NFL: Modern American Chivalry

Sport does not explain a society’s values so much as exhibit them at their most basic and intelligible level. It is an integral part of culture, of politics and, to an ever increasing degree, business. In what other country would the major national holiday (Thanksgiving) revolve so much around a televised game? Where else would ‘soccer moms’ or their like be a key constituency, and what other country would be able to export its national game when it has practically no professional presence in any other country.

The now regular game of American Football at Wembley has been a phenomenal success – selling out four times and achieving sales of 70,000 in this fifth year, a discrepancy easily excused by the fact that the game was only just confirmed a month or so ago. That American Football looks destined for success, and a London-based team is a possibility, is surprising because it is so intrinsically American in its values.

The cardinal value of competitiveness and the tension between individualism and cooperation elevate sport in America, while the role of the family in supporting children (and not merely the father as is often the case in the UK) enmeshes it in their culture. In Britain, sport is an art form, football a working class ballet. In America, sport is a philosophy.

American football is a more significant sport than basketball, hockey and even baseball in this respect. It is fundamentally rational, so that where skill plays a role, it is ultimately tactics or ‘plays’ that win games. Yet football also reflects often disguised hierarchies in America – every type of player has his role on a football pitch, but the quarterback, the chief entrepreneur, is king. Only the coach is above him.

The history of the game is also a very American story. Originating from a series of games of rugby football between Havard and McGill (a Montreal college), the rules were arrived at through a mix of experimentation and principle – Yale breaking the mould ultimately agreeing to play by Havard’s rules, which provided for carrying of the ball.

The game is also littered with the examples of individuals dramatically shifting the commercial terrain, from George Hallas and Vince Lombardi, to the man who was arguably the founder of the game as we know it, Walter Camp. It was Camp who stripped the mongrel inter-collegiate game back to basics and created the simple formula of gain x yards in three attempts or forfeit the ball.

Character is of huge importance in American football – the nerve of the quarter back, and the discipline of the line backers, which did for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers against the Chicao Bears in London. Every year, before the Superbowl, the player who has made the largest humanitarian impact is honoured. Owing to the origin of many of today’s players, these tend to be improvements in education or health in poor American, Caribbean or African countries. And the game, as does America in general, churns out men of honour and courage such as Pat Tillman.

As ever, it is hard to critique American values, except when Americans fail to live up to them.

All of this is not a convincing argument for American Football being unattractive to British or European audiences. Indeed, the opposite is evidently true. It is not quite the reason for that appeal either – that is down to the simplicity of the game (contrary to popular belief), the tension which is generated by a phase by phase drive and the skill levels are all reasons why the NFL has an underground and now obvious following outside of America. Perhaps the question should not be why American football is growing in popularity, but whether the American values that surround it in its natural habitat are also transferrable.

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