And with all of that background out of the way, I want to look at the big three sports in the US: football, baseball and basketball. All three are essentially purely American inventions/creations and in each we have systems of development worth discussing in the context of all of what’s gone before.
As well, for reasons I discussed yesterday, each has a tendency (due to massive incentives) to draw a large population of American athletes into them. There’s a third reason they need to be discussed that applies to the Olympic lifting issue specifically but I’ll get to that shortly.
Of those three, football is an almost exclusively American sport although a handful of other countries do have leagues. There is no international competition (i.e. American teams do not play against other countries) and it is not competed Olympically. It’s still relevant.
Baseball is being played to a greater degree internationally although, outside of a brief stint in the Olympic games, it is not played between countries so far as I can tell; I’ll discuss baseball tomorrow. Finally is basketball which is and has been competed internationally and Olympically since the early part of the 20th century and make a huge point about America. I’ll talk about that on Friday.
For each sport I’ll first give a quick overview of the rules (for any non-American readers) since that also provides insight into the physiological characteristics, tying it in with the genetics/physiology issue (which ties into the American melting pot idea). I’ll also try to briefly examine some of the other factors that I’ve examined for the other sports I’ve talked about in this series.
And with that out of the way…are you ready for some football?
A Quick Semantic Clarification: Despite what many think or believe, soccer is NOT football. Soccer is soccer and is played by effeminate Europeans in funny shorts who can’t take a hit. It is not football despite being played by kicking a ball with the foot (which technically makes it kickball). You may refer to it hereafter as Commie Kickball. And that’s because football is is football, it is a game played by violent human monsters in a large amount of heavy pads who want to kill one another for the sake of entertaining the masses. People who call football ‘American football’ to suggest that soccer is football or to separate the two will be beaten and sent back to their country of origin (Foreignland ™). Or just beaten if they can’t be deported. There, I feel better now.
Now, since I can’t assume all my readership is American or familiar with American sports, I need to go into a bit more detail about the rules. This also goes to the physiological requirement for being good at the game. So it’s all relevant.
How Football is Played
Football is one of many ball sports played in the world, sharing many similarities to rugby from which it probably derives. It is played on a field that is 100 yards (just under 100m) long and there are two 10 yard endzones at each end with a goalpost (a big Y shaped thing) in each end. The field looks like this schematically.
There are a number of differences between football and rugby most of which are just rules differences. But there’s one major one which is that football players wear a bunch of protective gear, pads and a helmet. This is meant to keep the players safe but is counteracted by the fact that football players are monsters. Somehow America took rugby, a murder sport, managed to wimp it up with pads and then made it more violent by letting the guys just get monstrous so they could hit harder.
The game is divided up into 4 15 minute quarters with a half-time of 30 minutes between the first two and second two. The game clock runs continuously for the most part, only stopping if the ball is out of bounds or someone calls a time out (each team gets 3 to use each ‘half’ of the game to stop play when they need to convene a strategy meeting or something).
Football is effectively a metaphor for war and is played 11 on 11 by teams which alternate who is on offense and who is on defense. This can happen under a variety of conditions that I’ll describe briefly below. Each of the 11 men on each team tends to have a fairly specialized role in the game, akin to a military having infantry, tanks, bombers, etc.
So there is the quarterback on offense who is in charge calling plays (often sent in by the head coach), the offensive line (blockers), the center (who hands the quarterback the ball), running backs (who are handed the ball and run downfield), wide receivers (who run downfield to try to catch the ball, etc.). And defense has an equally varied number of specific roles including the llke nose guard, defensive linemen, and others.
And each team invariably has separate offensive and defensive ‘lines’ or teams with a group of specialized players who focus on one specific goal. Some players will play both lines and there are also special teams for kickoffs, punts and field goals. This makes for a lot of players on each team, especially combined with the team typically having second and third strings, extra players to cover injuries (which happen) or to send in when someone is winning by so much that they can let lesser players get game time without losing the game.
The goal of the game, of course is to score points. This is done by moving the ball into the opponent’s end zone which is called a touchdown. Effectively a touchdown is like a ‘try’ in rugby where the guy with the ball gets it into the endzone. This is worth 6 points.
Tangent: And on that note shouldn’t, this really be called a ‘did’ rather than a ‘try’? Because while it was happening, I can understand that they were ‘trying’ to score. But having scored, they are no longer ‘trying’. They’ve done it, right? So it’s not a ‘try’ anymore; it’s a ‘did’. Anyhow.
Following a touchdown, the offensive team has an additional chance to score points. It can kick the ball through the goal post, scoring one point or try to run the ball in scoring two. The latter is harder and generally used when the team needs that second point. Another way to score points is to kick a field goal. This is done by kicking the ball off a stand through the goalposts from further out, always when the offensive team fails to make a 1st down (see below). This only scores three points. There is another way to score points (called a safety) but I’m not going to describe it.
The offensive team, made up of a number of specialized players attempts to score by moving the ball down field into the opponents (read: enemy territory). After both teams line up at the line of scrimmage, the ball is hiked to the quarterback (the field general) who then attempts to gain yards. He does this by running plays, strategic formations that are trying to get around the defenses plays. Football is insanely strategic.
Plays start when the ball is hiked, handed between the center’s legs to the quarterback (no homo) at which point the ball is in play and shit goes nuts with everybody trying to do different things to achieve their overall goals.
In general, plays are divided into running and passing plays. In a running play the quarterback gives the ball to a running back, a speed demon who then tries to get downfield by avoiding defenders or getting tackled (see below). In a passing play, receivers run downfield while the quarterback tries to avoid getting tackled until he can throw the ball and hopefully have the receiver catch it and run it further downfield. In rare cases, usually when something has gone wrong, the quarterback will run the ball himself but this puts him at risk of getting ruined.
The short-term goal of the offense is to move the ball at least 10 yards within 4 allotted downs or plays although the ultimate goal is scoring a touchdown. If they do twos does within the 4 downs, the counter resets to one and they get 4 more chances to continue moving the ball forward. Of course, if at any time the offense scores a touchdown, the ball is then given (via a kickoff) to the other team.
If the offense is unable to get all 10 yards by the 4th down, it has the option of making one last attempt (which, if failed, turns the ball over to the opposing team wherever the ball stops) or punting. A punt is when the team currently on offense kicks the ball downfield to a receiver who can then try to move it back the other direction. Offense and defense now switch and play resumes.
Of course, the defensive team is trying to prevent all the above and/or get possession of the ball. If it can stop the offense before it covers 10 yards, it forces a punt (or desperation) and gets the ball back so that it can try to score going the either direction.
It does this, in general by trying to murder whomever has the ball. Ok it’s actually called a tackle. This occurs when the ball carrier is brought to the ground (or taken out of bounds); this stops play briefly until everyone lines up again and it all starts all over again.
Tangent: To give you a bit of an idea of the coarseness of America, I’d note that the above concept ‘kill the guy with the ball’ was enshrined in American childhood culture with the non-PC named game ‘Smear the queer’, a group game where the goal is for everyone not holding the ball to ruin the guy who is holding the ball (who tries to get rid of the ball so he’s not the target). At all times the guy with the ball is the ‘queer’ and the goal is to ‘smear’ him…into a bloody paste on the field of play. When I was growing up, this was played on all playgrounds in the country. And in that I found recent Youtube videos of it being played, apparently little has changed. USA#1.
But whomever has the ball in football is the target for murder and a number of large men will try to convene on him and make his day very unpleasant. This is a big part of why quarterbacks usually don’t try to run the ball if they can avoid it; they are usually littler (and in essence they are the field general) and when they get hit by 300 pound men with malice in their eyes, they often break into little pieces.
Americans love this of course and sometimes the defense will call a blitz (from the German blitzkrieg meaning ‘to royally fuck someone or something up’) where they send all defenders in to try to smear the quarterback into fine paste. It’s risky because it leaves the rest of the field open. But when it works it not only pushes the offense backwards but tends to break their general.
The defense can also try to get a turnover and get possession of the ball ending the current offensive drive. Sometimes this happens when the ball carrier drops the ball, either because he has butterfingers or because someone hits him hard enough to make his future children feel it. When the ball is free, whomever grabs it now has possession. They are also the target for murder.
The defense can also intercept the ball on a passing play, grabbing it out of the air before it hits the ground. Now they are in possession and the interceptor is it in the big game of murder the ball carrier. Because of their goals, the different players on the defensive team have different assignments just like the guys on offense. The defensive line tries to break through and murder the quarterback or ball carrier, guys cover the receivers to try and prevent them from catching the ball or in hopes of intercepting it.
I think you get the idea. Offense tries to move the ball downfield towards the opposing endzone and defense tries to stop them in the rules approved ways of murder. It’s just two armies fighting over territory and if you get into the other team’s endzone you score and you start over again until the game ends after 4 15 minute quarters. Unless there is a tie in which case it goes to overtime. But this is rare, something like 17 ties have occurred since 1998 and that’s within hundreds if not thousands of games.
It’s worth noting that, during individual plays, there is a playclock that counts down and if the play is not started before it hits zero, the offensive team is called for ‘delay of game’, losing a down and having to move back towards their own endzone.
That’s right, Americans want their games to be so constant that they will penalize a team for not acting quickly enough. There are many other penalties that can be called because you can’t have a war without rules to keep people from murdering one another too hard.
Here’s a video of some football highlights to give you a feel for what I tried to describe above.
Genetics and Physiology
As I noted above, football is divided up into offensive and defensive teams and each actually has different players with different roles. Since it’s a metaphor for war, teams are a lot like the military with players having varied and somewhat specialized roles (like having infantry, tanks, bombers, etc.) that can be utilized depending on the strategy of the coach and how the battle (I mean game) is developing.
Each role is specialized requiring a different set of physical characteristics for optimal performance (though there is certainly some overlap between some positions). Which means that football, as a whole, can accommodate a whole lot of different genetic and physiological makeups for people who want to play the sport and neither would you expect nor see a specific group dominating it (except for Americans as a whole, see below).
Linemen are typically human walls, they have to be strong and big since their goal is to run into someone equally strong and big and try to stop them. The primary physical requirement here is BIG. Strong and explosive helps and most of them are just walking tanks. Since their entry into football, Samoans have been very popular on the line in football; because their genetic imperatives are effectively BIG and MEAN AS HELL (and that’s just the women). There’s actually a very large population of Samoan and Tongans in Salt Lake City and I maintain that the LDS church did mission work there so that they’d move to Salt Lake and improve the UofU (aka The ‘U’) and BYU offensive and defensive lines.
In recent years, professional American football linemen are up over 300 pounds and many are dropping dead young for this reason (I’d note only in passing that drugs ranging from anabolics to cocaine and amphetamines have been part of American football since the 80’s). Only in America (and Japanese sumo) could morbid obesity be channeled into sport success. Extreme large white or black athletes can be on the line and it mainly selects for BIG along with being willing to have someone large trying to ram into you and being willing to ram them back.
Receivers and backs need acceleration, speed and agility because they have to either carry the ball past defenders or get past defenders to catch the ball; they also have to be able to hold onto or catch the ball which is harder than you may think given it’s shape and the whole ‘large men trying to murder you’ aspect of the sport . But it’s not just linear speed, they are often cutting back and forth across the field. Reflexes help since they are often making quick moves and reading what a defender is going to do. In the modern game at the highest levels, these are usually black athletes because both positions share qualities with sprinting which blacks of a certain background dominate.
The quarterback has the most complex role in that he has to call plays (often changing them before the ball is hiked based on what he’s seeing the defense do with a series of codes), he has to be able to scramble and read defenders who are trying to murder him, keep his eye on receivers (and there may be 2-3 running downfield) to see who is open or backs to hand the ball off to, scrambling if he can’t find anybody to to give the ball to, etc.
And all of this is going on in real time while a number of very large men are trying to tear his head off. If the quarterback gets into trouble he can try to move the ball downfield himself (at high risk since the quarterback is usually smaller than the men trying to murder him) or get out of bounds to stop the play and the clock. He has to make this decision rapidly or risk getting ruined.
For years it was thought that only whites had the capacity (read that how you will) to be quarterbacks but this has been challenged in recent years with the rise of several prominent black quarterbacks; it was probably mostly just racism and cultural tradition that prevented black quarterbacks. About the only role on the football field that is still exclusively filled by white men is head coach (and team owner) but I’m not touching that topic with a 10 foot pole.
My point being that football is so un-specialized (outside of a general requirement for strength, power and speed) that it can accommodate a tremendous number of physiologies; everybody can get involved in the game of ‘murder the guy with the ball’. Hell, for reasons I’m unclear on, kickers are usually gangly white guys; maybe they are ex-kickball players or something. As well, at the professional level (as well as college and sometimes high-school depending on the size), teams are massive, with multiple ‘strings’ of players (first string who starts, second string, third string).
Some of this is to deal with injuries which happen as a function of large men with evil in their eyes running into one another at high speeds. Some of it is to bring up newer players; when a team is winning by some excruciating number of points, it will send in its second or third string to get them some experience with no fear of losing the game. But when you multiply it out, bunches of positions times multiple strings times a lot of teams (plus a host of assistance roles) that means a lot of people can get involved in football and get paid.
But ultimately this adds up to a lot of possibilities for a lot of people with a lot of different physiologies to enter the game. And they do.
Location, Location, Location
Perhaps the biggest requirement for football is a field big enough to play it in; you also need money for the equipment and pads and enough players to field a team and handle contingencies (just like war, you need gear and bodies to throw into the fray). And this did impact who could and could not play football early in the game’s history; schools or areas that could not afford the necessary equipment were at a massive disadvantage. The field itself is 100 yards (just under 100 meters) with the two end zones (10 yards) on each end. And you need space for the teams to stand on the sidelines waiting to get back to murder.
To put this in perspective that most can get, a typical 400m running track encompasses a complete football field with just room to spare on the ends; you can fit two normal sized hockey rinks inside the same space with some extra room to goof off in. You could play it on a Commie Kickball pitch with minor modifications of course. Like finding 22 real men to play. This is a COLLEGE football stadium and you can see that not a single seat is open.
But that does mean that you need a big plot of land (which needs to be flat) to play the game in full. That is, like rugby, you need a big enough flat/grass field to play the game in. And America, settled in the late 18th century (after most countries were moving towards the ‘has time to goof off’ period of life) had nothing if not plenty of room.
By the time we had settled the country and displaced the Native Americans, we had lots of open space to waste on silly stuff. And we could put stuff like football fields and baseball pitches (discussed tomorrow) on them; now mind you we just build Super Walmarts but the concept is the same. In contrast, countries that are highly developed have trouble finding room for such a thing, short of razing where the underclass lives. Not that that usually stops them.
And while football at lower levels is often played in just the marked off field, by the time you get to high school you usually see a running track around the field along with bleachers to watch competition; this also lets the field get converted to track in the spring which I’ll talk about later.
At the collegiate and pro-level, the game is played within massive stadiums with seating for the thousands of screaming fans that go to watch the murder. I’d note that in recent years, American psychosis for football led to the Arena football I mentioned previously, which can be played indoors since it’s only a 50 yard field with no endzones or goal posts (they are on the nets sort of).
Mind you, football stadiums were almost exclusively open air until recently (when stadiums with roofs that can close have been built at enormous cost). And given the nature of weather in the US, with it’s freezing winters and rainy areas, and the fact that football is a fall and winter sport might make you wonder why football is played literally everywhere in this country. Here’s why:
Because just as you don’t stop killing Nazi’s because it’s raining a little bit, you don’t stop football (a metaphor for war) for anything. Rain, sleet, snow, shine. If you have enough bodies to continue, you keep playing the game. Games are not stopped for anything. Maybe the death of a player but I doubt even then. Because if you stop a football game mid-game, you get riots like you see overseas after the kickball games. Which means that no matter what state you’re in, football can be played and will be played. And it is literally played everywhere in this country.
What Does Ubiquitous Mean?
And I’m not joking when I say it’s played everywhere in the US. I mean everywhere. There is pee-wee/little league to get kids into the sport, any decent sized high school will have a team (and there are multiple divisions so that smaller schools compete against each other to keep it fair).
In some parts of the country where schools are small, they play a version with fewer players on the field; just to keep everyone involved. There are multiple divisions (based on size of school) as well because it is a resource heavy sport; smaller schools are at a disadvantage to bigger schools with more money. Any good college will have a team and, make no mistake, collegiate football is HUGE in this country. It makes enormous money for the universties and people live and die by college football. Sometimes they probably kill (other fans).
Football is one of the big professional sports in this country as well, with two separate divisions within thee NFL and endless team and location rivalries. Sometimes teams are bought and moved to another city, that causes all kinds of problems for people psychologically. Usually because it’s about money and there is that whole ‘love of the game’ thing. Mainly it’s because you don’t have pro football in your town anymore (like when my home town, Nashville bought the Houston Oilers, built them a kajillion dollar stadium and renamed them the Tennessee Titans).
America is so football crazy we even had to invent indoor Arena football so we’d have something American to watch when real football wasn’t on. Wannabes play pickup football and there is both a full-contact tackle version (usually played without pads by out of shape middle aged men) and touch/flag football (where you pull a flag off someone’s belt to ‘tackle’ them. That’s played by wusses who can’t take a hit who should be playing Commie Kickball instead. Or maybe old people.
Football is so embedded in America’s psyche that it is literally life in some areas of the country. Texas is one of them; you can find statues of local football heroes (local boys who made it to the pros) in some areas and any kid who doesn’t pursue football is suspect as hell. You can watch the documentaries Varsity Blues of Friday Night Lights to get a taste of this. You pursue football in that town or your parents might as well buy you a dress. Or a Commie Kickball uniform. That’s football and America wouldn’t have it any differently.
Who’s the Best?
Well, America, of course. Actually, this is a bit disingenuous as football has traditionally been an exclusively American sport. And it’s real easy to be the best when you’re the only one who plays the game (see also: baseball tomorrow). Mind you, some other countries have tried to play it and it’s kind of cute watching them try (kind of like this).
For example, there’s a Canadian Football League with it’s 3 downs, orange penalty flags, wider field and lord knows what other abominations (and a ‘big’ lineman is like 100 kg or 220 pounds). Apparently there is a French Football League (FFL). I have a hard time seeing how they can play between the chain smoking and being haughty to visitors. There may be others but, honestly, I can’t be bothered to look; for the most part it’s an American sport.
And although we don’t compete against the other countries, anybody with a brain should realize that if we did, we’d destroy them. A collegiate lineman in Canadian ‘football’ might be 200 pounds (sorry, 90 kg, eh?). America has second-string 9th grade players bigger than that. And, French football? Please. Football is a metaphor for war and how exciting can football be if both teams are trying to surrender the whole time? Do they throw white flags for the penalties or what?
At the end of the day, American invented football, perfected football and we own football. America understands football the way Canadians understand snow and back bacon and the French understand surrendering to the Germans and eating snails and there’s just no getting around that. We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the tradition; more importantly we have the sheer body mass and you just can’t beat that. You can argue about this all you want when I open the comments; but you’ll be wrong.
Incentives and the Rest
And having gotten that bit of nonsense out of my system, perhaps what we have in this country more than anything is incentives. Professional football is massive in this country and a huge money maker, with top athletes getting paid millions of dollars. Sure they end up literally physically destroyed later in life but that’s the price you pay sometimes. They will cripple themselves in a literal sense for fame, money, power, just to play in the pros. Owners make monstrous amounts of cash, so do stadiums and merchandise sellers because the fans are nothing if not fanatical; once they associate themselves with a team they’ll buy anything with that teams logo on it.
Combine that with a sport that allows for a lot of different physiologies, a lot of open playing slots (due to the sheer number of teams and the number of players on each team) along with a monstrous number of heroes in most communities (white, black, etc.) and the insane level of tradition and a mind-numbing number of people go into it.
They may start in little league or wait until junior high or high school. There they will be subjected to staggering levels of Darwinian competition, summer training alone has killed players (not for good reasons mind you). The best move up to the next level, high school and junior varsity as underclassmen. If they are good enough, they make varsity team as a senior and start having sex with the cheerleaders.
Keep progressing and they might turn pro early which means money, fame, glory, and women at far too young of an age to deal with it maturely. At the very least, a collegiate scholarship can be earned at one of the colleges that has a team. Which is to say nearly any of them worth talking about.
Players who can’t make the pros out of college have other options. They can go play in the CFL or FFL, or play arena football. Like I said, like an army football has a staggering number of support roles and they need bodies. Equipment manager, towels, there are lots of places someone with a football background can get a job if they can’t cut it as a player.
Amusing trivia, most of the male cheerleaders in college are ex-high school football players which is why they are all 6 feet tall and 200 lbs of solid muscle (sometimes they are ex-gymnasts). They couldn’t cut it in college football so now, instead of throwing or catching a ball in the air, they throw a 90 pound girl in a short skirt. Which honestly sounds like more fun anyhow.
But in football, like our other two big sports, even a second or third string player can make more money playing a game than they’d make doing anything else. It’s better than any of their other options.
So whether or not football is competed internationally and whether or not we can prove we’re the best at it (trust me, we are) it doesn’t matter. It’s a huge sport and exists identically to the other sports and systems I’ve described so far: massive numbers of athletes, easy access, tons of coaching, monstrous support, huge incentives. It produces and selects for (and then destroys) top level athletes because of this. Certainly only a tiny percentage of the athletes who start football make it all the way to the top. But you can be assured that they are the best of the best.
And there are actually two other implications of football that I’m actually going to come back to in a little bit. For now I’ll cut it. Tomorrow: America’s Pasttime: baseball.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 17
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 16
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 11