Soldiers of the NFL

American football is a contemporary moral equivalent of war, says Alan Ryan

February 12, 2015

Superbowl Sunday ranks with the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving as one of those occasions when a Brit in the US is reminded most acutely that he or she is really a foreigner. It may in fact outrank them. The Fourth of July has an obvious point: many countries have a national day on which they celebrate their independence or their emancipation from monarchical oppression. Thanksgiving has an obvious point: in a country that is deeply religious but religiously divided, it gives everyone a four-day holiday that usefully combines harvest festival and non-Christian Christmas.

But Superbowl Sunday looks very odd to a foreign eye, even if there is a deeper point to it all. American football is not healthy, and not only in the sense of being bad for your health, whether as a player risking concussion and brain damage, or a spectator risking obesity and late onset diabetes by spending too many hours in front of the TV. This year, American football spent the autumn staggering from one scandal to another. Most football players are perfectly nice people, kind to their children and pets; the ones who made the headlines this autumn are another matter.

What are we to do with the young men whose energies are all too easily engaged by imperialist adventures?

They seem to have had a penchant for committing domestic violence on camera, while the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, who was paid $44.2 million (£29 million) in 2012-13 to organise the game and keep the players out of trouble while negotiating the colossal television deals that paid their salaries, seemed unable either to defend the slaps on the wrist he initially dealt out – a two-game suspension in one case brought howls of outrage from the team owners – or to understand why the wider public had begun to think that an intrinsically violent game encourages casualness about inflicting grievous bodily harm on the part of the players.

So what is the point of the game? A century ago, William James wrote a wonderful essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War”, which stands out among defences of pacifism for its recognition that many human beings like nothing better than a good fight. What is the Iliad, he asks, if not a long and gory account of heroes engaged in killing? If we repudiate the kind of warfare that the US Civil War became in its last phase, what are we to do with the young men whose energies are all too easily engaged by imperialist adventures? James’ essay was sparked by a book by American general Homer Lea called The Valor of Ignorance. Lea subscribed to a familiar theory: nations either expanded or shrank; he reckoned that the US had begun to grow soft, while Japan was well on the way to turning the Pacific into a Japanese lake.

On that view – the mirror image of Teddy Roosevelt’s ambition to turn the Pacific into an Anglo-Saxon lake – by the time the US had got its act together, Japan would have conquered the Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska and the entire coast west of the Sierras. As we know, things turned out otherwise. James’ interest did not lie in empires, but in harnessing the energy of the young. His recipe, utterly utopian, was industrial conscription, giving young men a couple of years of the toughest and dirtiest jobs that would otherwise entail lifelong drudgery for the working class. As he said, his views were pacifist and socialistic. He wasn’t the only American to think of it. In 1887, Edward Bellamy’s socialist fantasy, Looking Backward, imagined that by 2000 everyone between 18 and 45 would belong to an industrial army, the first few years working as a common labourer, to be followed by higher education, professional training or somesuch.

Football may have solved James’ problem without conscripting anyone, although it notably hasn’t been a substitute for wars fought without conscription. American football is a good candidate for a moral equivalent of war. War has been described as long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of terror. At the Superbowl, a four-hour game contains less than 20 minutes of actual play. The boredom – suffered by soldiers when not violently engaged with the enemy – threatens spectators rather than players, which is why most commentary on the Superbowl is devoted to the half-time entertainment and the astonishingly costly adverts. That’s also why it has become a game for television, structured around the commercial breaks.

James thought his scheme of industrial conscription would bring the “gilded youth” he had in mind back into society in a more disciplined, more public-spirited and more useful frame of mind. That’s where football seems to fail. At the universities most devoted to it, its impact has been endlessly debated; for almost all, it’s a financial drain, and for very many, it has been academically corrupting, as players who are essentially professional athletes reluctantly go through the motions of getting a degree with the connivance of coaches and professors. At the professional level, it shares with warfare the unhappy feature of knocking years off the lives of the participants. Even the NFL has become alarmed by the discovery that the life expectancy of players is almost 20 years lower than that of the rest of the population. Still, it’s less dangerous than serving in a Spartan phalanx.

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