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More than a game

February 5, 2012

Theodore Roosevelt: Savior of American football? Source: National Archives

Whether you’re a football fan, just in it for the commercials, or even planning to do your best to ignore it, you can’t deny that today’s a special day. Super Bowl Sunday is the U.S.’s largest secular celebration, with more money spent, more televisions tuned to the same event, and more junk food eaten than just about any other day of the year.

So it’s worth reflecting a bit on football’s past. Because like anything else in our cultural landscape, the game of football has a history, and it’s much more interesting than you might imagine. There are several new things around the Web that can give us an entry point. Read on below the cut.

There’s an interesting post by Emily Sohn at Discovery blog on the military’s historical influence on pro football. She touches on everything from the military-inspired language of today’s game to the ways that pickup games on Army posts helped introduce the game to a wider class spectrum of Americans, since it previously was played mainly by elite Eastern colleges. Well worth a read.

Over at the Prologue blog (linked at right), there’s a cool post about the long fascination of U.S. presidents with the game of football. You can see a neat photo of Ronald Reagan getting popcorn dumped on him by the Giants during their 1987 White House visit (an annual reward for the big game winner). As a Packers fan myself, I was particularly interested to read a contract offer that Green Bay made to Gerald Ford, who played center at Michigan, in 1935. They offered him $110 per game. He declined.

CNN.com has a nice essay by Bob Greene that delves into Theodore Roosevelt’s role in making football safer, and, incidentally, more like today’s game (read: exciting). It’s hard to imagine, but from its inception until early in the 20th century, football was almost entirely a running and kicking game. Makes sense, as it grew out of rugby. But until T.R. met with the big-time college programs of the day in an effort to reduce injury, the rules didn’t allow forward passing. That means the ball could only be thrown to players on the side or behind the quarterback. Imagine how slow and boring today’s game would be if Eli Manning couldn’t hit Hakeem Nicks on a cross pattern, or Tom Brady could only toss a lateral to Rob Gronkowski.

Football and the Super Bowl in particular, like sports in general, is an important part of American culture. You can’t fully understand one without the other. It’s important to remember, as we look at the contemporary arguments over safety in the sport and labor issues, that we’ve dealt with similar concerns before, and that they touch on larger debates in society.

So root for the Giants or the Pats today, enjoy the halftime show and the ad blitz, and spend a few minutes thinking about what came before, and what might have been.

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