Football, America, and the Frontier

May 4th, 2012 by Phil Leave a reply »

I don’t know when it was exactly, but at some point, football overtook baseball as my sport.  I don’t think it was anything baseball did wrong.  I think it’s just that the nature of football, and the nature of America – of the media, of the workweek, of other aspects of mass culture – those things just made it inevitable that football would be our sport.

One thing we can lose track of with football is how at a base level it requires so little equipment.  All you really need is the ball.  When I think about recess from fourth to sixth grade, I remember playing 500 and kickball and basketball but when the weather got cold it was mostly football.  And the other weird thing about football, I think, is how you just didn’t need to be that athletic to play football at recess.  Basketball took a lot more coordination.  Even kickball did more to separate the athletes from the wannabes.

The idea that you could get injured playing football – I think it’s always been easy to think of that as a known risk.  Even the idea that it could really mess you up… that’s a tradeoff in the eyes of people who think about it at all.  Football screwed up your brain because you got hit so many times in the head?  Well, what did you expect?

While it’s true of all professional sports, and for that matter of a great many other things, football in particular embodies the idea of pushing boundaries without acknowledging the consequences of pushing those boundaries.  In this sense, football really is the quintessential American sport.  The boundaries that are pushed in football are largely individual and physical, with payoffs coming in terms of boundaries in media and money.  Similarly, the American approach to mass energy consumption has largely been about pushing the boundaries of energy extraction.  The American approach to finance has largely been about pushing any boundary you can imagine.  The last two presidential administrations are fascinating case studies in pushing boundaries – and in seeing which boundaries they really aren’t that willing to push.

Is it possible that football is reaching a breaking point?  It may not get there this year, but there’s this sense that football has gotten too fast, too powerful, too violent.  Of course it’s always been fast and powerful and violent.  Dick Butkus was a previous generation’s Junior Seau.  But Dick Butkus went on and did whatever kind of goofy acting Dick Butkus did.  Junior Seau shot himself in the chest at age 42.

Roger Goodell seems to get it.  The Bountygate suspensions are evidence that he gets it.  The growing number of casualties – he sees this.  But isn’t there an irreversible trend here?  How can you tell football to stop being even faster?  How can you tell football to stop being even more powerful?

Isn’t the NFL just a manifestation of that simple game we played as kids, pushed to its logical extremes?

Isn’t America’s excessive energy usage just a manifestation of everything America has been for two-plus centuries?

Isn’t Wall Street exactly what we should expect from the continuing evolution of an economic system based in a heavy mythology of capitalism?

Aren’t all of these things basically just examples of the Frontier Thesis in operation?  Specifically, the idea that there will constantly be new frontiers, that there will always be an aggressive push toward being smarter, faster, more powerful, etc.?

And at some point, does that push reach a breaking point?

The conundrum that faces the NFL, and, I’d argue, the conundrum that faces America, is that there are such breaking points.  Again, Roger Goodell seems to get it.  His approach seems to be to try and steer the NFL away from some of these breaking points – maybe even to the idea that the product really doesn’t need to evolve much more at this point, except in terms of safety, and that instead of the product evolving, the focus can be on pushing its reach internationally.  But this is really just a recognition that one frontier has been met, and an attempt to try to find another frontier, another direction for growth.  I’m not convinced that direction for growth is going to work, because I feel like the inherently American nature of the game will tend to undermine that growth.  And so I think what we’re actually witnessing right now is the beginning of the peak of football.

Similarly, it’s fairly obvious that the American economy is in some really deep shit, whether people in Washington want to admit it or not.  It’s not just America, of course.  A lot of the Euro zone is experiencing negative growth.  Well, gee, maybe there’s something inherently flawed with the idea of a constant-growth-economic model.  But of course we can’t talk about things like that.

And also similarly, our energy situation is pretty damn hosed.  We’re at Peak Oil.  Why else would there be attempts to do such insane things like hydrofracking through the slate of Southern Illinois?  It’s just an attempt to pick up the frontier boundary and go somewhere else with it.  There’s no serious discussion of scaling back on energy usage.

The thing is, I like football.  It’s my sport.  It has been since I was young.  And I like making money.  I think I’m worth more money than I’m currently making, so why shouldn’t I try to make more?  And I like using energy.  We pretty much all do.  It’s about as unrealistic to think that I could “break up” with football as it to think that I would somehow go off the grid, or that I would be content to stay at the same or a lower salary for the rest of my life.

But I know those are the directions we collectively need to be headed.  I might fall short on a personal level in some ways, but the deeper into all of this we get, the more I think in terms of somehow needing to challenge the Frontier Thesis.  In simplest terms, the Frontier mentality is not sustainable.  This is a brutally difficult thing to get across to people.  It might not be so hard for some of us to accept it on an intellectual level, but let’s face it, a lot of the endeavors we think of as sustainable are really just an attempt to sustain the Frontier mentality.

Will it take more suicides like Junior Seau’s to fundamentally alter the way people approach football?

And what will need to happen in society more broadly that can fundamentally alter our Frontier outlook?



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