- Football has replaced baseball as our nation's most popular spectator sport. Our media-based, commercial culture supports this change.
- Baseball and football express two different American mythologies. The former celebrates individual striving; the latter, collective advance.
- These different approaches can be seen in the two sports' treatment of of space and of time, the role of individuals, and framing by media.
“What it was, was football.” Next year marks the 70th anniversary of Andy Griffith’s classic monologue about a naïve country preacher who goes to a “college town” to set up a tent service and finds himself caught up in a crowd headed to a football game.
Sitting on a bank amidst a screaming mob, the innocent fellow regards a “little green cow pasture” with white lines. There are several “convicts” in striped shirts running about blowing whistles. “Pretty girls in short dresses” dance around. And two armies of energetic men struggle to move a “funny-looking little pumpkin” from one end of the field to the other. Lacking a ticket, the narrator leaves the event without deciding what it was all about.
Clearly a product of a simpler time, the young actor’s recording climbed to number nine on the Billboard chart and earned him an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Aside from the bucolic humor of the piece, what strikes the modern listener is its claim that anyone, however isolated, could be that unknowing of the game of football. Nevertheless, in 1953, football was something largely for high schools and colleges. Broadcast television was in its infancy. Professional football was centered in the industrial North.
More to the point, baseball was the national game. World War II, many said, was about defending baseball, Mom, and apple pie. Aspiring players filled schoolyards, town squares, and city parks. Professional stars were the stuff of legend. Now, if some country preacher claimed to know nothing of baseball, that really would be incredible.
Clearly, things have changed. According to a Gallup poll, 37% of Americans list football as their favorite spectator sport. Fifty-seven percent consider themselves “fans.” That support is strongest among men, those over 35, and political conservatives. This contrasts with the 11% who claim basketball as their favorite, the 9% who favor baseball, and the 7% who prefer soccer.
Why has this shift occurred? After all, few people play football for long, even when young. Football for girls and women is rare indeed. Although the American inventions of basketball and baseball have spread to many societies, football is confined largely to this country. For the rest of the world, football is what we call soccer.
Some of this is due merely to familiarity. Much as Americans once “knew” baseball, now they know football. Local high schools and colleges receive widespread media coverage. Professional teams carry the names of cities and states. Such sides promote collective identity among people who otherwise have little in common. At an individual level, football gives people a rhythm to their week, an allegiance to claim, and a channel for emotional commitment. Rooters “tailgate” and bask in the crowd; they gather in homes and bars.
Our media-saturated and commercialized culture encourages this. Football appurtenances—like jerseys and banners—are common sights. Sports-based television channels and websites bombard the public with football information. Fantasy leagues, office pools, and computer games abound. Organized sports gambling, now legal, allows people to bet on many aspects of games.
The reader would observe, however, that most of this could be said about any sport that receives societal emphasis. Think about the prominence of soccer in most countries. So, what is it about football that makes Americans so interested?
In that light, I recall Murray Ross’s essay, “Football Red and Baseball Green.” Writing in 1971, when football was replacing baseball as the nation’s dominant sport, Ross argues that the two games express different mythologies. Our “national pastime” expresses the small-town sensibility of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. Football is the modern, more directly competitive version of our society, the outcome of ambitious collectivities that organize people to do their bidding.
Consider below some basic differences between the two sports. I’ll share some of Ross’s insights and include my own.
Conceptions of time. Sports and games are little worlds of their own sort, specialized regimes with stipulated goals, rules, memberships, equipment, and impositions of space and time. Pointedly, baseball defies the clock time most of us live by. While not as leisurely as cricket (where play can take several days), baseball games take as long as they take. If the score is tied after nine innings, the game goes on. Indeed, every at-bat, every inning, is an event with its own stages.
Contrast this to football, which moves clock time to its center. Commonly, that is 60 minutes, divided into quarters. Teams have a designated period to get a play “off”; woe to those committing a “delay of game.” Oddly, the actual running of each play may last only 4 or 5 seconds; most of the game ticks off while teams are huddling to contemplate their strategies.
Importantly, the game clock is a fundamental constraint of the play. Teams ahead “milk the clock”: teams behind call “time-out” and go into “hurry-up” offenses.
Ross’s argument is that baseball’s lackadaisical view of time contrasts with the modern attention span. Facing schedule challenges in their own lives, contemporary people like to watch others struggle with time constraints. They like short, focused plays, so their minds can wander during huddles, time-out, and commercial breaks. They are willing to commit three hours to a purportedly sixty-minute football game. They are less willing to sit through baseball’s seemingly endless pitcher-catcher tosses and managerial dithering.
Displays of space. Typically, games have specialized fields or boards that direct people’s attention and movements. Baseball’s diamond, and ultimately cone-shaped field, widens the spectators’ vision. Balls travel outward, sometimes into the field’s gaps or corners. Significantly, runners move to bases of safety and, ideally, return “home.” In that sense, batsmen emulate the mythic odysseys of traditional heroes. Very few complete these difficult journeys, returning to the dugout as failures.
Football is instead a game of territorial conquest. Teams gain and lose ground. When quarters end, they change direction. Much is made of yardage and “first downs.” “End zones” are sacred territory; so is the space “between the uprights.”
Ross stresses that both sports have their operational centers—for baseball, the pitcher-catcher exchange; for football, the center-quarterback hike. From this, baseball opens widely. Football remains relatively focused. Eye zero in on small portions of the field.
Again, this focused movement—making one’s way through a crowd of people—seems closer to the modern spirit.
Role of the individual. Oddly, the team-game of baseball is largely an individual sport. Batters come to the plate to face the pitcher alone. Defensive players occupy isolated positions on the field, either “making plays” or “committing errors.” Statistics emphasize these individual successes and failures.
Football is more thoroughly collective. Individual success—perhaps running with the ball or completing a pass—depends greatly on the success of blockers. Every teammate is involved in the design and execution of every play. Collectively, defenses execute strategies.
Doubtless, baseball fans still celebrate the solitary individual, who successfully takes on an opposing pitcher and his eight comrades. They enjoy seeing the faces of players and their idiosyncratic mannerisms. But that individual attempt to go out and conquer the world is more of a nineteenth than twentieth-century ethic.
More thoroughly social, contemporary people accept that group cohesion is the foundation of individual success. Football heroes are covered up, in helmets and pads. Individuals become soldiers, elements in a great collective striving.
Media channeling. Because of the way action radiates, baseball is a difficult sport to televise. Similarly, television fails to capture the sights, sounds, and “feel” of a relatively quiet sport. Stadium spectators revel in the crack of the ball off the bat, the pop of a pitch in the catcher’s mitt, and the umpire’s dramatic bellowing. Most of this is lost on TV.
Football is noisier and more predictable, essentially a series of brief collisions. Because all 22 players align themselves in a narrow section of the rectangular field, cameras can focus easily. Typically, the action ranges in one direction. The time between plays allows for replays, often in slow motion. Screens in stadiums let fans and players watch as well.
Pointedly, the superhuman vision of cameras becomes a key element of football officiating. Referees sometimes wait while faraway reviewers evaluate footage. Rather than resenting these reviews, players, coaches, and spectators anxiously await the results. Technologically generated suspense is today part of the game.
Baseball is reticent to adopt these changes. Although the camera superimposes a strike zone to show where pitches go, plate umpires call the game as they wish. There is now some technical reviewing at bases and foul lines, but for the most part, bad calls—like bad bounces—are part of the game. All this makes the affair personal, charming, and unpredictable; but it disregards the contemporary belief that technological judgment is superior to human judgment.
Like many societies, we Americans have a taste for spectacle. But we like those spectacles to be focused, explosive, predictable, and technologically abetted. By such criteria, football wins the game.
Ross, M. (1971). “Football Red and Baseball Green: The Heroics and Bucolics of American Sport.” Chicago Review 22: 3, pp. 30-40.
Norman, J. (2018) “Football Still America’s Favorite Sport to Watch.” news.gallup.com. January 4, 2018.