Game on! What NFL football tells us about America

FILE - Sep 3, 2015. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during warmups before the game. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

FILE - Sep 3, 2015. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) during warmups before the game. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Not long ago I mentioned to a friend that I was writing a book about football. “Writing about football?” he replied. “Isn’t that a little like dancing about architecture?”

I didn’t agree, obviously — I kept writing the book and finished it not much later. It was published under the title "Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game." But I think I understood what my friend had in mind. He was telling me that some things are meant to be experienced — experienced in their full wonder and intensity, if you like them. And if you don’t, you should simply walk away and do something else with your time.

To some people football is one of those things — and so maybe are rock music and sex. Experience them if you’re inclined. Talk about them if you have to. Write about them if you absolutely must. But if you do, have the decency to simply be descriptive — paint the experience in all its bright and subtle shades. But don’t go analyzing it. It is what it is, as the saying goes.    

The 2015 NFL season begins Thursday night and recent events have perhaps shown us why we haven’t been too eager to look into the mirror that football provides. We’ve heard about spousal abuse and drugs and bullying and child abuse and all sorts of malfeasance. Right now a one-time New England Patriots star is in prison for murder. These are serious matters, no doubt about it. Football surely has something to tell us about America’s relation to violence, and what it has to tell us is anything but flattering.

And it may have something to tell us about our religious life, too. Can we really think of football as compatible with our dominant faith, Christianity, despite the face that so many good church-going Americans love the game as much as they do? Is there anything in the Gospels that endorses body-slamming your neighbor rather than loving and forgiving him? All over America people go off to worship the prophet who taught us to turn the other cheek, and then go home to watch young men try to knock each other cold. What’s that about?

Football may also illuminate our racial situation: Is it really an accident that a largely white country delights in turning on its TV sets on Sundays and watching African-American guys (who compose almost 70 percent of the NFL) slam full-truck into each another? We sometimes ask why so many of our elite football players  are black – and then shy away (rightly, I think) from explanations that involve genetics and biology. But is it possible that what makes a standout football player is often a reservoir of anger that’s ready to be tapped? And who in our culture has more right to anger than African-Americans? But anger (unlike love, say) is fungible: it can be readily redirected. And maybe on Sunday afternoons those black men turn their rage on each other when it might well be directed elsewhere.

But football doesn’t only reveal our disturbing side. To me, football is the ultimate team game: There are stars and their supporters, and they often work in marvelous sync. To watch a perfect draw play or screen or long pass unfold is to see something like a small miracle of grunting, straining cooperation. We Americans are not loved the world over. But the word out there is that if you want a complex task done – bridges built, roads cut, a constitution conceived -- then you might want to bring in some Americans. Football at its best is American know-how in action.

It’s an image of American resiliency, too. Tim Green, the former Falcons great, says football is all about getting up. You’ve got to get up, on the field, after you’ve been knocked flat. But after every failure in life, you’ve got to rise to your feet again, too. We Americans like to think of ourselves as more optimistic and resilient than most people – and if we are (and I think we may be), football is a good training ground for that resilience, and a good mirror of it, too.

Baseball allowed us to idealize ourselves. The game is calm, pastoral and, at its best, beautiful. We loved being the people who loved baseball. We loved hearing stories about the beautiful game that we so enjoyed. Baseball was the perfect mirror for an America that was able to think of itself as exclusively good and generous and just. Probably the worst that baseball suggested about Americans when baseball was the national game was that we might be a tad boring. Say what you like about Americans today; we are not boring.

Football is the national game now. And football does not allow us to sustain an idealized sense of ourselves.

What the writer Mary McGrory says is true: “Baseball is what we were and football is what we have become.”

The picture that football gives of America is complex. It is often disturbing and often dark, but it is far from being exclusively bad. It’s probably time to stop turning away from the portrait of America that football offers – to look at it, head on, to consider it and learn.

Mark Edmundson teaches in the English Department at the University of Virginia. He is a contributing editor at Raritan and the prizewinning author of numerous works of cultural criticism, including "Why Read?" He is the author of  several books including "Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals" (Harvard University Press, September 2015) and "Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game" (Penguin Books June 2015).