Chivalry is Homicidal: The Triumphant Dysfunction of Football
“Approaching an Irish Private swathed in bloodied bandages, the priest enquired, ‘Where were you shot, my man?’
“’I was shot in the head’ came the reply. ‘It took my eye out, carried it into my mouth, and I spat it out with three teeth. But we gave it to them Boers this time and I am content.’”
– from Lt. Col. Mike Snook’s “Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders, 1879-1900”
I love baseball. I love to watch it. I love to listen to it on the radio, driving. And I love Cooperstown there in Upstate New York. Old stone buildings with slate roofs kept clean and tidy in a narrow-laned half-wilderness region that is not quite New England, rather, “Leatherstocking” country. As my Southern forebears would have observed, these people are Yankees with all the qualities they came to associate with that great, industrious nation: the sham humility of abrasiveness dressed up as simplicity, the quiet clannishness, the idiosyncratic ostentation of generations of wealth hardened into tribal markings by a long slow war with their social inferiors, the class castes they imagine only they can see while pretending they don’t, the preposterous cultural Shibboleths, their bluff, half-sincere refusal to acknowledge their odious aristocracy, their odious aristocracy itself. Baseball doesn’t belong to Yankees, any more than Major League Baseball belongs to the New York Yankees, but it’s hard to tell them that – either of them. And after all, they have Cooperstown.
When my family moved from Georgia to Upstate New York, my father – who more genuinely and sincerely loved baseball than any man I have ever known – took us to Cooperstown. We saw the lockers, Ted William’s real-baseball-diagram of his own batting average anticipating the computer graphics of fifty plus years into the future, the antique caps, the bold mustachios, the perplexingly human scale of the history of a sport now played in stadiums we still call parks. It was all so . . . tasteful. Watching my father – who would tune in on an old leather-boxed portable radio of German design he had bought in Turkey when he was a merchant marine and lay on his stomach with his head in his arms like a child listening to blacked out games at Fulton County Stadium where Dale Murphy’s loser-Braves would play to empty seats, and if the game was close in the third or fourth inning might give in to his desire and throw us in the car to dash the thirty miles to the ghost-town park to pick up cheap tickets so we could watch them find a way to blow a small lead – I say, watching my father walk through those aisles was seeing a man on a pilgrimage. We made a sports pilgrimage. And you know, it was never quite the same after that. His interest waned. He still loves baseball. Still watches it. Still loves his Braves. But . . . he met the people to whom baseball belonged. And he wasn’t one of them. Maybe I am describing myself.
Baseball is curated. Baseball has historians. Baseball has scientists. Baseball has intellectuals. Baseball wrings its hands over past transgressions, and to this day, congress holds hearings if someone threatens to violate its chastity with the spittle-flecked panic of a shotgun-wielding farmer in his tobacco stained nightshirt awoken by a bump outside his daughter’s window. All sports have collective action, but when Baseball has a strike you’d think that Margaret Thatcher was trying close a coal mine. The cricket mechanics and 19th century logic of the game are almost childish, and yet in its gritty, Pan-American, trans-Pacific mytho-historical multi-generational sprawl, its custodians have come to think of themselves as the true arbiters of what it means to be American. They, and they alone, know what parts of the past must be rejected. And what parts of the present. Their judgments are puritanical.
Baseball intellectuals hate football. From Bob Costas to George Carlin. Baseball intellectuals fear football. Baseball intellectuals sneer down at football. Let me count the ways. The pitcher stretches on his mound, considers his distant target with the inscrutable dignity of a Korean archer – and hurls. The Quarterback apparently sticks his hands up a giant fat man’s ass and barks – a brawl ensues. Football’s grid is an ugly, hash-marked plane. Baseball’s diamond is beautiful in its Greek geometry. Baseball requires ash bats and leather gloves. Football requires plastic helmets and foam rubber pads. A baseball has 108 stitches. A football is made of pig skin. Football cryptically reinforces racial stereotypes. Baseball bridges cultural divides. Football is mindlessly violent. Baseball is prosaically balletic. Baseball is America’s pastime. Football is America at its worst: dangerously aggressive, slyly hierarchical, bullet headed.
Most of the snootier arguments simply don’t hold. Take its lack of a sense of history, for example. Football has just as glorious and rich a history as baseball, if not more so, most of it collegiate. The relatively late establishment of the professional league and its conservative persona seem to be the gripe.
It’s a shame the similarities of football and baseball aren’t more often examined, then we might understand the slow, strange inversion in their popularity.
Both are uniquely American. But both are also Americanizations of British upper-class school-and-yard games. Soccer is the common-peoples’ sport in Britain, as every Posh Nob who buys a team-scarf knows on his way to the hooligan-infested pitch. Rugby and Cricket are for people with land, time, and doctors. Sports whose coaches might teach history, however poorly. America gave these sports to its people, perhaps; but in another sense, to build winning teams, to multiply its power, it was willing to harness all comers, of all classes and races. So long as they win.
Both football and baseball are bewilderingly corporate. Managers and coaching staffs oversee logistics for organizations that approach military complexity and rigidity, with numbers not far behind. Much has been made of football’s militarization, but is baseball any less naval with its not-so-subtle distinctions between enlisted men and officers, its skippers and batboys? Ranks abound more plentifully than positions, and in both worlds non-coms get the job done . . . but the necessity for polished brass is undiminished. Both have headquarters that drift aloof from the real business of the company, and both struggle bizarrely with the machinery of orders, medals, and commissions that are not always clearly connected to the field of battle.
Both claim to unite if not destroy classes through a uniquely American form of brutal, unforgiving, Darwinian meritocracy.
But similarities do end, and the sports are not analogous. Their differences are not a matter of degree, they are a matter of separate identities. They do represent independent if not competing passions and visions of life. They do represent different forces at work in America.
Football is frankly militaristic, and to apologize for that is to fail to be a true football fan. Football is a warrior’s sport. Warriors play baseball to relax. Warriors play football because they can’t split someone’s head open with an axe in public and get away with it. George Will disapproves.
But of course, that is the essential, triumphant dysfunction of football: it is the last bastion of chivalry. And Chivalry is homicidal.
In William Marshall: Flower of Chivalry, Georges Duby beautifully evokes a world of big, violent men who gained fame and political power, first and foremost, through blunt-edged violence, usually in tournaments. It was a political and military sport. Lords, like managers, recruited teams and deployed them. Tournaments, which were often team sports with sides engaged in pitched battles, were politically significant, and the men who won them gained political power. After William Marshall earned his place, he ended his career as lord protector of England. He was born the bastard of an obscure man-at-arms in a stable in France. In his own lifetime, he was considered the model of knighthood. Indeed, the Flower of Chivalry. He represented good violence.
What does this have to do with football and why do I say football involves chivalry? For this reason: the challenge, the tension, the gravity of chivalry lies in the inherently unethical nature of the pursuit of warfare. Warfare kills people, destroys property, violates laws religious and secular, and famously, has no use for fairness. Chivalry makes the impossible demand that this activity’s highest practitioners be good. If all Warfare is ultimately the alchemy of transforming loss into gain, using deception in defense of what is real, Chivalry seeks to use deception to create a new truth, a more perfect reality. There is a strange frankness to Chivalric violence, a glory. But it is a magic act. It creates the illusion that violence can be good, that violence can create the conditions for justice, that violence can be beautiful. Or is it an illusion? How satanic must we be to agree with William Blake that “the roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.” Or is the satanic part to claim it is not too great for our eye? If all sport is the sublimation of conflict, football’s sublimations are fascinating because they are so various and complex without sacrificing violence. Boxing may celebrate violence, but it does not approximate the complexity of war.
By way of contrast, in baseball the essential conflict is between the pitcher and the batter. One could refer to Hemmingway’s bullfighters, but it is much more Melvillian a sport, the pitcher is more like a harpooner, the catcher his oarsman, the fielders each holding on to their piece of the boat. But the pitcher is a bold deceiver, he seeks no contact. Contact represents failure, he wants to get the ball home safe. The conflicts radiate from the moment of the pitch, and the periodic build and release of tensions is, to me, indescribably compelling, beautiful . . . instructive.
Football has eleven instant, essential, conflicts every time the ball is snapped, most of them violent. The number of potential direct conflicts multiplies rapidly once the ball is snapped. The spectator senses this, and the intelligent spectator knows that the recurring clashes that take place away from the ball are, in the long run, just as important as those that take place immediately around the ball on any play. The combat between linemen, for example, is significant every play, whether the ball is scheduled to pass their station or not. Cumulatively, these conflicts win or lose the game. It is incredible to me that this would fail to excite the admiration of intellectual lovers of sport, many of whom will wax rhapsodic on boxing, but who mock the warriors of football. All along the line, each must hold his ground. Some people don’t understand this, apparently.
But understand it or not, the intellectual guardians of American culture fear football’s celebration of violence. And we must ask if they are right to do so. We often hear that Chivalry is dead. But more pointedly, should it die? Should we abolish the illusion of good violence?
The question cuts to the heart of the way people understand violence in itself. It has foreign policy implications; it informs the way one understands police work; it determines one’s taste in film.
People who believe in good violence don’t answer all the important questions in the same way, but they do believe violence can play a role in answering them. The tension this creates is dynamic. People who believe in good violence are under constant strain to cultivate its potential, and to control it. This tension is at the heart of football: it challenges men with extraordinary talents for violence to be good in the face of outrageous provocation. The critics of football arch an eyebrow: there is no such thing as good violence, these spectacles are sleight of hand, they themselves are not fooled. And even if a football fan disagrees with them, or simply enjoys the spectacle enough to forgive its deceptions, we must ask, is it the chivalry or the raw violence they more appreciate? As with the knights of old, the reality falls far short of the ideal, and in the football player’s — and fan’s alike – I say, in their heart of hearts, only he or she knows if it is the heroism or the carnage they truly desire. When the blow is struck and the pads crack, each is left alone to taste their thrill. Who can tell them what that is? How many of them can explain it?
For myself . . . what should I confess? Well, I played football. And I loved it. I played a version of full-contact football much like rugby in the yards of friends growing up in Georgia and New Jersey. And I played full contact football, including two years of varsity defensive line, in high school. I loved the comradery, the competition, the Shakespearean examination of character in adversity. But you could get that playing many team sports. Well, I wasn’t coordinated enough to play basketball or baseball, so there’s that. But if I’m being honest, there was more to my play. For roughly twenty months divided between five years, three or four days a week I sustained repeated, significant blows to the head. On a number of occasions, I ran as fast as I possibly could at another human being and hit him as hard as I possibly could – with my helmeted head. I prided myself on it. I saw that other boys, most of them larger than me, did not hit as hard with their heads as I did, at least not as often as I did. At 5’6 ½ (The ½ is very important) and 130ish pounds my senior year (I also wrestled at 125, so I kept pretty good track) it was almost the only thing I had going for me. I was quick off the line, but I wasn’t fast. I couldn’t catch worth a damn. A lust for the explosive, direct experience of force competitively applied to human beings was a leading motivation, the detonation itself was a reward. I have never done heroin, but I have tasted an instant explosion of testosterone and adrenaline percussively blossoming in my hippocampus. Putting my hat on the other guy’s hat was just about it. I could see it, feel it in the moments just before and just after the collision: they didn’t think I would hit that hard, not on their head. Not with my head. I loved the violence. I love the force of the blow, delivering it, yes, but also receiving it. For every action, there is an equal and opposite madman who loves the taste of blood in his mouth, watch out or you’ll find him coming after you like a rabid badger on a football field. I never sustained a diagnosed concussion. My senior year I dislocated my elbow. I loved every moment and I would do it all over again. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of men feel the same way. Why? Is it sadism? Is it masochism?
No. At least not always, and I suspect not often. Besides, despite what pornography would have you believe, sadism and masochism are not two sides of the same coin. A true sadist does not want to meet a masochist. A true sadist wants a victim, not someone who enjoys pretending to be a victim when it is safe. And for their part, a true masochist is only rarely and always tangentially interested in pain itself, it is far more about an experience of power, a certain kind of loss of control. The sado-masochistic complex of commercial pornography is very much on the reservation.
So, if . . . if you believe me . . . if this compulsion to confront, to traffic in, to glory in violence is not simply sado-masochism, what is it? I believe it is Chivalry.
Part and parcel, integral to, centrally and irreducibly, Chivalry is essentially that good men will go out to confront bad. That violence, force, can be judiciously used to do so. It is necessarily sexist. Football is sexist. Of course Cheerleaders are neither simply eye candy nor pep rally organizers. They are a psychological tool: as knights of old understood, the observation of beautiful women can turn good men into killers. The idea is frankly this: that the weak must be defended by the strong. That the strong must confront the strong to determine the strongest, not in terms of brute strength, it is not arm wrestling, but in terms of morale, intelligence, integrity, fortitude. But must such a determination be sexist? It is in football. Good violence does not involve women, unless they are encouraging it. Is that slowly changing? Perhaps, but the women of football will become more like men than vice versa. And to be clear we are talking about a very specific, culturally manufactured definition of American masculinity that dates at least to the nineteenth century, when football was invented on college campuses.
The sexism of football is directly related to its violence, and specifically related to the potential, indeed the inevitability of injury. Men should not injure women. If Football is a rehearsal of warfare in which chivalry is supposed to be possible, injury, the threat of bodily harm is indispensable. It means more because you can get hurt doing it. Perhaps no element of football is more controversial: young men sacrificing the wholeness of their body, accepting the risk of severe injury, in pursuit of glory. It is undisguised, even if we don’t recognize it: the premise is that people need violence, want violence, but that it must be sublimated, elevated, dignified, even unto sanctioning bodily harm. The concussion crisis in contemporary football is the extreme limit of our generation’s struggle with this question, but the inevitability of injury has been with football from the beginning, and when it goes, the sport that remains will not be football.
Why must injury be a part of football? Because of chivalry. Unambiguously, chivalry is a form of heroism in which one confronts of the fear of bodily harm and decides to take the risk. One must be willing to risk injury in Chivalry. Stephen Crane, the author of The Red Badge of Courage, is vastly underrated. Admittedly, the unfortunate prominence of dialogue we can no longer appreciate damages his work, (I say no longer, but how many serious lovers of literature would read transcripts of the banter of today’s soldiers with pleasure?) but it evokes the combat of the era as no other work of literature does:
“They rolled their eyes toward the advancing battle as they stood awaiting the shock. Some shrank and flinched. They stood as men tied to stakes.”
When veterans of the Civil War read the book, they refused to believe that its author had not fought in it. When asked what experiences he had that allowed him to enter into the psychology as no interview could provide, he answered that it was his experience of football that supplied his imagination with a model. The football he played was barbaric. It has been said he preferred baseball.
Custer’s men played baseball while on expedition through the black hills, but the last generation to unambiguously idolize Custer was the first to play what we would recognize as football in college. Custer’s “chivalry” was, from our perspective a matter of either mental illness or profound failures of self-reflection, but this was a time when his wife Elizabeth actually thought it seemly to pretend to swoon on his return from a campaign, to mixed reviews from his troopers. Little Bighorn: 1876. Centennial: 1876. First Harvard vs. Yale Football game: 1876. Rally ‘round the flag, boys. Huddle up.
The line and officer formation of football is not an accident. It approximates a powderless 19th century battlefield just about as completely as can be imagined for a sport to undertake. And not simply in formation, but in political command structure. The quarterback is often compared to a captain or even a general, but consider also the officer class of backs, the ineligibility of offensive lineman to possess and advance the ball for example, except under special circumstances. Furthermore, while the running back or receivers, or even the odd Quarterback himself can certainly deliver a blow while in possession of the ball, this officer class more accurately braves the dangers of violence than it inflicts it, and the truly aggressive acts are reserved for the defense and the “enlisted men” of the line. This fits perfectly with a development in warfare John Keegan ably delineates in which, over the course of the history of Western warfare the business end of violence is increasingly managed by an officer class that exposes itself to danger, but only rarely perpetrates it directly. This trend accelerated in the 19th century until it reached a sort of apotheosis in the early 20th century. Keegan gives the example of a British officer during the First World War who, while leading an assault on German trenches exposed himself to incredible dangers by standing above and directing his men through the mazes below armed only with a walking stick, which he used to point them here and there. It has been hypothesized that this involves the maintenance of some sort of moral authority. Compare the occasionally Christ-like sacrifices of life and limb a Quarterback is asked to brave, with no real ability to defend himself save for a certain modicum of evasiveness.
Poor Joe Theisman? Yes, poor Joe Thiesman. But. Consider the chivalry. His grace, his composure, his dignity, not so much in the moment, slapping the field after Lawrence Taylor snapped his shin, but rather, his life since then. His equestrian charm and sense of style augment an august authority in interviews and in his work as a broadcaster. His authority is related to his career-ending injury. Joe Thiesman was a fine quarterback. He won Super Bowl XVII and even when he lost Super Bowl XVIII he was named the NFL’s MVP. Examining his career in the larger context of his peers it is safe to say both that there are greater quarterbacks, and that he had more than an average share of glory. But football also visited upon him, bestowed upon him, a different kind of glory. He belongs, in some sense, to the tradition of an officer class that accepts these kinds of risks, and achieves something symbolic even in the most abrupt possible end to their activities.
Or consider Johnny Bright, an all-American halfback for Drake who averaged 266 yards a game in 1950, and who was also one of the first black men to play football against Oklahoma A&M (where I spent my first two years of college when it was called Oklahoma State). He is a less well-known name, but he is the only player I know of to have been documented scoring a touchdown with a catastrophically broken jaw. Willbanks Smith is the Iago of this tale, a defensive lineman apparently tasked with taking Bright out of the game. Photographic evidence that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 records Smith ignoring the action of the plays to simply do his best to injure Bright with a forearm wielded like a crowbar, who nevertheless scored on the second play of the game after having his jaw broken on the first. In the second set of downs, Smith succeeded in taking him out of the game with that crow bar forearm. Bright went on to be one of the stars of the Canadian Football League, but to me and I imagine for anyone who knows his story, his previous success existed, and his subsequent success merely confirms, this moment in its glory. It was a hate crime, but it was also a triumph of sporting chivalry. This game was Bright’s Trafalgar, his Rencesvals: he was more than a martyr (what a pathetic thing to be: it is not classically American to celebrate a glorified victim) . . . he was a chivalric hero – he scored. Bright waved the flag atop the rampart. And so with the great, eternally dying, battlefield heroes of 18th and 19th century warfare – James Wolfe, Horatio Nelson, Stonewall Jackson: reflections in their way of Roland who was himself an individualized reflection in his turn of Leonidas and the Spartans, their sacrifice was vindicated with the glory of a kind of victory in death.
But wait. How could chivalry be applied to 19th century warfare? Isn’t that precisely when Chivalry died? I would argue that this is so. That perhaps – perhaps – a Richard the Lionheart or even just maybe a Marlborough might have engaged in a chivalric pursuit, again, if we can even agree such a thing ever existed, but even if it did once exist, by the time of the American civil war, surely one must be either dunderheaded or suicidal on some level to believe Antietam or Shiloh was good clean fun.
And this is precisely the point at which football emerges, and precisely amongst those young men who would be engaging in real combat from which Chivalry was ever more completely absent. Consider General Sedgewick scolding his men for hiding from a sharpshooter, saying, “If you’re going to respond this way to single shots how will you behave when they open up across the whole line? Take heart, they couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—” Kipling’s lament that an expensive education could be wasted by an Afghan sniper is the other side of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It cannot be an accident that these post Pre-Raphaelite fantasies appear at their thickest while Boers were introducing the British to the fully-realized potential of high powered, high accuracy rifles. The Boer war, once and for all, ended the application of Chivalry to warfare in the English language. But sport, ah, it didn’t have to die in sport. But did it ever live? Was it ever more than lion rampant on a shield?
So, if chivalry is bullshit, is football? Does enjoying football make me a bad person? No, it is only a symptom.
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