, players dress in Superhero outfits.
In basketball, players dress in bathing suits.

In football, it’s so cold you see steam coming out of the players, as if they’re scaling Mt. Everest.
In basketball, it’s so hot you see sweat pouring off players, as if they’re mowing the lawn.

But the ultimate difference lies in spatial orientation.

Football is all about lines: Lining up on lines, measuring lines, crossing lines. The central objective of the game, in fact, is to cross a line: the goal line.

Basketball, on the other hand, is all about circles: putting a rubber circle inside a slightly larger, metal circle (the ball and the hoop). Instead of yard lines, the basketball court is divided up into circles: the center circle (which contains a circle within a circle), the 3-point line (which is a semi-circle), and the foul circle at the top of the key. Not to mention all the players running around in circles, trying to get open for a pass. Lines vs. circles—that’s the key difference.

Blazers Court. Photo credit: Tom Langston, Creative Commons, Flickr
Empty Redskins Field; Photo credit: squidpants, Creative Commons, Flickr

How, though, do these micro aspects of football and basketball reflect American culture? Warning: I’d rather risk overstating the case than stating the obvious, and I would never say there’s only one reason we love and play these sports, nor that one is better than the other.

Basically, football reflects a hierarchical model of authority. Coaches, quarterbacks, and coordinators control every play. Basketball comes out of a more democratic model based on spontaneous teamwork. The basketball coach cannot even intervene in most plays.

Football is about masterful strategies, specialized roles (punter, receiver, linebacker, etc.), and strict lines of authority (have you ever heard anyone call it “circles of authority”?). Basketball is about role flexibility (every player shoots, passes, plays defense) and fast-paced improvisation.

Football comes out of America’s hierarchical, industrial economy and military strategizing, whereas basketball emerges from the more recent knowledge economy. Lines and circles.

It’s not just about political economy, however. Basketball, with its sweaty players in bathing suits, matches the growing informality and bare-all impulses of post-1960’s, mass media culture (casual Fridays, confessional memoirs, reality TV, Facebook, etc.). An ethos of social openness also plays a role. Circles are more associated than lines in American culture with equality and togetherness. Not coincidentally, basketball, the Circle Game, has skyrocketed in popularity at the same time that there’s been a push toward greater multiculturalism and gender equality. Circles and lines.

No matter what, though, much of the country comes together to watch the Super Bowl. Maybe that is because football does more than just reflect contemporary American culture, including longings and ambivalence. It also exquisitely embodies The Thrill of The Chase. The heart of football is The Chase: players frantically trying to get a few steps ahead of their pursuers. As anthropologists can tell you, that’s how homo sapiens and our hominid ancestors spent much of their time: chasing and being chased. So let the beer flow and The Great Chase begin.

Peter Wogan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Willamette University, co-author of Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies (2009), and author of blockbusteranthropology.blogspot.com, where he tries to make sense of sharks (“Jaws”), baseball (“Field of Dreams”), and model families (“The Godfather”), among other things. Peter thanks David Sutton for comments on a draft of this post.

For further reading:

Arens, W. “Professional Football: An American Symbol and Ritual.” In The American Dimension, Arens and Montague, eds., Alfred Publishing, 1976. A wonderful, early anthropological essay on football, with insight into things like football’s resonance with labor specialization in postwar America.

Carlin, George “Baseball vs. Football.” Carlin’s famous stand-up comedy routine is funny, insightful, and another source of inspiration here.

Geertz, Clifford “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973. An extremely influential example of interpretive anthropology’s method, though, curiously, it never led to as many anthropological studies of sports as you might imagine.

Mandelbaum, Michael The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do, Public Affairs, 2005. Mandelbaum is a professor of foreign policy, and also the son of the late, great anthropologist David Mandelbaum, a fact that becomes apparent in the anthropologically-minded sections of the book where he relates sports to underlying economic structures.

Sutton, David, and Peter Wogan Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies, Berg, 2009. Many of the ideas in this post emerge from our chapter on “Field of Dreams,” where we focus on baseball, lines, and social control.

Wogan, Peter Magical Writing in Salasaca: Literary and Power in Highland Ecuador. Westview, 2004. Researching and writing this book about Ecuador first got me thinking about lines as social control,  especially lines in written paper.

4 thoughts on “Tackle this: football as an American ritual

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention anthropologyworks » Tackle this: football as an American ritual -- Topsy.com

  2. Marvin Spector

    Nice work, I loved it. But what about baseball? For example physique, especially size and weight, are important in football and roundball, but not so much in baseball.


  3. Thanks, Marvin. I think you’re right: success in baseball does not depend on physical size the way it does in football, roundball, or, for that matter, basketball. Baseball is more democratic in this physical sense, just as everyone gets to bat in baseball (well, except the pitcher in the American League), whereas players get no such guarantees in football or basketball.

    I’m certainly all for more comparison with baseball. In fact, I’ve written a short, George-Carlin-style, anthropological comparison between baseball and basketball, if you want to check it out.

    Thanks again,
    Peter Wogan


  4. Pingback: anthropologyworks » Anthro in the news 1/9/12

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