The New York Times recently editorialized prominently on how football “continues to be haunted” by the damage it does to players. Quite so. It’s a haunting that has continued since the game’s mid-nineteenth century beginnings.
Headlines such as “Killed in A Football Game,” “Mortally Hurt at Practice,” “Boy Tackled Hard in Football Game; Dies Soon After,” were common from the start. Football was responsible for so many deaths and maimed participants by early in the twentieth century that a group of presidents from leading universities came within two votes of abolishing the collegiate game.
Instead, the group kept meeting, eventually leading to the formation of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The NCAA’s very existence is testament to the enduring conflict between football’s raging popularity and intense efforts to civilize the beast.
That’s because concerns about the game’s destructive influence have always gone far beyond the violence alone. Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 classic The Theory of the Leisure Class declared adult interest in the “chicane” and “falsehood” of football to be a sign of “arrested spiritual development.” Church groups like the Kansas Methodist Conference condemned the game, declaring in 1893 that it was “more fully convinced than ever” that college football was “dangerous physically, useless intellectually, and detrimental morally and spiritually.” The New York Christian Advocate, a leading journal of its day, crusaded editorially against football for years, comparing its corrupting influence on crowds to that of Roman gladiatorial shows. The chairman of a faculty athletic committee trying to reform Columbia University’s early football program eventually declared its “evils” to be “incurable.”
All that, and considerably more, had already been leveled at football more than a century ago.
The Narrative Power of a Brutal Game
But the crowds kept coming to the games then, as they do now. Early public-relations efforts strove to give the game a face more palatable than the brutal struggle at its core. Walter Camp, a nineteenth-century Yale star who introduced coaching to the game and was its most successful early promoter, often wrote of the “purity” of the college football star who “plays as a gentleman” and “whatever bruises he may have in the flesh, his heart is right.” An early Harvard coach spoke of how “virile, intensive, aggressive energy that makes for progress is the root which upholds and feeds American supremacy and American football.”
In 1906, pressure by President Theodore Roosevelt and shrewd leadership particularly by Harvard coach Bill Reid and retired coach John Heisman led to the beginnings of rules changes that would round off the game’s most brutal excesses. The truth was, despite all the gore and scandals, more and more college presidents saw the game as a profitable tradeoff. Quite simply, students preferred playing and watching and celebrating football over studying. And football fascinated alumni and other fans as well, far more than anything transpiring in the classrooms and libraries. Football would become “the emotionally integrating force of the American college,” a Lafayette College president wrote. And though it took longer to get the business model perfected, eventually professional football cashed in on the game’s commercial potential as well.
What made it all so compelling for audiences, and continues to do so? Narrative. Ultimately, what takes place in games of football at even the highest levels of play is no more than what happens when kids take a football out in the yard and choose up sides: The participants will shove and chase each other about for some period of time and see which side can win. Beyond that, all meaning imposed upon those activities is narrative — efforts to advance stories with explanatory value.
Sociological scholars would call it a process of meaning-making — socially constructing a narrative more meaningful than the chaos of the game itself. Probably no one has published more pages of scholarly ruminations on the meaning of football than Michael Oriard — certainly no one who has also captained the football team at Notre Dame and played in forty-two games in the National Football League before transitioning into the life of an academic.
In his insightful 1993 “Reading Football,” Oriard showed how football’s intrinsic narrative structure proved from the earliest days to be so rich that even run-of-the-mill sportswriters could easily give readers of newspapers and magazines vivid accounts of thrills, suspense, and athletic prowess. And that dynamic quickly became evident to others alert to societal trends with the potential to generate commercial gain. “Football succeeded as a spectacle because the games’ own structure made narrative drama possible,” Oriard declared, “but also because these narrative possibilities were exploited by football’s promoters.”
Merriwell and Billy Clyde Run On and On
One of the game’s more enduring narratives has been constructed around the handsome, heroic, selfless figure of Frank Merriwell, a fictional Yale football star sprung to life late in the nineteenth century from the pages of magazine installments and novels that eventually numbered in the hundreds. But in the late 1960s, another arose and was given a name by sportswriter Dan Jenkins in his 1972 bestselling novel “Semi-Tough.” His fictional running back Billy Clyde Puckett would come to represent the game’s darker side, a world in which almost any deviancy would be condoned, if not sanctified, as long as the perpetrator could do his job on the field.
The never-ending struggle between those two narratives of the game is as much a part of football as the ball itself. So the conflicting narratives will run on. Football kills. Football rocks. Tom Brady is a cheater. Tom Brady is a god. Joe Paterno was an enabler of child abuse. Joe Paterno was a role model for the young. Jameis Winston is an accused rapist — and a Number One NFL draft pick. Ray Rice’s videotaped knockout of his fiancee made domestic abuse by players a more prominent public issue than ever before — and led many women to wear his jersey to games in a gesture of support for him.
However contradictory, the narratives will keep coming. There apparently will be an audience for every one of them. College and professional football had more profitable seasons last year than ever before and almost certainly will do even better this season.
“Are we ready for some football?” The Times editorial board asked. For better, for worse, for whatever — yes, America has been ready for a long time and likely will be for a lot longer.
Robert Kerr is a professor at the University of Oklahoma and the author of “How Postmodernism Explains Football and Football Explains Postmodernism: The Billy Clyde Conundrum” (2015, Palgrave Macmillan).