Thursday, January 15, 2009

Explaining Football, Explaining America?

Murchinson Field
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
After reading How Football Explains America by ESPN's notorious sports reporter Sal Paolantonio, I couldn't help but wonder why the book wasn't titled How America Explains Its Version of Football. Or better yet (but, probably too long of a title), How American History Explains Gridiron Football.

Even on the inside of the dust jacket, one of the paragraphs read, "How Football Explains America explains how football was influenced by Davy Crockett, John Coltrane, Jackie Robinson, and Douglas MacArthur. What? Say that again. If football explains America Sal, explain to me why we're not reading about how football influenced Davy Crockett and company?

I suppose Sal sees America and football like the simple math regarding the commutative laws of addition where If 2+3=5, than 3+2=5 as well.

The selection of the book's title may have only been a matter of coming up with a catchy title for his new book, but I still think it's not very telling of the volume's contents. How Football Became Our National Pastime would probably be a better title in my mind—and it says so in 30-point Helvetica Bold type on the backside of the dust jacket!

OK, enough about a book's title.

For the most part, this particular read was worth the purchase. I learned several things about the game's evolution that I didn't know about before diving in. For example, did you know that the concept of an offensive huddle was actually conceived by Gallaudet University—a small school with a roster of deaf players?

Nevertheless, the book is flawed in all of its conjecture. Paolantonio takes great liberties regarding the paths taken by football pioneers like Walter Camp and Amos Alonzo Stagg—as if he had uncovered the missing diaries of these men and what they were thinking in the deep recesses of their minds when they conceived and developed their rules, plays and protocol of the game in its infancy.

Here is but one of several examples regarding the author's use of conjecture and unfounded conclusions the reader will stumble upon: In a discussion about Stagg and his adoption of the huddle, Paolantonio quotes the famed University of Chicago coach, "To me the coaching profession is one of the noblest and far-reaching in building manhood. Not to drink, not to gamble, not to smoke, not to swear, to be fair-minded, to deal justly, to be honest in thinking and square in dealing, not to bear personal malice or harbor hatred against rivals."

From Stagg's quote, Paolantonio comes up with this: "Thoughtful, pious, and righteous, Stagg brought innovations to football as an attempt to bring Christian fellowship to the game. (This is a reference to Stagg's desire to become a minister since he was enrolled as a divinity student at Yale from 1885 to 1889.) He wanted his players to play under control, to control the pace, the course, and the conduct of what had been a game of mass movement that often broke out into fisticuffs."

Is it possible that Stagg simply wanted his players to only be more Christian-like?

More conjecture appears to follow in the next paragraph where Paolantonio makes the leap from the Christian values that Stagg wanted to instill all the way to huddle mechanics: "Stagg viewed the huddle as a vital aspect of helping to teach sportsmanship. He viewed the huddle as a kind of religious congregation on the field, a place where the players could, if you will, minister to each other, make a plan, and promise to keep faith in that plan and one another."

One would think the author could present a more direct quote about the huddle if such is really true. Perhaps Paolantonio has channelled Stagg through some kind of football locker room séance.

And if that weren't enough, Paolantonio hits a Patriotic chord in the next paragraph that almost made me place my hand over heart as I read it: "What is the huddle but a meeting, a place for the citizenry to gather and regroup? And what is more American than that? Our founding fathers put it right in the Bill of Rights: Congress shall make no law prohibiting 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble.'"

As if the idea of assembly was conceived only in the democracy of America...

Perhaps the most compelling in Paolantonio's How Football Explains America is his argument that Manifest Destiny is the primary motive behind Gridiron (aka American) Football's deviation from soccer and rugby. It's a good idea well worth discussion, but I don't find any of it to be more substantive or compelling than my own theories about the game's evolution. In fact, what I found most annoying was his insistence to belittle the global games of soccer and rugby and other American team sports like basketball and baseball.

Net Ball Action
Originally uploaded by mdt1960
I tried to imagine the response (and disdain) of a sports writer from England, New Zealand or South Africa who covers rugby or soccer reading Paolantonio when he says, "Go ahead, you try going to a rugby game and writing about it. Soccer? Ninety minutes of whatever and then maybe one goal scored by accident. Tough to create a coherent narrative out of that."

I don't know about everyone else, but I find plenty of "coherent narratives" about rugby at

It was this kind of rhetoric throughout the book that I found myself wondering how any non-American would digest this material without contempt for the "land of the free and home of the brave."

Yet, in Paolantonio's defense, he warns the reader in the beginning of the book, "So, please, by all means, check your political correctness at the gate."

Ah yes, the true spirit of the Bush Administration. How dated the book seems already. I wonder how the 2nd edition might read after four or eight years of Obama in the White House. After all, I believe that it is America that really explains football.