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Book Report: How Football Explains America

by Randy Snow

Originally posted on Yahoo! Voices, Tuesday, June 26, 2012


In his 2008 book, How Football Explains America, ESPN correspondent Sal Paolantonio gives his interpretation of how the game of football has connected with American sports fans like no other sport ever has.

After he read the 2004 book, How Soccer Explains the World, by author Franklin Foer, Paolantonio realized that, while soccer may be loved by the rest of the world, it has never caught on in America. There was only one sport that explained America and the American culture, and that was football.

The book is part football history lesson and part football analysis. Paolantonio makes many comparisons to how the game developed and changed with what was going on in the country at the time. The book also is set against the backdrop of the 2007 NFL season. You may remember, that was the season when the New England Patriots were 18-0 going into the Super Bowl and lost to Eli Manning and the New York Giants.

America has always been a nation of fighters, from Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett in the wild frontier to General George S. Patton in World War II. Comparisons are made between the way that a general leads an army and the way a coach leads a team. There is the planning before an attack, scouting the enemy and the ability of the troops to work together towards a common goal, victory.

Diversity is also discussed as a way of showing how football reflects America. Many different ethnic groups have come to this country over the last 200 years and they have all had an impact on our culture. From the Irish, to the Italians, to the Asians and the Africans, each group brought something that made this country the great melting pot that it is. Similar to the way that African-Americans were segregated in society for many years, there was a time when they were excluded from playing professional football. They were actually banned from the NFL from 1933-1946. Their integration into society was mirrored on the football field to the point that, today, it is almost unimaginable that there was ever a time when they were not involved in the game.

Parallels are even drawn between football and the concept of Manifest Destiny in the 1800's. As the country expanded across the continent, capturing land and holding onto it, the same is done in football. The game is all about advancing into enemy territory and imposing your will on the opponent.

Football is also about how we deal with defeat. Everyone gets knocked down in life. The spirit of America is in how we react to being knocked down. How we get up, try again and hopefully, in the end, prevail.

In the 1950's and early 60's, the NFL was defined by people like Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Johnny Unitas, Tom Landry and Bart Starr. But then along came Joe Namath, with his long hair, sunglasses and fur coat, and things would never be the same again. The 60's also brought the rival American Football League, which challenged the establishment (the NFL) in a way similar to how young people at the time were challenging the government's participation in the Vietnam War.

Then, along came television, which allowed live access to every home in the country on Sundays. It was now possible to follow the game as it was happening. The marriage of television and football was a boon to both sides and eventually led to the birth of ESPN, the NFL Network and many other channels dedicated solely to sports coverage.

Television also showed the nation that football was more than just a sport, it was entertainment. Each week, a three-hour drama was played out between two teams fighting for domination over the other. The object being to take the enemy's land and to prevail against, sometimes, overwhelming odds. We root for the underdog or cheer for our favorite team, but we are captivated by the struggle that the game represents. This is what America is all about.

The book is only 200 pages in length, so it is a quick, fun read. I found it interesting that Paolantonio has crafted a compelling comparison between the game we love and the country we love. Football truly is an American game.


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