Fox: The Yin and Yang of football

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(HOST) As we gear up for this coming Sunday’s Super Bowl, writer, anthropologist and commentator John Fox reflects on the ups and downs – the yin and yang you might say – of football.

(FOX) With tongue only partly in cheek, journalist George Will has written that football combines the two worst elements of American life: violence and committee meetings. Plenty of both will no doubt be on grand display Sunday when the Steelers face the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Reluctant viewers or football widows who don’t thrill to the crush of helmet against helmet and bone against bone, should appreciate that today’s game of football is actually a model of supreme order and physical restraint compared to how it used to be.

Large men have been hurling themselves at skin-clad balls in one game or another for thousand of years all over the world, but in Medieval Europe one of the earliest versions of the game we now know as football was played as part of pagan harvest celebrations. Memorably known as "mob football," it was played by rowdy commoners and was infamous for its extreme violence; on game days townspeople would barricade doors and windows to protect themselves from the perils of the scrum. Prohibitions on murder and manslaughter were the only rules of play. It got so bad that in 1314, King Edward II imposed a ban throughout London on what he called "the hustling over large balls."

The transition from chaos to order would take another 600 years or so and at least that many committee meetings. As recently as 1884, Harvard officials were forced to temporarily ban the game due to injuries and fatalities. Enter Walter Camp, the engineer and New Haven clockmaker who almost single-handedly crafted the rules of American football. Building on the no-holds-barred game of English rugby, Camp replaced the free-for-all of the "scrum" with the "scrimmage," a rule that gave clear possession of the ball to just one team at a time.

Along with the scrimmage came the invention of the quarterback, replacing the rule of the mob with clear leadership and structure. Unfortunately, the new rules made for boring games with almost no turnovers – in an 1881 Princeton-Yale contest, Princeton controlled the ball for the entire first half and Yale for the second. Not so good. So at yet another rules committee meeting in 1882, Camp proposed the system of "downs" that gave a team three chances to advance the ball or turn it over. It would take another 30 years of meetings, rules and fatalities before American football achieved its modern civilized form.

Perhaps more than any other contemporary sport it walks that fine, thrilling line between passion and logic, aggression and restraint, nature and science, skirmish and scrimmage. On the one hand, it feeds our deep primal urge to kick, throw, tackle and play ball with reckless abandon. On the other, it reflects the industrial precision of a Connecticut clockmaker and the patient hand of regulation and law that mark our modern age.

This Sunday in Tampa Bay, I think it’s fair to suggest that the most brutal part of the game may actually be that spectacle of hyper-reality known as the half-time show.

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