The Moral Merits of American Football

Breaking the Huddle

It is difficult to explain to its strangers that football is never just about football. Only on the gridiron, as one raised in this game will tell you, is a just world possible this side of heaven. Sadly, the game has come under fire in recent years from both the concerned and the confused. Regarding the latter, football as it stands is now threatened by an ever-encroaching worldview that confuses competition for confrontation. Proponents of this worldview perceive competition and morality as being impossibly incompatible, suggesting that a society’s praise for competition becomes quickly antagonistic to cooperation and impedes the realization of universal equality. Of course, this vision is never really defined, and its presentation is historically, and ironically, as that of the predominant challenger to a reigning Western value set.

Nevertheless, in United States’ sports culture, football is king. To say football is king, however, and that the sport itself embodies the American competition ethos, is but an echo. So lest I should leave a deeper layer of meaning unmined, what follows is a brief attempt at the moral merits of competition using American football as a unique test case in which the team concept is most pure. To begin this claim, a definition of terms is necessary before proceeding to three general observations of football’s strongest moral statements for both those within the boundaries of its culture and beyond.

Definition of Terms

When I speak with respect to the moral merits of competition, I speak not to its utility within a large-scale market framework. Instead I speak within a narrow paradigmatic scope, and I seat my comments in a role-based context in which human behavior is normatively mediated and guided by subordination to order. Of course, order in the case of sport takes the form of rules, and these rules, when agreed upon, secure a reciprocity of expectation. That is to say, in any mode of encounter among us and against them, there exists a base of trust for the behavior of the other. The only unknown is how well one behaves, which is to say how well one performs.

Sport, therefore, begins as but a body of rules mutually agreed upon as the boundaries of competition. Without rules, default mistrust remains. In the case of football, there is immediately the rule of team, which elevates the human mind out of a state of self-survival into group accountability and interpersonal investment. Essential to the rule of team is consensus. The formation of persons into teams is so because of a bilateral submission to an overarching rule set. Drilling down into such formations reveals near-uniform qualities of team-based interaction.

Standards and Achievement

Team sport provides us a small meritocracy, wherein players are assigned positions, roles, and responsibilities in accordance with their assessed skill levels. These assessments, at their purest, are end-all statements of merit. For the football player, every practice is the occasion to perform, and when the expectation is excellence, the standard of performance sits atop the highest wrung of past achievement. For professional examples, one could look to the careers of Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor, and Peyton Manning to see novel displays of football-centric qualities that have since become the ceiling of universal player metrics. Payton’s style of play showed new possibilities of endurance, Taylor’s of burst, and Manning of in-game management. In its every instance, an act of individual merit or achievement is followed closely by expectation. This implies morally that if a standard precedes its examples, its imposition is but a control. If preceded by example, however, a standard is a benchmark of performance.

When speaking of performance and of behavior in sports, there is a distinction to be made between that of the individual and that of the team. The goal of the two, of course, is to perform well. But again, while behavior is guided by rules, merit is guided by expectation and that by experience. We thus have a nesting of goals. For the team, the metrics of success are objective and simple. There are wins, losses, and points scored. Within the team, however, the goal of individuals is to behave well in accordance with one’s role. Participation in sports, therefore, which is to say in competition, necessitates constant self-assessment. Where and when one’s play pales to one’s potential is underachievement, and where it rises is revelation. The culture of football teaches that without accepting the game’s history as a capable host of ideals, and our bodies as a vessel of new possibilities, the mere present is too soon mistaken for progress.

Rules and Resolve

In conjunction with an appreciation for football’s past, the final buzzer forces players into a state of resolve. That players crowd film rooms and give accounts of their performances puts the culture of the game in its starkest contrast to that of the present age of protest. This is not to say that protest is never warranted, or that football is historically without protest. It is to say that protest in football is invariably a response to the deviation of a rule when its deviation has been unmet by penalty. There are no exceptions.

In fact, the object of protest in sports is rarely the rules themselves. In coach-speak, the rules “are what they are”. And because the rules are, when change is necessary for a team’s advancement, assessment of the present state and its quality is immediately introspective. It is understood that the advancement of the whole is not a product of the mere will of its parts. Instead what is required is tangible improvement in matters of efficiency and productivity, and these two have their metrics. This end of group-defined improvement thus imbues behavior with value, as acts of individual performance are appraised either as contributing or as detrimental to a team’s chances of success. 

Cost and Consequence

When one’s value to the group is ultimately a performance output, self and worth are always at stake. This places upon all behavior a gravity that, if weighted upon the shoulders of the rest of society, would place our daily interactions at so great a moral consequence that the fear of missing a deadline for repayment would be equivalent to that of an offensive player missing a blocking assignment. The blocker did not behave according to his role, and his failure put another at greater disadvantage.

This is perhaps football’s greatest and most far-reaching import: that parts are without excuse when the cost to the whole is so great. Implicit in this game is the necessity to not merely do but to do well. The team context places upon public and private behavior such a high price tag that the fear of failing the expectations of one’s own is secondary only to the fear of quitting. Staying in the game is the exercise of a disciplined volition that beats the body and molds the mind. Duty is to the horizontal as well as to the vertical.

Fifth Quarter

At its heart, the team culture, in which there are standards of behavior and accountability to the whole, clashes with that of the present age, in which status is spectacle and interaction is virtual and cheap. Where in one world individuality is stuffed inside a helmet and lost to jersey numbers and rosters, in the other there is an unrelenting invitation to selfish declarations of value without cost or contribution. Social media’s all-conquering ubiquity of reimagined reality subverts the real as too dull. The avatar eats the actual.

Fortunately, we have arrived in season to when the glass of acculturated pretense is shattered. There is no privacy in football. On the gridiron there is an inescapable vulnerability. The air becomes busy again with the sounds of honest community. Parts advance the whole and demand nothing, and for just a few hours America takes on her original form. She is tough again. And for us Americans raised in this game, its sense impressions return and remind us that losing is never okay. That this year is the year. And that, as seen in the above, football is never just about football.   

Breaking the Huddle

It is difficult to explain to its strangers that football is never just about football. Only on the gridiron, as one raised in this game will tell you, is a just world possible this side of heaven. Sadly, the game has come under fire in recent years from both the concerned and the confused. Regarding the latter, football as it stands is now threatened by an ever-encroaching worldview that confuses competition for confrontation. Proponents of this worldview perceive competition and morality as being impossibly incompatible, suggesting that a society’s praise for competition becomes quickly antagonistic to cooperation and impedes the realization of universal equality. Of course, this vision is never really defined, and its presentation is historically, and ironically, as that of the predominant challenger to a reigning Western value set.

Nevertheless, in United States’ sports culture, football is king. To say football is king, however, and that the sport itself embodies the American competition ethos, is but an echo. So lest I should leave a deeper layer of meaning unmined, what follows is a brief attempt at the moral merits of competition using American football as a unique test case in which the team concept is most pure. To begin this claim, a definition of terms is necessary before proceeding to three general observations of football’s strongest moral statements for both those within the boundaries of its culture and beyond.

Definition of Terms

When I speak with respect to the moral merits of competition, I speak not to its utility within a large-scale market framework. Instead I speak within a narrow paradigmatic scope, and I seat my comments in a role-based context in which human behavior is normatively mediated and guided by subordination to order. Of course, order in the case of sport takes the form of rules, and these rules, when agreed upon, secure a reciprocity of expectation. That is to say, in any mode of encounter among us and against them, there exists a base of trust for the behavior of the other. The only unknown is how well one behaves, which is to say how well one performs.

Sport, therefore, begins as but a body of rules mutually agreed upon as the boundaries of competition. Without rules, default mistrust remains. In the case of football, there is immediately the rule of team, which elevates the human mind out of a state of self-survival into group accountability and interpersonal investment. Essential to the rule of team is consensus. The formation of persons into teams is so because of a bilateral submission to an overarching rule set. Drilling down into such formations reveals near-uniform qualities of team-based interaction.

Standards and Achievement

Team sport provides us a small meritocracy, wherein players are assigned positions, roles, and responsibilities in accordance with their assessed skill levels. These assessments, at their purest, are end-all statements of merit. For the football player, every practice is the occasion to perform, and when the expectation is excellence, the standard of performance sits atop the highest wrung of past achievement. For professional examples, one could look to the careers of Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor, and Peyton Manning to see novel displays of football-centric qualities that have since become the ceiling of universal player metrics. Payton’s style of play showed new possibilities of endurance, Taylor’s of burst, and Manning of in-game management. In its every instance, an act of individual merit or achievement is followed closely by expectation. This implies morally that if a standard precedes its examples, its imposition is but a control. If preceded by example, however, a standard is a benchmark of performance.

When speaking of performance and of behavior in sports, there is a distinction to be made between that of the individual and that of the team. The goal of the two, of course, is to perform well. But again, while behavior is guided by rules, merit is guided by expectation and that by experience. We thus have a nesting of goals. For the team, the metrics of success are objective and simple. There are wins, losses, and points scored. Within the team, however, the goal of individuals is to behave well in accordance with one’s role. Participation in sports, therefore, which is to say in competition, necessitates constant self-assessment. Where and when one’s play pales to one’s potential is underachievement, and where it rises is revelation. The culture of football teaches that without accepting the game’s history as a capable host of ideals, and our bodies as a vessel of new possibilities, the mere present is too soon mistaken for progress.

Rules and Resolve

In conjunction with an appreciation for football’s past, the final buzzer forces players into a state of resolve. That players crowd film rooms and give accounts of their performances puts the culture of the game in its starkest contrast to that of the present age of protest. This is not to say that protest is never warranted, or that football is historically without protest. It is to say that protest in football is invariably a response to the deviation of a rule when its deviation has been unmet by penalty. There are no exceptions.

In fact, the object of protest in sports is rarely the rules themselves. In coach-speak, the rules “are what they are”. And because the rules are, when change is necessary for a team’s advancement, assessment of the present state and its quality is immediately introspective. It is understood that the advancement of the whole is not a product of the mere will of its parts. Instead what is required is tangible improvement in matters of efficiency and productivity, and these two have their metrics. This end of group-defined improvement thus imbues behavior with value, as acts of individual performance are appraised either as contributing or as detrimental to a team’s chances of success. 

Cost and Consequence

When one’s value to the group is ultimately a performance output, self and worth are always at stake. This places upon all behavior a gravity that, if weighted upon the shoulders of the rest of society, would place our daily interactions at so great a moral consequence that the fear of missing a deadline for repayment would be equivalent to that of an offensive player missing a blocking assignment. The blocker did not behave according to his role, and his failure put another at greater disadvantage.

This is perhaps football’s greatest and most far-reaching import: that parts are without excuse when the cost to the whole is so great. Implicit in this game is the necessity to not merely do but to do well. The team context places upon public and private behavior such a high price tag that the fear of failing the expectations of one’s own is secondary only to the fear of quitting. Staying in the game is the exercise of a disciplined volition that beats the body and molds the mind. Duty is to the horizontal as well as to the vertical.

Fifth Quarter

At its heart, the team culture, in which there are standards of behavior and accountability to the whole, clashes with that of the present age, in which status is spectacle and interaction is virtual and cheap. Where in one world individuality is stuffed inside a helmet and lost to jersey numbers and rosters, in the other there is an unrelenting invitation to selfish declarations of value without cost or contribution. Social media’s all-conquering ubiquity of reimagined reality subverts the real as too dull. The avatar eats the actual.

Fortunately, we have arrived in season to when the glass of acculturated pretense is shattered. There is no privacy in football. On the gridiron there is an inescapable vulnerability. The air becomes busy again with the sounds of honest community. Parts advance the whole and demand nothing, and for just a few hours America takes on her original form. She is tough again. And for us Americans raised in this game, its sense impressions return and remind us that losing is never okay. That this year is the year. And that, as seen in the above, football is never just about football.