Brain Bucket: Playoffs and Overtime
Part 5 in a series on the American game of war
The relationship between football and warfare has always been a topic for sportswriters. They have alternately praised these wellsprings and deplored the militarism of the game in its contemporary presentation. Yet the fact that both activities produce exactly the same predominant long-term injury has largely gone unremarked until now. This must change. For it is no exaggeration anymore to say that football players are indeed the modern-day gladiators. Like the coliseum fighters of ancient Rome, whose blood sport tradition emerged from ancient funerary rites that honored dead warriors, the sport of football resembles our form of warfare so closely that the line between them has always blurred.
All of this is is predicate to understanding America’s recent controversy over kneeling NFL players. Until 2009, teams did not even emerge from the locker room until after the national anthem; this was changed at the request of the Pentagon, which felt the need to boost national sentiment in the middle of what has become the longest war in American history. Given the long and close association between American football and American martial prowess, it is easy to understand why many fans would see kneeling as a form of disrespect to veterans, the war dead, or the nation at war. They are wrong, of course — Colin Kaepernick explicitly started kneeling instead of sitting on the bench out of respect for veterans.
Nevertheless, protesting NFL players are running headlong into attitudes that are original to the game and intrinsic at every level of play. Outrage was inevitable.
It is also important to remember that whereas Fritz Pollard’s career was followed by decades of racial barriers to black athletes, and integration only took effect on the college game in the 1970s, today seventy percent of NFL players are black. These numbers reflect racial participation through every level of the game. Thus the demographic most likely to suffer brain injury and early death from playing football is also the most likely to be killed by police, or given disproportionate prison sentences, or denied opportunities to succeed at less dangerous pursuits — with the telling exception of military service, another profession with a disproportionately large African American workforce. By comparison, the audience cheering the violence on the field is 83% white. With such inequities in place, outrage was inevitable.
These issues will not be resolved in a series of newsletters. Instead, they can be encapsulated by the most unique thing about the American game, which is that Americans think of their form of football as completely unique.
While Canadian football is very similar to the American game — close enough that an uninformed observer would be hard-pressed to figure out the differences — most American football fans discount the Canadian game completely. Canadians have never tied their version of the sport as closely to matters of national identity or civic virtue as the American game. Canada is a good point of comparison, for while the northern neighbors of the United States does not quite share the same history of racial animus, they do share the fraught history of Native American “boarding schools” like the one that produced Jim Thorpe in Carlisle, a site now belonging to the US Army War College. Canadians also proved to be the shock troops of the British empire in France: pioneers in trench raiding, meticulous planners, adept in the operational art of a combined arms attack. When the Germans gleaned intelligence that Canadians were in the opposite trenches, they braced themselves for an offensive in that area. In a very real sense, Canada’s national identity was forged in the fires of the Western Front.
Perhaps Canada’s climate explains why Canadians have collectively chosen to invest a sense of national identity in ice hockey rather than football. What matters for this discussion is that Americans see their game as exceptional much the way they see their American nation as exceptional.
Maybe this aspect of the sport needs the most examination: what does it say about America that its most successful athletic contest is a celebration of its past wars and a reflection of the social values bound to a disappearing industrial economy? What does it say about our national belief in ‘American exceptionalism’? This question is all the more acute when you recall that baseball, an agrarian sport with aristocratic origins, was more popular than football until the 1950s. Football became America’s favorite athletic contest during the era of the “company man” and the polarization of the Cold War, when the factory wage economy was at its zenith. Those times are forever gone. Scientific management techniques once turned people into virtual cogs within the machinery; they have been replaced with robots. Will football be replaced, and if so, by what? Japanese robots made in China playing football in the place of humans?
Kidding aside, that kind of result might be preferable to the alternatives. It would certainly reflect the near-term reality of American life. Although the United States is now a post-industrial, service-based economy, Americans still spend their autumn weekends observing the ritual sacrifice of young men’s brains to celebrate our national prowess in armed conflicts of the past and present. These offerings to our gods seem faceless and anonymous underneath their masked helmets. Who are they? Who are we? Are we too terrified of these questions to confront them, or is the “exceptional nation” strong enough to survive the answers?
I think that I have made my case. But for those readers who yearn for more information, for whom all the great coaches of the past describing “Football as a War Game” are not convincing enough, perhaps the most telling point of commonality between the modern mode of warfare and America’s game of war is the constant resort to higher levels of command for instructions.
It did not take long before every operation in the football trenches required a committee meeting (“huddle”) to confer on the formation and plan of attack. Players then wanted to communicate with their off-field leaders, transferring command and control upward. There was great resistance to this trend at first, with rules that forbade any communication with coaches, who were required to sit in the bleachers rather than stand on the sideline. That phase did not last long, though. Players became confused and teams lost cohesion without someone outside the scrum to keep them organized.
This aspect of the game has only ever grown in importance. Today, an expanding cadre of assistant coaches and grad students in the press box at University of Alabama football games recalls Alfred von Schlieffen’s General Staff, an innovation that had made the Prussian Army’s mobilization possible in 1871, surprising France; by 1914, all the world’s major armies imitated their success.
Nick Saban’s subordinates try to perfect the team’s tactical deployments in real time much like the flag officers of World War One, though they have the benefit of putting eyes on the actual field. Field Marshall Sir John French and his contemporaries struggled to manage the largest battles ever seen from locations that were far removed behind the front lines, where the telephone lines could converge, using maps and reports that were sometimes confusing, contradictory, out of date, or wrong. They have been unfairly condemned ever since for failing at this impossible task.
Here, then, is a corrective. Suppose that we enlarged the game of football: Coach Saban would be hard pressed to conduct a match that was, say, three miles wide, with many teams and multiple balls in play. Even with live television feeds, his staff could not observe a game that large from a single location. Managing that much chaos would surely push Saban’s abilities beyond their absolute limits, and of course his instinctive response would be to bring in more staff, install more headsets, and issue more clipboards. Imagine the best coach in the college game ending up as detached from the action as Sir John French, forced to manage an enormous bureaucracy from his office on campus.
Even getting a small football team to the stadium requires a military sense of order. In 1988, my high school team needed two buses and a pickup truck to carry all our people and equipment to a home game. Every piece of protective technology — including the pads, but especially the helmets — required us to keep abundant spares. Helmets met in glancing blows, shearing off chinstrap mounting brackets. Players lost mouthpieces protecting their teeth. Cleats broke or came loose and needed replacement. With games usually starting soon after the dinner hour, the whole team had to be fed, kept hydrated, even fed again on the way home from another team’s field. Getting to kickoff is therefore very like deploying an infantry company; anyone who has done both things can confirm the truth of this statement.
Let us scale up this problem, too: suppose Nick Saban had to equip our imaginary army of football players with just a few months’ notice. If he could not find a supplier capable of delivering that many helmets, Saban would have to use more than one, complicating his supply chain. Furthermore, Crimson Tide helmets must all be exactly the right shade of red, and have white numbers on the sides in accordance with department rules and NCAA regulations. Every new procurement issue requires more administrative work, creating more staff positions, necessitating more committee meetings to regularize and standardize everything, producing ever more documentation. Build a football team big enough, and new companies would leap into existence offering their consultant services. Best of all, the Alabama taxpayer underwrites everything; Saban is the highest-paid state employee in the country. Put it all inside a Pentagon-shaped building and you would have a sort of football-industrial complex. '
Even the shape of the football field evokes a battlefield. Consider the map above from the Battle of Fromelles, a subsidiary event to the infamous Battle of the Somme in 1916. Note that each unit of the British Army involved in the operation has its own sector of responsibility. While the exact shape of that sector varies according to the terrain and the unique conditions of their front, such as a large bend in the line, every unit’s assigned area is generally rectangular, extending forward into the enemy’s territory and backwards into one’s own. Armies have ‘objectives’ instead of end zones and goal posts, but we can imagine our expanded football game taking place on several adjacent fields, with an overworked Nick Saban somewhere behind or in the middle of it all, desperately trying to keep up with the action all around him.
Or maybe not. In “The Point of View,” a 1909 science fiction short story by a British staff officer named Ernest Swinton, the commanding general of an army fighting a battle very like the Somme in 1916 is portrayed fly fishing in the middle of a limited offensive along a vast front. As Swinton explains narratively, this detachment is necessary to give his subordinates room to work. The battlespace is too large for any single man to micromanage. Swinton anticipated the command style of the First World War and foresaw no man’s land; in October of 1914, he wrote memoranda on a means to break through the no man’s land that was becoming a reality in France; his description of that vehicle spurred the British army to develop tanks. Latter-day command culture abhors so much detachment. Generals are expected to lead from the front, just as Saban is expected to lead from the sideline, but both of them depend on complex hierarchies to control organizations that are far too large for any single person to command effectively.
Finally, let us consider the helmets of the Western Front one more time. Though the combatants all considered themselves modern, the stalemate right away produced a surprising reversion to ancient technologies — digging and sapping, body armor for sentries, clubs and other hand weapons for silent raiding in the night, and so on. Likewise, the new helmets all looked quite familiar to students of medieval and renaissance armies: the Pickelhaube was based on the headgear of a 15th Century cuirassier. Its replacement was the Stahlhelm, which resembles a 15th Century sallet. The Brodie is very much like a chapel de fer of the 13th-14th Centuries, while the Adrian matches the lines of a 17th Century bourguignotte with a reduced crest and decorative flair. So why did these familiar forms ever fall into disuse if they were ultimately so useful?
Our short answer is that the renaissance ended with a transition from square formations to line formations, and this development went along with improved musketry and the invention of the bayonet. Metal helmets began to disappear in favor of soft hats because armor did not seem to prevent the wounds of the era. Scarce metal was far more useful for making muskets, bayonets, cannons and cannon balls to rip holes in enemy ranks.
In this series, we have seen how rugby, soccer, and then Australian and North American football consciously reflected these line formation tactics that emerged from the military revolution of the 17th-18th Centuries. All these sports were developed during the 19th Century, when new mass fire technologies were being applied to those now-old tactics. War has always been destructive of the brain; America’s game of war was simply born at an odd historical moment in which the war helmet was considered obsolete.
We were wrong about that, and our brains have still not recovered from the error.