Praise the pigskin and pass the chips

January 30, 2000|By George F. Will

CANTON, Ohio -- Why are advertisers paying an average of $2 million for 30 seconds of time on today's Super Bowl broadcast to sell stuff to 140 million Americans busy eating, among much else, 3.2 billion potato chips, many of them laden with guacamole made from 8 million pounds of avocados that could cover the football field, including end zones, a foot deep? Because on Sept. 17, 1920 -- fittingly, the anniversary of America's most violent day, the battle of Antietam -- 11 men met here in a Hupmobile showroom to organize what would become the National Football League.

The 11 -- including Jim Thorpe of the Canton Bulldogs -- were each assessed a $100 franchise fee, but none could afford to pay. In 1998, just up the road, the new Cleveland Browns franchise cost $530 million. En route to such riches, the NFL has included the likes of the Tonawanda Kardex, Duluth Kelleys and Staten Island Stapletons.

Were the Hupmobile showroom still here, it would be, like Bethlehem, a destination for pilgrims. Instead, they visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame to view sacred relics, such as the ice tongs Red Grange used when working his way through the University of Illinois. And a football carved from anthracite coal, which the 1925 Pottsville Maroons awarded themselves as NFL champions.

In 1925 Grange became the NFL's first big crowd attraction. He went to play for a man who at the 1920 meeting sat on a Hupmobile's running board -- George Halas of the Decatur (Ill.) Staleys. The next year Halas moved the Staleys to Chicago where they became the Bears.

The Super Bowl -- 60 minutes of football encrusted in six hours of patriotic-religious-commercial pageantry -- aptly symbolizes the league that was born with the Roaring Twenties. That decade saw the birth of ballyhoo and its arts of advertising and public relations. Sports celebrities -- Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Grange and others -- were part of the sudden eruption of a national mass culture.

Critics fault football for combining three deplorable features of American life: It is violence punctuated by committee meetings and analyzed in an impenetrable argot appropriate for the game's mind-bending division of labor. (Some players specialize in "the nickel package." Really.)

Football's celebrants counter that it is an indispensable catharsis and psychological tune-up for Americans: It is Manifest Destiny -- the conquest of territory -- for a nation with no remaining frontier, and mayhem for people who no longer can settle their quarrels at the OK Corral.

Elliott J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, in their book, "A Brief History of American Sports," show that America's games have always carried ideological freight. New England's killjoy Puritans frowned on everything boisterous, sensual and passionate, including such popular pastimes as cockfighting, watching dogs tear bulls to pieces, and putting a terrier in a pit with 100 rats and seeing how many he could kill in a set time.

But Victorian values were wielded in defense of sports. The body as the soul's temple should be a worthy sanctuary. Hence "muscular Christianity." Worried that Gilded Age prosperity would feminize men, sport was promoted as controlled aggression, a surrogate battlefield on which young men could replicate their fathers' Civil War heroism.

College football as the moral equivalent of war appealed mightily to Teddy Roosevelt, whose companions on the charge up San Juan Hill included a Yale quarterback and a Princeton tennis champion. "Masterful nations," he said, have rugged sports to promote "virile virtues." But football became too warlike even for TR, who gave football's big three -- Yale, Harvard and Princeton, believe it or not -- a White House dressing down.

Mr. Gorn and Mr. Goldstein note that "football was the first American spectator sport in which the clock played a major role." Clocks are emblematic of modernity -- workers punching time clocks, time-and-motion efficiency studies. Walter Camp, Yale's coach and the most important person in the early growth of football, was also an official of the New Haven Clock Co., and regarded football as basic training for managerial elites:

"Finding a weak spot through which a play can be made, feeling out the line with experimental attempts, concealing the real strength till everything is ripe ... an outline of football or business tactics? Both of course."

Nowadays football is a television program. In 1949 fewer than 1 million households had television. By 1955, two-thirds of all households did. Football's compact action fits a television screen, and in 1958, when the Colts beat the Giants in a sudden death championship game, America was hooked.

Nowadays the Super Bowl is a sacramental moment that unites this meritocratic, hyperbolic, commercial nation. Praise the Lord and pass the guacamole.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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