The American Football Politic

Mike Hoff
Culture + Religion /21 Sep 2017

The American Football Politic

Last night, Yahoo! Sports published a piece by the self-proclaimed “only neuro-pathologist on Earth who lets his kid play football,” explaining his decision to do so. As Yahoo probably hoped, the story spawned discussion from many sport media types, including commentary by noted thought leader @chase931996, who proffered that “the liberal media has infested sports as well and want football gone! That’s the agenda!” Chase931996’s thesis was then challenged by writer Hampton Stevens, who asked, “Out of curiosity, how do you think liberalism would benefit if football was gone? How, precisely, would that benefit the agenda?”

Neuropathologist Peter Cummings has written about the decision to allow his son Fionn Parker-Cummings to play football. (Courtesy of Peter Cummings)

The phrasing of the question divulges not just Hampton’s presumed position on the issue, but that shared by most Americans. Sport in the United States is perceived to be a neutral field, the politicization of which is a bastardization rather than something inherent to it. Thus, the collapse of this nonpartisan institution would allegedly have no immediate benefit for those that dwell on either side of the political spectrum.

Contrarily, I would suggest that, while eradicating football is not part of the liberal agenda as Chase suggested, it should be. Modern football is political, and has been for some time. As one historian wrote for the Washington Post, football has helped spread a conservative ideology by “spreading the values of hierarchy, order and masculinity that have been central to the right’s political ascendancy.” The brutal sport was promoted in its early days by institutions like the Ivy League schools in part to counteract cultural paranoia that the modern urban man was becoming effeminate.

There is a certain brand of masculinity propagated by football and its surrounding culture that is emblematic of right-wing political ideology. It is a masculinity that celebrates strength, heroism, and heterosexuality. Cultural historian John Hoberman described it as a ‘cult of virility.’ Football culture also helps normalize ideas of American Exceptionalism and militarism through repetitive exposure to their powerful symbols. It has played a part in creating a political climate where increasing our military’s already bloated bank account by almost a trillion dollars has become more a banal procedural point than a political one, where anything short of veneration directed towards the flag is cause for a national referendum. But this is more evidence of the level of success the American Right has had in steering the national discourse than it is of the supposed non-political nature of the acts themselves.

The use of sport as a tool to promote a conservative worldview is not new to football; rather, with football we are just witnessing the latest iteration in a centuries-old pattern. Going back 200 years, the modern German nation was forged in large part thanks to the work of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who started the Turnen movement. Turnen was immensely popular among the middle and lower classes, and combined early gymnastics with strong nationalistic teachings. Similarly, decades later, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch was described as being, “Passionately in love with pleasure and violent games, easily duped by the rhetoric of his time, inclined by the vigor of his muscles and the laziness of his mind to the brutal doctrines of the [far right], nationalist, royalist, and imperialist.”

Jumping forward a little more to Mussolini’s Italy, one historian wrote that, “Nationalist and pre-fascist propaganda made much use of appeals to the aesthetic sense; [contrasting] physical images of the New Man — young, virile & athletic — and of the old representative of the democratic order — paunched, short-sighted, slow-moving — were highly effective. The aesthetic and biological view of politics reinforced each other.”

Similarly minded men at the time clung to the notion that physical health mirrored ideological health as pre-fascist politics metastasized across the Continent. So to argue that football, the most hyper-masculine, nationalistic, and militaristic of American sports, is without a right wing political aspect, would be to say that it has somehow escaped centuries of historical precedent.

Aesthetically, it’s not hard to see the connection between the actual praxis of football and its politics. Attend any game, and you will bear witness to a classic case of American Monumentalism, or our country’s inescapable penchant for spectacle. These pregame ceremonies, which include fighter jets, giant flags, and the most moving rendition of the national anthem you’ve ever heard, are designed to be evocative. But too many on the left have taken this stirring inside them as a sign of the act’s goodness, and thus it continues unopposed. Considering these acts are, at their core, political ones, it would be best to change that.

Some may get caught up debating whether there is some aspect of the football aesthetic that attracts more conservative sport fans, or if it is the atmosphere of the sport that acts as an incubator for right wing politics, effectively converting fans that enter its orbit. While smart arguments can be made for either side, in the end it doesn’t matter in regard to answering the question at hand. Whether football creates a conservative mindset or simply acts as a meeting space for the conservatively-minded, it doesn’t change that the fact that the dissolution of the football establishment would be a boon for American liberalism. If the first case is true, this would ultimately result in less people identifying with your opposition party. If it’s the other option, no football means your opposition becomes more isolated from itself. We know that communities are bound together by tradition and rituals. If these binding forces were removed from conservative communities, it would be a serious blow to the American Right.

Sport being used as a tool for spreading political ideology is not a uniquely American phenomenon. As long as physical activity has existed in an organized fashion, it has been used for ulterior political purposes. But there is something uniquely American about what’s occurring here — refusing to admit that it’s happening.

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