Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Football: Collective expression of American ideals?

This past Sunday, February 5th, 2017, I joined 111.3 million viewers in watching the nation’s 51st Super Bowl. For those not in the know (I typically count myself among them), the Super Bowl is the annual capstone event of our nation’s favorite pastime. For days before Super Bowl Sunday, my newsfeed was flooded with game predictions, fiscal stats, advertising controversies, economic impact data for the city of Houston, and—perhaps least surprisingly—speculation about the political leanings of all involved participants. Most of this flood is par for the course for an event that holds the first, second, and third place titles for most watched broadcast in television history. But from the perspective of an outside observer with only a marginal interest (on the best of days) in football, I found one thing especially striking about the Super Bowl rhetoric: its emphasis on American nationalism.

Indeed, media pundits across the country seemed to conceptualize this exercise in organized sports as nothing less than the last expression of our nation’s collective "imagined community." Sports writers from Lincoln, Nebraska to Franklin, Kentucky casually described the Super Bowl as "an event that everybody can relate to . . . in an era when a lot of our national holidays have become polarized" and "an event that brings everyone together."

Concededly, in the post-game aftermath, much has been written about the politicization of this year’s game, and the appropriateness thereof. But the broader question still stands: In an era defined by "ideological silos" on both sides of the political spectrum, is football really one of the few remaining areas of common ground? And if so—common ground for whom? As I watched (albeit with my untrained eye) large, heavily-padded men pummel each other on Sunday . . . suffice to say, I was skeptical.

A few days later, with these questions still percolating in my subconscious, I stumbled upon an article about football in my home state. I am a (proud!) Coloradan by birth, a state with an estimated rural population of 696,435 (out of a total population of 5,029,196, as of the 2010 Census). On the eastern plains, representing “some of the most sparsely populated areas in the continental U.S.,” there is a town called Seibert.

In the interest of full disclosure, though a native Coloradan, I’d never heard of Seibert before this article. A quick Google search reveals why: Seibert is a statutory town in Kit Carson County populated by a whopping 220 persons.

In terms of demographics, Seibert residents are overwhelmingly white, married, and Republican. The local government payroll lists two full-time employees and the average per capita income in 2015 was $17,239. As compared to other Colorado locales, Seibert’s median age (49.7 years) is significantly above the state average (36.4 years); its length of residency is significantly above the state average; and the percentage of persons with college or higher level degrees (12.7%) is significantly below the state average (16.5%).

Geographically, the nearest major city is over 100 miles away, as is the nearest college or university. The local yellow pages list 25 businesses, including one grocery store, one volunteer fire department, two churches, two taxidermists, and—most notably—High Plains High School.

The recent setting of a championship game between the Hi-Plains Patriots and the Cheyenne Wells Tigers, High Plains High School boasts a total enrollment of 45 students, 23 of whom play for the school football team. Cheyenne Wells, located roughly an hour southeast of Seibert, has an enrollment of 48 students, 16 of whom appear on the Tigers’ roster. For those of you football aficionados who are paying attention, you’ll notice a disparity in the numbers. Traditionally, a high school football team will have between 40 and 50 players. Like other similarly population-depressed places—e.g., rural South Dakota, West Texas, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, and Wisconsin—several rural Colorado districts have adopted six-man football.

In the aforementioned article detailing the six-man title game in Seibert, Pencils Robinson writes:
[There’s] something beautiful about small-school athletics, particularly 6-man football. . . . Can there be anything purer in an athletic sense than these kids who are not playing for scholarships or media attention but for the love of the competition and the pride they feel for their schools and communities?
Robinson further describes the scene: fans surround the field in their “pickup trucks, Camaros and big Chryslers”; a spectator dons a fur hat with ear flaps; and, at the end of the game, the announcer invites fans onto the field for prayer.
Most of the crowd accepts the invitation and joins the players. Although the towns are 70 miles apart, there is a sense of community on the field this afternoon. The spirit that existed throughout the game – I never heard a boo all day from either crowd, never a criticism of an official or an opponent – continues as the fans mingle and linger, reluctant to leave the moment.
. . . Now, it is certainly possible that Seibert’s experience of football can be extrapolated to the country at large. Maybe football is the last bastion of national community-building, a collective expression of American ideals. On the other hand, maybe Robinson’s article is just another example of sports reporting that idealizes rural America. Or, more cynically, maybe football is simply an "artful exercise of brand management" by the NFL.

Ultimately, it is not for me to say. What I am comfortable suggesting, however, is that Seibert’s experience tells us something else—and something arguably more valuable. The adoption of six-man football in rural America is an indicator of more than just patriotism and American pride. While admirably plucky on the part of rural athletic directors, the dearth of high school athletes in places like Seibert is part of a broader narrative of economic hardship, depopulation, and rural decline.  (For an interesting take on football as a "town's connective tissue," see this New York Times article, first mentioned in a previous post on this blog.)  Especially in discussions about national identity and American ideals, I think it is important to remember that access to the "American Dream," be that in terms of access to education, health services, or national pastimes, is compromised for many American people.


RGL said...

I see the adaptation of football for these rural, small schools as representing a sort of feel-good, healthy competition, love of the game, sort of story. Basically the opposite of how I view the Superbowl, with the only thing in common being that both sports are being called football. It reminds me of the movie McFarland, USA where a coach gets moved to a rural high school in an agricultural community and starts a cross country team. The sport is the hero of the story. In that movie at least, the rural life is shown as gruesome hard work and is not idealized. That does not mean that Robinson didn't have alternative motives. Again, to me the Superbowl is not exactly the pride and joy of America, or at least I don't think it should be. But that love of the game, passion for sport, community building aspect of sports is something that will drive a small school to find alternative means of coming together.

Kyle said...

I found this piece encouraging in two ways: first, for the idea that sport may unite communities; second, for lifting up small-team football as an entertaining iteration of the game. But there are also reasons to be skeptical of both concepts.

The portrait of group prayer uniting communities across distance and rivalry contrasts with the blood-feud depiction of football towns in "Friday Night Lights" and elsewhere. As the comment above indicates, sports can be very effective for unifying small communities and providing escape -- psychically and even materially (for a select few). But this in-group solidarity may come at the cost of animosity toward outsiders, perhaps even other small communities that face the same challenges.

The mention of "six-man" football as a viable form of entertainment is too alluring to resist. I think football is a beautiful sport, but I have boycotted it for the last few years mainly due to the NFL's inadequate response to head injuries. In my heart of hearts, I want full-team flag football to catch on as a national spectacle, but rationally I know that the popularity of football is likely driven by the big hits. Perhaps a version of the sport driven by passing (what fans like anyway) but limited to one-on-one coverage (fewer opportunities for devastating tackles) is a compromise we might embrace.

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

I wonder what this incident, where a liberal, coastal elite (Meryl Streep, no less) denigrates football, has to say about your thesis in this post (which, by the way, is very interesting).