Because of these obscure common origins, as far as I know, there is no other game that is played so many different ways that is nonetheless called the same thing. “Football” means Ronaldo in Lisbon, Peyton Manning in Denver, and James O’Donoghue in Killarney. All of them have different skills, and they play different games with the same name.
What each flavor has in common is spectacle. So many of the other sports seem to be relatively private and intimate. The various forms of “football” are bright and brash and, when they are played at their highest levels in the countries that love them, they blot out the sun on the sports landscape. It is this ability to create spectacle that accounts for the way the several kinds of “football” are able to engender similar forms of occasionally lunatic jingoism. There is a barely hidden element of violence to them. They all involve varying degrees of physical contact. They all involve, in one way or another, one human being knocking another one to the ground. There is a tacit understanding that all of them are a polite sublimation of the tendency of countries to make war on each other. This is not unusual in history. The early Jesuit missionaries to the New World noted that Native American tribes used three-day lacrosse games, which occasionally were contested with hundreds of players on either side, as barely disguised battles, played as a tribute to what they called “the Creator.” Mess with “football” and, as Ned Beatty says in Network, you are messing with the fundamental forces of nature and a vaguely religious concept of nationhood.
Right now, as all of its seasons at all levels are just beginning, American football is under unprecedented assault. Science is providing more and more evidence that the game is physically perilous to everyone who plays it. This forces a series of hard decisions on the participants and moral questions on the devotees. Is it ethical, or even humane, to be entertained for fun and (occasionally) profit by a sport that so inevitably destroys the people who play it? (Steve Almond’s recently released book, Against Football, poses these questions very directly.) There are only two possible approaches to these issues. You can answer them honestly, or you can duck them entirely. And the latter approach often involves cloaking yourself in the almost theological tribalism that American football shares with all the other varieties.
Think about the defenses of American football that rely on “tradition” as an argument opposing the moral case against the game. Think about how closely American football has attached itself to the U.S. military, from the in-game commercials to the now-customary flyovers of attack aircraft. Think about the 2011 Super Bowl, in which we had “God Bless America” and the National Anthem, a flyover, and a bizarre video that sought to link John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Martin Luther King’s speech on the National Mall, and Ali’s KO of Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Think about the way football is positioned as some kind of essentially American journey. Patriotism may be the last refuge of scoundrels, but it’s also a handy hideout for huge corporate athletic enterprises that are facing existential questions about what they do to the athletes who engage in them.
But that may be enough to help American football to survive.