That Old Sports-as-War Metaphor
Are you ready for some football?
Too bad if you’re not, ’cause “America’s Game” is here. Last weekend was the official opening for college (NCAA) football, with the professional league (NFL) games starting this week. For those un-American readers in our audience, we’re talking American football, not “soccer” – or the Latin-flavored fútbol as we tend to see it here in the US. We’re talking the kind of football that encourages you to hit the other guy, hard. Canucks know what I’m talking about, even if they have teams with girly names like the Alouettes (admittedly the mascot is pretty butch)
Football is probably the most popular sport here in the U.S., and I’d certainly guess the most fanatically followed by the largest segment of the American population – though it does tend to vary by region. Sports historians have long analyzed different sports in different cultures to open a window onto cultural assumptions and values, and doing so with American football can be just as fruitful. The angle I’ll talk about today is one that appears again and again – the comparison of football (or sport more generally) to war. Given the physical and mental damage caused by throwing bodies around after a pigskin, it’s no surprise that football players and coaches will, in unguarded moments, refer to their contest as ‘war,’ with the linesmen ‘fighting it out in the trenches,’ with the need to ‘defend this house’ [from assault apparently], and so on.
This comparison between sports and war isn’t new. I’m sure the Ancient Greeks said the same about their Olympic wrestling contests, and the Romans – always ones to take it too far – literally made their sports a heroic form of war with their gladiatorial combats and mock naval battles. Medieval knights turned battlefield equestrian maneuvers into jousting tournaments, yet sometimes the competition between sports and war could harm military readiness, as when Henry VIII had to renew bans on Sunday football, when able-bodied men were instead to be practicing at the archery butts. Early modern mock sieges were undoubtedly as entertaining for their reenacting participants as they were serious training – they certainly were for the crowds in attendance. Waterloo may or may not have been won on the ‘fields of Eton,’ but by WWI rugby stars were encouraging Englishmen to do their patriotic duty – they were doing theirs. It’s said the modern Olympic pentathlon was based on the skills a military runner would need to deliver a message during wartime: shooting, riding, swimming, fencing, and cross-country running. More recently Honduras and El Salvador showed us that sports sometimes could actually turn into a war (see: Football War), and those crazy English hooligans still don’t understand that the struggle should remain on the pitch and not spill out into the streets. Nor, for that matter, did Tommies and Gerries realize you’re supposed to shoot bullets at the enemy, not kick a soccer/football past them.
By the waning decades of the 20th century though, sporting pursuits have increasingly morphed into more sedentary forms of entertainment. Yet the connection between sports/entertainment and war remains. In the 1980s an apocalyptic computer program asked Matthew Broderick if he would like to play a game of nuclear annihilation (WarGames). Now we have passtimes in the form of video games which allow you to play either commando or football star – sometimes both, and their game consoles are almost indistinguishable from the devices that allow controllers to blow up enemy positions half-a-world away. And even though most Americans remain a spectator, attendants in the stands can still vicariously experience war with a rousing rendition of the national anthem and innumerable thanks to our men and women serving in harm’s way, a safe form of patriotism punctuated by flying war machines screaming overhead, to the sounds of the stadium speakers playing AC/DC or some such. Throughout the centuries, sports and war, athletes and warriors, have been intertwined.
Given this long relationship, surely there must be some utility to this comparison? What follow is a discourse on what the sports-as-war metaphor can actually teach us about war, and war culture specifically. Since American football is the sport I watch the most, and since (I would argue) it approaches war most closely among the modern popular sports, the discussion will get somewhat detailed regarding football culture in America.
Clausewitz argued that war resembled a game of cards, but that’s not the best parallel we can find. Far more comparable is sports, and the team sport of American football, with its intentional focus on physical contact and its vestigial desire to hurt the other guy, is probably closest of all the modern sports – although sometimes a hockey game does break out in the middle of a fight. The parallel between a sport like football and war makes sense on the most basic level: it’s an organized, socially-approved, group competition requiring a significant level of discipline and group training, largely performed by masculine youth who have the necessary combination of physical abilities, testosterone-fueled aggressiveness, and obliviousness to pain. Split-second physical group tasks need to be choreographed in an environment of physical and mental exhaustion, with a thinking opponent trying to upend your plans while implementing their own. Modern sports even incorporate Clausewitz’s component of card playing as well: gaining an advantage over your opponent on the playing field is about being able to read, bluff or directly overcome the opponent across from you. It’s also about money, whether we’re talking about athletes’ salaries, the tickets purchased, or the knock-on effects to the economy in terms of jersey sales, advertising dollars, stadiums and sports bars. And since men (young and old) are involved, sports, like war, is also about sex – cheerleaders and all those girls who like to be seen on the shoulder of a jock. And let’s not forget the Lingerie Football League. The combination of sweat, pain, violent physical competition, and strategic and tactical plans well-laid and poorly-implemented sounds pretty similar to war, if you ask me. Or at least closer than anything else I can think of.
In my mind, the most useful and interesting aspect of the sports-as-war metaphor is what it tells us about the role of expectations, the “culture” of competition, one might say. I’ll mention a few aspects of football culture that illuminate broader American concerns about how one should compete, whether on the playing field or in the battlespace. Suggesting, I hope, a reason why we should consider non-military parallels to waging war – particularly how the mentality of sports spectators seems to mimic the mentality of war spectators.
1. Risk and Safety. The first example has to do with the growing debate over football player safety. It’s generally believed that one unintended consequence of 100 years of better pads, safer helmets (hard shell, not like the old leatherheads) and improved sports medicine has been to actually make the game more dangerous by allowing players to play faster and hit harder. A popular example is to point out that much more serious blunt force damage can be delivered in a tackle today than in the game of the past (or even, say, in rugby), simply because the defender is well protected when he launches himself helmet-first into a ball-carrier, an act that might have broken his neck fifty years earlier, or at least caused serious harm to the recipient of said tackle. [After I had drafted this post, a Tulane safety actually had his neck broken and lung collapsed in a head-to-head collision with one of his teammates.] We can of course identify similar unexpected consequences of military technological advances in war, but that’s not the point I want to make here. What is noteworthy instead is the debate that has evolved as, over the past few years, more and more evidence has come to light about former NFL players dying or committing suicide in their 50s, with traumatic brain damage, Alzheimer’s and the like. The current NFL commissioner has moved to institute new rules on and off the field to reduce player injuries, particularly head trauma. Yet if you watch much ESPN or listen to game coverage, you’ll notice that the old ways die hard: on the one side, we have “enlightened” people (and NFL commissioners) who are concerned about the long-term damage caused by the sport, the liability of the league to lawsuits by former players and player health care costs, as well as the future viability of the sport if high schools eliminate football programs due to safety concerns. But on the other hand, we have the traditional camp, often made up of middle-aged and older sportscasters who grew up with the violent and often-nasty game of the past, plus many recently-retired NFL players (often defensive players), who see the fundamental essence of football as hitting other players. This group is really conflicted about changing the nature of the sport. For safety’s sake, take away spearing (a defensive player hitting with his helmet first), blows to the head or a quarterback’s or punter’s knees, hitting “defenseless” players when they have just caught the ball in the air or are blindsided, and discourage dangerous collisions in kickoff returns by moving the kickoff spot 5 yards closer – the NFL has eliminated all these once-standard plays and more in the name of player safety. Yet after several years you can still find much grumbling about it. “But that’s not football!” is the rejoinder. So despite good intentions and increasingly-disturbing medical studies, the idealized version of what football “should be” (based off historical tradition) dies hard, and the rule-makers find themselves trying to triangulate between these various positions. The game goes on, yet adjustments need to be made, and an old guard continues to murmur discontentedly.
The parallel to war? This view of idealized football’s superiority to a watered-down version is oddly similar to the way in which too many military historians view field battle and unlimited violence as the essence of war – war is inherently violent, so don’t water it down. Hence the general dismissal of eras which saw “limited” war, versus the real “total wars” of Revolutionary Europe and the world wars. Based on Clausewitz’s bloody argument that “The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms,” I’d guess he probably would have made a good middle linebacker.
2. Masculine Forbearance. Similarly, this ideal of “real” football being tough derives from a concept of masculine forbearance, an ideal that is omnipresent in the sport. It too parallels very closely what is expected of soldiers. I’ve never played football (the American kind) beyond a few games of touch and flag – my dad’s back injuries from his high school football days were enough to discourage me from even trying out. But everything I’ve read and seen about the sport suggests that ignoring the pain is a main requirement – listen to any coach’s or player’s motivational speech, and you can’t miss it: push through the pain, keep going, don’t let your teammates down just because you’ve got an “injury” – this is repeated daily in the weight room and on the playing field. “Take the pain!” This mantra also appears in stark relief from time to time. If you follow the game, you likely remember the firestorm in 2010 when Bears quarterback Jay Cutler ‘quit’ on his team in the NFC Championship game: he had injured his knee early and sat out the rest of the game, yet commentators (especially former players) suspected he was faking it, or was just a wuss, because he sure didn’t look like he was in a lot of pain sitting on the bench – if he can laugh, he should be able to play. The coach had to come and assure us all that the coaching staff insisted he not play, and his supporters pointed out that he’s been sacked a lot, so he’s a man after all. Cutler’s honor was thus recovered (somewhat). This expectation of manly perseverance is a broadly accepted trope: humorous TV commercials airing during football broadcasts make pain endurance a staple of their jokes, for example a 1990s Snickers spot which has the audience laughing at a concussed player who believes he’s Batman, and Peyton Manning’s more recent “Rub some dirt on it” ad. As in war, ignoring pain is expected, it’s the norm – you continue through the pain. If you don’t, you’re not doing your job. And that’s considered a preeminently masculine trait.
3. Gender Roles. And your job is to be a real man. In addition to the general masculine dismissal of pain, we’ve all seen enough sports movies and training camp footage to know that militaries aren’t the only place where slackers are derided as ladies – Bill Parcells referring to one his players as “she” is just one example that still elicits chuckles. Ditto for the difficulty gay players have coming out of the locker room. Even more, we can see how football culture implicitly assigns “gender” roles to the various types of players. If you watch the game, all I have to say is “kicker” or “Brady rule” and you know what I mean. But for those of you who don’t follow the sport, football is divided into “real” players, and players who are wimps. The real players are those who hit and get hit: offensive linesmen, running backs, those receivers (and all tight ends) who run routes across the middle of the field, and just about every defensive player, since their job it is to hit the guy with the ball after all. Then there are those who are of questionable manliness: quarterbacks, particularly people like Jay Cutler (see above) and Tom Brady, who get hurt when they get hit just a little bit; a few years ago The Onion had a humorous article poking fun at Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo breaking his wittle pinky. When rules are made to try to prevent such injuries to the star QBs, they’re deemed mamma’s boys who need protecting – witness the complaints over the “Brady rule” (instituted to penalize defensive players who tackle quarterbacks at the legs, prompted by franchise quarterback Tom Brady breaking his leg at the beginning of the 2008 season), or the any-kind-of-blow-to-the-QB’s-head penalty. Quarterbacks are such babies that they need special protection. How manly is that?
These masculine norms get enforced broadly across the positions on every football team, or at least judgments are drawn when their actions seem to transgress the norm. As intimated earlier, there are the workmen receivers and tight ends, and then there are the prima donna wide receivers who never run across the middle of the field (where congestion almost guarantees collisions, and where linebackers are just waiting to tee off on you). Instead they are content to zip down the sidelines and run away from contact – the Vikings receiver Randy Moss was only one receiver who was criticized for his hesitancy to run across the middle. Further, those players who might normally fit the manly category but don’t meet these expectations in their play get criticized for their transgressions: I can remember several commentators questioning the injury-prone Vikings running back Robert Smith’s willingness to step out of bounds at the end of a play rather than take another (unnecessary) hit. Even more common is the opposite, play-by-play announcers beaming with pride that this running back just doesn’t quit when he gets near the sideline with a tackler in front of him – he knows how to not only take it, but to dish it out as well (well, ok, maybe a little homo-eroticism here). Some of you may remember the head-scratching when Giants running-back Tiki Barber retired – although Barber explained that he was leaving the game because of the physical toll of getting hit time and again, some people were confused because he wasn’t hobbling yet – how bad could it be? (Switching sports, I still cringe remembering Mike Miller’s performance in game 5 of last year’s NBA finals – painful to watch, yet that’s what heroes are made of – yet he can’t be that big of a hero because he only made three-point shots, instead of driving to the rim, like the real men do).
All that being said, it is interesting to see an important exception regarding quarterbacks: there’s a bit of a double-standard, in part because the subculture of QBs tends to offer an alternative to the “QBs are pretty boys” narrative. Particularly in the mind of former QBs and many coaches, the ideal QB actually tries to avoid getting hit – Brett Favre may be the poster boy for a tough quarterback getting sacked, but the ideal quarterback’s quarterback is a pocket passer – accurate, precise, with a strong arm and, importantly, well protected by his offensive line. In this view, doing all you can to avoid getting tackled – scrambling – is preferable to getting hit. See, for example, the NFL Films clip on Fran Tarkenton, with some illuminating comments on how he violated the conventions of quarterbacking at the time – note particularly the prototypical defensive player’s judgment offered by Merlin Olsen, referring to Tarkenton as a “wimp” for running around). Scrambling is now an acceptable tactic for a QB to use, some even become known for it, Steve Young with the SF 49ers for example. More recently it’s been welcomed into the mainstream, but likely because the scrambling quarterbacks of today don’t look like they are running to avoid being hit – instead they are big physical specimens like Vince Young, Michael Vick, and Tim Tebow, QBs who scramble not so much to evade getting sacked, but instead to gain positive yards on a run. Pure passing quarterbacks detest this attempt to replicate the college option game (‘wildcat’ formations, quarterback options, and the like) at the NFL level even as a few coaches attempt to fit it to the NFL game. The debate continues over what the ideal QB should look like, with the idealized pocket passer (e.g. Tom Brady) continuing to hold its own against the likes of Tim Tebow, someone who won multiple college championships (and a Heisman), but whose coaches are still having trouble figuring out what to do with him.
And then, last and least, are the kickers (punters seem to generally be ignored, from what I can tell). Their unique role on the field makes them inherently different – they are just about the only player that practically never gets hit, nor hits somebody else. And when they do get hit, it’s usually a penalty for ‘running into/roughing the kicker.’ When they do see ‘action’ in the form of a kickoff, any attempt by a kicker to tackle a return man leads to general merriment – look at that little guy trying to tackle that big fast guy! Most of the time they whiff on their tackle attempt and a good laugh is had at their expense. But if the kicker actually manages to bring down a return man, that causes even more laughter – the runner will never hear the end of how he was taken down by a kicker of all things! It doesn’t help that the kickers tend to be non-Americans who come from cultures that emphasize kicking balls with their feet, especially those small little Hispanic types, whose physical build just proves how un-masculine they are! The kicker’s whole job description follows the same pattern: they are truly a disappointment even when they do their job. If kickers make a field goal, it’s a disappointment because the offense should have scored a touchdown (7 points instead of 3). Watching the faces of their fellow players when a kicker misses a field goal is also instructive: thinly veiled disgust that the offense did enough to get them in field goal range, but that the damn kicker messed it up – “all they have to do it kick a ball through the uprights!” The other job of the kicker, the extra point after a touchdown, is automatic: so if you make it, no big deal, but if you don’t, you get lambasted. I don’t know, but wouldn’t be surprised if the plot twist in Ace Ventura (where the female antagonist turns out to be a former Dolphins kicker who had a sex change) gains some of its humor from this stereotype of kickers, or at least some of its believability. Kickers hold the record for most points scored in a career, but I can’t imagine a football fan who would ever say that a kicker was more important that just about any other player on the team. Has any new expansion team (or fantasy football player) ever chosen a kicker with its first pick? Kickers are the least masculine of the bunch.
Such gender roles go beyond the playing field as well. I hope I’m not the only one to notice how, in a perverse way, the fact that Tony Romo dated Jessica Simpson and that Tom Brady is married to supermodel Giselle Bundchen can even be twisted into ammunition to subtly question their manliness? What kind of pretty boy can get a hottie like that? A metrosexual who poses for GQ and has multiple hairstyles, that’s what kind. Always be suspicious of a sensitive-looking guy who is too popular with the ladies – he is clearly not a guy’s guy, and she’s probably wearing the pants anyway. In an odd way, this is similar to some early modern English views of the French that I’ve come across – on the one hand the French are seen as effete and even effeminate in their dress and fashion and their unwillingness to fight “like a man,” yet on the other hand they are sexual predators towards English women, and a dangerous role model for young English gentlemen. Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be quarterbacks.
4. Stratagems. One final example we could mention is how football coaches, players, commentators and fans respond to ‘stratagems.’ This is a topic that I’ll be looking into a lot more in a military sense, but I think the response of war spectators (and participants) to tricking the enemy is similar to what we see in football. First, the most honorable way to play the game is ‘downright,’ hit ’em in the mouth straight-ahead run plays, or pass plays down the field – that’s what the big boys do. This means that trick plays are relatively rare, or at least it’s one reason. And when they are used, there seems to be a muted moral outrage when it’s done to you, and, when it works to your advantage, a grudging and perhaps sheepish acceptance of the results; much less common is a whole-hearted embrace of such sly behavior. Translating military stratagems into football parlance is rather easy, because we find the same range of deceptive gambits. These generally consist of attempts to mislead the opponent as to your intentions, and this can happen at the tactical, operational or strategic level. Tactically, a blitzing defensive linesman can feint toward the left gap of an offensive tackle and then make a spin move to the right to get past him, or a wide receiver can make double moves to throw off the pursuing cornerback, or pretend to be held by the opponent to draw a pass interference call. Operationally, the QB can audible out of a play he had called originally in the huddle, or a coach can ice the opposing kicker by calling a time out right before he tries to make a game-winning field goal. These are all part of the ‘craft’ of playing your position, and they all involve varying degrees of misinformation or disinformation – i.e. they are all fully accepted as part of the game.
Then there are football tactics that are perfectly legal, but seem like they should be illegal, because they smack of avoiding a direct fight. Most notable in this category would be the response of many to the way the Naval Academy’s offensive line will ‘cut block’ a defensive line. Since Navy’s players have to serve in the Navy, they tend to be smaller than many of their civilian opponents, which means that the individual linesmen tend to dive towards the legs of the rushing defensive linesmen, rather than grapple with their bulkier opponents at torso level and get knocked over. This can be dangerous for the defensive players – football already penalizes a different version of cut blocks, ‘chop blocks,’ where one offensive blocker engages a defender high while another ‘chops’ them low. But in addition to the risk of injury (and defenders often complain about rules to protect offensive players from injury), it also seems to involve a complaint about these little guys trying to play with the big boys, and needing to take cheap shots since they can’t otherwise match up. As often happens in war, frustration at one’s inability to counter a seemingly-weaker enemy’s moves often leads to complaints of “unfair!”
Then there are the real ‘trick plays’ involving deception – and these too lay along a spectrum of approval, from “just fine” to “they’re only doing that because they can’t beat us fairly” to “we’re really desperate so we’re going to pull out all the stops.” Most common, and most acceptable, are feint plays like screen passes, draw plays, play-action passes, and reverses; defensively this includes zone blitzes (feinting which defensive players will try to blitz the QB) and stunts (the “indirect approach” where defensive linesmen loop behind their teammates to attack from another angle; offensive linesmen do the same when they ‘pull’). All these use the tendencies of your opponent against them, encourage them to overpursue and take advantage of the gaps they open up.
Further, there are gadget plays that are perfectly legal, and are done from time to time, but whenever they are called, you feel a little bit dirty that your side had to resort to that level of trickery. This includes things like the Statue of Liberty play, the flea flicker, sending your quarterback wide as a ‘receiver,’ or an onside kick before the fourth quarter, when the game clock is running down. The Oregon Duck’s (college) tendency to rely on gadget plays, especially when they line up to go for a two point conversion after a touchdown (even at the beginning of the game!), and then switch to a normal extra point attempt unless the opponent isn’t ready, gets old and annoying because it violates unspoken expectations of sportsmanship, specifically not running up the score on your opponent, and the convention of not taking too many risks too early in a game. Like military stratagems, when such gadget plays work, your side might praise your ‘conduct’ and certainly your bravery for attempting the risky event – everyone recognizes that you get the credit if you win but the criticism if you lose. The other side probably feels a little embarrassed and frustrated that a trick play fooled them, maybe even a little cheated. If the trick play doesn’t work, there’s a sense that the Football Gods have made a point – that’s not the way to play real football, and if you had a better team, you wouldn’t need to resort to such trickery. At least that’s how I interpret our reactions.
I’d suggest that the general point behind the examples above are, if not universal, at least surprisingly widespread in the history of the Western world. It’s not just in football that we have this vestigial ideal of fighting fair on equal terms – Victor Davis Hanson argued that this was behind the idealized hoplite battle of Archaic Greece, and we can find duels conforming to the same desire for creating a ‘fair’ fight, not to mention how almost every Hollywood action movie has the bad guys cheat (or great anti-heroes like Mal Reynolds in Firefly). And as a result, we have constant attempts to justify on the one side and excuse of the other any violations of those implicit ideals – to excuse away our departures from that goal just as we castigate the enemy for his trickiness. I’d argue that the convergence between our expectations of how war should be fought (“come out and fight like a man”) and how football should be played results from the fact that both endeavors are drawing from (perhaps reinforcing) American cultural values regarding competition writ broadly.
We can see this beyond football, too. In NBA basketball, one could mention the frequent American complaints about (usually European) players flopping to take a charge, with commentators and play-by-play announcers frequently complaining that it ruins the game, our idealized view of the game based off of pure skill and athleticism. We could also mention the more general complaints made about the ‘softness’ of European NBA centers like the Pau Gasol, contrasted with the body-bruising behemoths like Shaq and now ‘Superman,’ aka Dwight Howard. And of course old-timers complain about how today the game is for wimps, whereas in the old days a hard foul was truly deserving of the name.
Regarding soccer (the football one actually plays with one’s feet), we see similar cultural influences. I’d bet many American sports fans still consider soccer suspect – they see not-very muscular players (from Latin countries in particular) who are more likely to flop on the ground and writhe in agony after the slightest tap than to “man up” (as the Miller Lite beer commercial campaign would have it) and play the game like men should. (I won’t even get into discussing what kind of competitive sport allows a game to end in a tie.) That being said, I’d guess similar ideals operate in soccer as well. There was an interesting June 2012 CNN piece (sorry non-Americans, that’s about as cosmopolitan as my sports reading gets) that suggested that this idea of a vigorous, masculine style of fighting isn’t just an American thing. “Football culture: Who are you? Warrior or tika taka technician?” suggested that for a long time English soccer culture insisted on playing its “warrior” “bulldog” style of football, and insisted on valor and physical aggressiveness (vigor anyone?) rather than train its players in finesse and technical skill. This sounds eerily similar to the American complaints about football teams that don’t play “punch ’em in the mouth” football. I’d suggest this concurrence of opinions across cultures is not accidental.
In short, idealized views of how to play sports – what’s fair, what’s honorable, the balance between winning and winning well – can also tell us something about how societies view their idealized way of war.
What I don’t know, however, is how far to take this analysis – either in football or in war. I’d argue this gendered mentality particularly is an important underlying explanation for reactions to specific events, and it undoubtedly shapes how people respond from time to time. But the fact is, there are many other responses to the above examples that seem to have very little to do with gender norms, so I may have been cherry-picking to an extent – perhaps I remember them because they seem so blatant (and silly), whereas other, perhaps even more pervasive, assumptions go unmarked because they are even more fundamental? How strongly does gender (or ideals in general) influence sports/military behavior, and how often? Gender clearly explains some behaviors and reactions, but does it explain most, or more than other explanatory variables?
So, how far do we take the parallel between sports and war? Thoughts, either on sports-as-war, on the utility (or futility) of comparing war to other human endeavors, or even on the gender analysis and/or stratagems specifically?