Football, surprisingly, was the topic of conversation in my Myth, Ritual, and Symbol class today. We were looking at the classic and wonderfully written work of Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist who worked in Polynesia and Morocco, who’s most famous for his essay on Balinese Cockfights. He believed that humans live in a “web of meanings” which we create for ourselves and that these meanings and significances are reproduced through every system in society. Geertz looked at at agricultural systems, judicial systems, and cockfights as cultural systems–they all contain layers and layers of symbolic cultural meaning and narratives about the values of the society at large. My professor described it as sort of like doing a literary analysis of human systems. This has been a really important heuristic for anthropologists since Geertz, and as a class activity, we discussed how American football is one of these cultural systems.

Football to Americans is like Cockfighting to the Balinese: A violent, competitive activity that evokes emotion in the participants and viewers. These two past-times actually reveal and reflect much about status and indeed perpetuate status systems in either society. We began by talking about how in our society, competition is valued, that there is always a winner and a looser, that physical pain and suffering (or any pain and suffering) is necessary for success. Typical, surface-level American-Dream and capitalistic values we can easily pull from the game of football.

Then, a deeper discussion was reached. Being one of the only football fans in the room (and I’ll admit, I am by no means the best representative of a football fan), I brought up the structure of the team and the positions. For each position, there are special physical and mental requirements, and certain class and racial tendencies. Quarterbacks lead the team. They call the plays, they need to be smart and aware of everything on the field. They physically need to have good arms, and protect those arms and be protected from the damaging effects of brute force. Quarterbacks are also usually white (though these days this may be less true) and educated (they’re the Harvard grads of the team). Linemen are huge, they are literally the closest to the ground, doing the grunt work. Running backs/receivers receive the ball, they have to be good runners, fast (many are African American, a group which has been popularly thought of as being “naturally” faster than their white counterparts). They are also at the mercy of the quarterback’s decisions.

This football system is our “text,” on which we can read the “narrative” of greater American values. The division of responsibilities on the team based on their physical (and mental, in the case of the QB) characteristics. It is a division of labor based on the players’ physicality, naturalizing their roles. Are these rigid roles indicative of a counter narrative to that of upward mobility and reward for hard, competitive work of the overall team? Or, do both of these narratives work together to get at something greater about the organization of American values?

Then, my professor brought up Baseball. The sport has lost its status as “favorite American past-time” to football. Why? We spat out ideas about the necessary vulgarization of our past times due to the ever-increasing structure of our everyday, blah blah. My professor suggested that, actually, the rise of cooperate America lent to this shift in popularity.

Football’s narrative is that of cooperate America, and that’s why it has become more and more popular since the latter half of the twentieth century. Football serves as an exercise, a ritual, to reproduce the values we so cherish in our modern capitalist system. It would make sense with the whole competition, being rewarded for giving-it-your-all mentality. In the context of cooperations, the hierarchical organization of the team, doesn’t conflict with the reward-for-work idea, but actually enhances it. We are witnessing a pyramid organization of power everytime we watch football. The coach calls all the shots, he does none of the physical work, but all of the mental work. He’s the CEO. The top-level manager is the QB; he makes time-sensitive decisions, he got to where he was via the head on his shoulders and that very specialized body part–his arm. His protection is necessary in the game, over the protection of others, because without him, things aren’t going to happen. The receivers are a bit lower level–they’re at some physical risk for sure, but not as much as the grunt-work laborers, the linemen. Linemen are also the least famous–they are hidden, just like the very low-level workers of cooperations. This context is also really interesting in which to find racial and physical implications of/reflections in cooperate America.

In baseball, all players get a chance to bat; there is an equal-ness of the roles. Each fielder is equally as important because a pop fly can go anywhere on the field. Does football’s popularity, then, mean that we have come to value competitiveness and unequal division of labor over equality, as preserved in our capitalist system?

Nachos and guac are always good game-day snacks, but the next time I sit down with my dad and brother to watch an Eagles game, I’ll be chewing over this vision of cooperate America as it plays out in silver and midnight green spandex.

[also–thanks to my professor and Joe for also contributing a lot of these ideas to the discussion, and this post!]