In the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, high school football team booster Buddy Garrity is pushing to stage an exhibition game on the rough side of town. “I’ll say this,” admits the community leader he’s persuading, “these boys do love their football.” Buddy’s doughy face grows wide with wonder: “Why, everyone loves football.”
Not quite, but those who love it, really love it. Of course, that can be said of soccer and lacrosse, as well, but judging by the TV viewership of NFL and college games, there are far more football fanatics than any other kind. The number of bowl games and expansion teams has increased in recent decades and Super Bowl Sunday is now an unofficial national holiday, complete with store promotions and community rituals.
Several years ago, a family in a church we attended pulled up stakes in their small Texas town and moved to an even smaller town, family business and all, just so their son could play quarterback for his last two years of high school. Born and raised in Texas, I sort of get this, even though it’s totally crazy. What is the appeal of this game?
This might be part of it: Football is the only male bastion that women have not breached. And never will. The U.S. Army and other branches of the service may remove all barriers to women serving in combat, but they will never play football on anything approaching a serious level.
Even the uniform is masculinity in caricature: broad shoulders, narrow hips (hard heads?—just kidding, guys!). The game symbolizes how men relate to each other: lining up shoulder-to-shoulder and solving practical problems, play by play. It showcases a beautiful balance of male strengths: brute force, physical agility, and mental quickness. It’s an acceptable outlet for emotions that men (on and off the field) still feel inclined to stifle. And it’s closer to actual combat—with its battle lines and offensive strategies and territory defended and lost—than any other sport. The field is one of the last places where men are free to be—even encouraged to be—men.
That’s not to say that women don’t like the game—a great many do. And a great many he-men don’t. But it would be interesting to see if women like football in proportion to how much they like (or are like) men. And I wonder if its growth in popularity is a reaction against the feminization of America, where little boys are denied recess in school and contact sports are banned in P.E. and intentions mean more than actions.
Cliché? Sure. And the NFL has its share of corruption and excesses. But clichés are based on truth, and the excesses—of the players, at least—lean heavily toward testosterone. “Male and female he created them,” and what God creates in us remains in us, whatever we do to rewrite or cancel it. Truth suppressed in one area of public life bulges out in another: one possible reason why the American love of football isn’t going away.