Non-fiction editors love a ‘How This Little Thing Affects That Big Thing’ title. The trend probably goes back to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, and since then the construct is everywhere. There’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America, Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects our Health, and many more.
ESPN journalist Sal Paolantonio’s book, How Football Explains America, very much fits the formula. And like many of the books that have followed this trend, it frequently feels like the material is being squeezed into awkward shapes to fit the overall narrative.
Paolantonio admits that he was inspired by Franklin Foer’s 2004 How Soccer Explains the World, which I haven’t read. However, what he takes from Foer is, broadly, that soccer is boring and fans entertain themselves by fighting, which seems like a simplistic and outdated analysis. Foer, says Paolantonio, also portrays soccer as an outlet for nationalism and nativism – a kind of tribal identity. Paolantonio decided to bring similar analysis to the US and football.
However, Paolantonio doesn’t really consider whether football expresses tribal identity for Americans. Indeed, the book doesn’t particularly deliver on the title at all. In each chapter, Paolantonio takes some American touchstone – Manifest Destiny, say, or Show Business – and attempts to show how its key features are represented in football. But it’s an arbitrary list and often the correlation between football and the subject is so vague as to be meaningless.
For example, ‘How Football Explains John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson’ is essentially a chapter about race. Let’s take the first half of the title. Very little explains a genius like John Coltrane and football certainly doesn’t. Paolantonio notes that jazz, like football, requires diligent practice but so do all sports and all art forms. Then he quotes Harry Edwards, a longtime associate of Bill Walsh and the 49ers, who notes that a football play, like jazz, depends on rhythm. But what music doesn’t? How does football explain jazz in a way that it doesn’t explain, say, folk or soul?
Jazz is an essentially improvisational music form, whereas football depends on rigid play designs in which each role is executed precisely. Paolantonio insists that football “demands […] advanced improvisational skill and judgement” but supports that only with the evidence that Bart Starr audibled the winning play in the Ice Bowl. This kind of improvisation is common to any team sport. Is improvisation as central to football as it is to soccer or basketball? Those sports seem more comparable to jazz.
It’s possible to imagine a similar analysis of almost anything if you cherry-pick the commonalities. Imagine a chapter on How Football Explains Dunkin’ Donuts. The restaurant franchise is, after all, an American innovation and football, too, has successfully expanded through the franchise model. Maybe we could argue that franchising emphasises a particularly American attitude to innovation and growth? We could even pitch the merger between the NFL and AFL as similar to one chain of restaurants taking over another. Does this analogy tell us anything meaningful about football, Dunkin’ Donuts or America? Or are these commonalities just coincidence? To answer that we’d have to go deeper. Paolantonio’s analysis is often superficial.
Meanwhile, the chapter on How Football Explains West Point tells the story of notable football figures who played or coached at the US Military Academy, including Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. But this is another list of things in common; it’s not about how one explains the other. A chapter worthy of the book’s stated aim would have to consider the broader relationship between football and the military. The flypasts and parades before games, for example, the camouflage jerseys sold to fans to mark the NFL’s ‘Salute to Service’ event, and so on. To a non-American, these ties are striking. What do they tell us about America?
The book is a failure, in that it doesn’t do justice to its title. It’s similar to those ‘Tales from the Sidelines’ books that collect anecdotes about the team in question and organise them into broadly thematic chapters. This is really ‘Tales About Football and America’.
But plenty of the tales are interesting, it should be noted. Though the book doesn’t justify its title, it’s an enjoyable read. For example, there’s a fascinating mention of how the Philadelphia Inquirer created a ‘Miniature Gridiron’ in the window of its building so that fans could watch the game unfold as pieces were moved by hand.
How Football Explains America is a great idea for a book but it remains only a great idea. Paolantonio makes superficial stabs at placing the sport in a sociological context but doesn’t go deep enough or provide sufficient rigor.
Photo: West Point