Football and the Scarcity of Death

Following the massive casualties of the Second World War and the televisual spectacle that was Vietnam, death in contemporary warfare has come to bear a substantial cost, not only in terms of the pragmatics of human resource expenditures (today a factor of materiel much like the gun or food ration), but in terms of a social cost that is amplified and multiplied by the media.

And more recently, the enemies that constitute the opponent for the erstwhile armies of the nation-state have become guerrilla or paramilitary in nature, or cellular terrorist organizations. In other words, there will no longer be the mass bloodbaths of Normandy, etc. Machines have obsolesced our warriors, while our enemies are more fragmented than before. Death in the overdeveloped and post-industrial nation-state becomes scarce, perhaps a logical outcome of the shift from a society based on production to one based on consumption.

Question: In the wake of these changes, does gridiron football ascend to the pinnacle of American sporting culture since it offers a highly ritualized form of (obsolesced) war that allows us to continue to experience mass-produced death, albeit in simulated (and weak substitute) form?


3 responses to Football and the Scarcity of Death

- rss feed for this comment thread
  1. ken says:

    Hmmm…not sure. It's an interesting theory.

    Perhaps you might consider the history of the sport. There are some good pieces of scholarship out there on the early years of intercollegiate football that illustrate the great concern over the violence of the game (and the high death and injury rates that resulted from this early form of the game). One author suggests that football was on the brink of being abolished and that Harvard actually saved it.

    Here are some cites if you are interested:

    Ronald A. Smith. 1981. Harvard and Columbia and a reconsideration of the 1905-06 football crisis. Journal of Sport History, 8, 5-19.
    Hal D. Sears. 1992. The moral threat of intercollegiate sports: An 1893 poll of ten college presidents, and the end of “The Champion Football Team of the Great West.” Journal of Sport History, 19, 211-226.

  2. sportsbabel says:

    Actually, Ken, we might be arguing the same thing.

    Yes, it was a very violent game at its inception. While there were concerns about this violence from the universities where the clubs got their start (as you point out), football did find a welcome home in the U.S. military, where the sport was felt to develop courage, teamwork, and aggression. There is an equally rich body of literature that describes the embrace of the game by the armed forces.

    But your note of the early violence remains important, in my view. Chess is a game that also models a particular form of warfare, but the American public en masse never really got behind that game. I believe it is the vicarious violence experienced through spectating a football game — while packaged within this model of warfare — that is of interest to us.

  3. ken says:

    You should check out this article:
    Patrick B. Miller. 1997. The manly, the moral, and the proficient: College sport in the New South. Journal of Sport History, 24, 285-316.
    There is a brief discussion about a (US) Civil War veteran who opposed football on various grounds but based part of his argument on the fact that the game was nothing like warfare. Unfortunately I have not seen anything that suggests this disruption of the football~warfare connection was happening elsewhere.