The Super Bowl. America's Game and its instrumentalization to promote war?

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

48 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. History of the Game – The early beginnings

3. The birth of professional football

4. How the game is played

5. How football became America’s number one sport

6. Football and the military – an everlasting romance

7. Football and warspeak

8.1 The Super Bowl and the development of its pregame show
8.2 The burst of patriotism in Super Bowl XXV
8.3 Super Bowl XXXVI

9. The Star-Spangled Banner

10. Football and the Nation

11. The case of Pat Tillman

12. Now, Are you ready for some Football!?

13. The dangers of the war-football-continuum

14. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“The truth is the Super Bowl long ago became more than just a football game. It's part of our culture, like turkey at Thanksgiving and lights at Christmas, and like those holidays - beyond their meaning - a factor in our economy.” stated Bob Schieffer, news anchor and journalist, on Super Bowl Sunday 2010. Indeed, the Super Bowl is nowadays much more than just the championship game of the National Football league. It has become a “major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth” (Price quoted in Dougherty). To me, the most striking feature of the Super Bowl has always been the ubiquitous presence of all the service men and women. They regularly framed the field and the actor who performed the Star-Spangled Banner and were accompanied by a fighter jet flyover once the anthem was sung. I always had the feeling that the military acted as the co-host of the event and that the Super Bowl was, figuratively spoken, under its protection. Those observations altered my view of the game and led me during my extensive research, resulting in the insight that American Football and the military share a rich heritage. In this paper, I will show the reader that the military presence during football games is far from being coincidental and how warlike the game really is. The first chapters provide a summary of the game’s history, its development into a professional sport and a brief introduction to how it is played. Those are followed by a condensed, but nevertheless meaningful chapter about how American Football rose above Baseball as America’s number one sport. The structure of the subsequent chapters is as follows: Firstly, they introduce the reader to the long tradition of the Army vs. Navy game, followed by an elaboration on the vocabulary and terminology used to talk about American Football. Secondly, the Super Bowl’s pregame show, its development, its impact on national symbols and the nation will be discussed. Finally, the paper illustrates the game’s cultural impact by means of a significant example and it provides the reader a critical analysis of its further development.

2. History of the Game – The early beginnings

The history of American Football[1] dates back a lot longer than one might think. It developed from the regular game of soccer and was played in the USA for the first time “on November 6, 1869 at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey” (thepeoplehistory). The game between Princeton and Rutgers “is commonly billed as the first college football game” ever and it “was played under modified London Football Association rules – for example, players could only kick the ball, not touch it with their hands and each score, called a goal, counted for one point (Rutgers beat Princeton 6-4)” (thepeoplehistory). The game at this point in time was basically a modification of soccer, however, it set the cornerstone for the game of football as we know it today. After the game between these two schools, “other eastern universities began to cotton on to playing the game, first with Columbia University, and later other schools like Harvard and Yale” (thepeoplehistory). The game of football spread more widely across the country and it “drew tens thousands of spectators and rivaled professional baseball in fan appeal” (Klein). The early game of football had, however, some serious problems with the safety of the players. Klein emphasizes that “at the turn of the 20th century, America’s football gridirons were killing fields” and that “football in the early 1900s was lethally brutal”. These statements are based on the facts that “in 1904 alone, there were 18 football deaths and 159 serious injuries, mostly among prep school players” (Klein). Due to different rules and little or none protective equipment back in the early days of football it came to an accumulation of serious injuries and “[n]ewspaper editorials [even] called on colleges and high schools to banish football outright” (Klein). Why was it that this new sport was so attractive to young men? The historian Allen Guttmann argued that they wanted to “demonstrate the manly courage that their fathers and older brothers had recently proved on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War” (quoted in Brickell Bellows). The crisis grew so much that “one of its biggest boosters- President Theodore Roosevelt – got involved” (Klein). The president was a strong advocate for the sport and in 1903 he announced an audience: “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long it is not fatal” (quoted in Klein). However, the rules were drastically changed during an intercollegiate conference in 1906 (thepeoplehistory). The changes in 1906 included the legalization of the forward pass, the line of scrimmage, the abolishment of mass formations[2] etc. With these changes the danger of playing was still existing, “but fatalities declined- to 11 per year in both 1906 and 1907” and the amount of injured players dropped down significantly (Klein). In 1909, after a series of fatalities, there were once again several rule adjustments which finally “formed the foundation of the modern sport” (Klein). It is definitely important to know that college football and professional football are still strongly linked together by the fact that the players in the NFL are ex-college players. Every year there is the so-called draft by which the college players get picked by the NFL teams. The colleges are so to say the training facility for the future professionals. 3. The birth of professional football The beginnings of the game were “largely written in the college ranks; innovations, rules and popularity belonged to schools in the U.S., as far as football was concerned” (thepeoplehistory). The birth of professional football was still a long way to go. “Outside of colleges, the game of football was played by athletic clubs; by the 1880s, most athletic clubs in America had a team playing football” (thepeoplehistory). Those teams were amateur squads who simply played for the joy of the game, even though the “competitive fires serv[ed] as fuel” and eventually led to the first ever paid player “on November 12, 1892” (thepeoplehistory). On this date “[t]he Allegheny Athletic Association played the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in Pittsburgh, and William “Pudge” Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the AAA to play (in today’s money, that’s equal to over $12,000)” (thepeoplehistory). By this day “professional football was truly born” (thepeoplehistory). The National Football League, NFL, which is the official football association today, was originally founded on June 24, 1922 (thepeoplehistory). However, it was still not the NFL as we know it today. Today’s NFL was finally created with the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1966. Until this point, both associations tried to constitute their predominance. The newly constituted NFL merged all teams into a new league and the arguably most popular sport event known to men was created: The Super Bowl[3]. 4. How the game is played The game of football is played on the so-called gridiron. During each play there are 22 players on the field. Each team is composed of 11 players playing at the same time. The goal for the team that has possession of the ball is to score while the other team is trying to prevent this from happening. The offense on the field is trying to score and the defense has the task to get the ball back for its own offense. You can either score by running, passing or kicking the ball. A touchdown is “[a] score, worth six points, that occurs when a player in possession of the ball crosses the plane of the opponent's goal line, when a player catches the ball while in the opponent's end zone, or when a defensive player recovers a loose ball in the opponent's end zone” (Long and Czarnecki). After scoring a touchdown the teams can decide between kicking a point after touchdown, PAT, for 1 additional point, or running a two-point conversion. Another way, for the offense, to score is by kicking a field goal, which is worth 3 points. On defense you can score by intercepting the ball and returning it across the opponent’s goal line or by producing a safety which brings you 2 points. Each team has 4 attempts to gain 10 yards for a new first down. If the team is not able to gain these yards and punts, misses a field goal, throws an interception or loses the ball, the right of possession changes. A very well verbalized quote by Paul O. describes the scenery on the field as “(…) [a] game of chess, played in real time, by gladiators in suits or armors.” This statement suits the game’s appearance very well because the setup of the game has some remarkable resemblance with the so-called game of kings with regard to its strategical art of playing. After each play there is a play clock running down, which allows the coaches to substitute new personnel and call the next play. The game has interruptions after each play and the next play starts when everybody is set. If you wanted to describe it in one sentence, you could also simply call it a game of possession. The team who controls the ball controls the game and therefore its opponent. 5. How football became America’s number one sport In his essay Professional Football as a Cultural Myth ex-football player and professor of English Michael Oriard points out that “[n]o sport in America is so much talked about, so easily misinterpreted, or so liable to elicit exaggerated response from both defenders and critics as football” (1981: 27). He furthermore argues that “Baseball has had an equal impact on American life, but baseball has never aroused the fanatical villifiers and proselytizers that have been a part of football from its beginning” (27). Baseball was simply not “considered respectable by a large part of middle- and upper-class America” and the huge “Black-Sox scandal of 1919 was the single most appalling blow to national ideals caused by any sport” (27). Even though baseball, obviously, survived the scandal, it was followed by a severe disbelief and dismay in the American public (27). Morris argues that “[i]f baseball is America’s pastime, then football is its passion” (1). He maintains that football, “[e]specially after the rise of television, has become the country’s premier spectator sport, even though other sports such as basketball, baseball / softball, and soccer boast far more recreational participants” (1). Michael Oriard put it very vivid by describing baseball as “America’s eldest son, irreproachable, utterly respectable, stable and sedate-a credit to the family, though perhaps, according to some, a little dull (27). Football is accordingly the second son, “a bit wilder and more unpredictable, capable of both outrageous excess and moving tenderness-both dearer and more aggravating than is older brother” (27). Morris sees it as quite the same and describes football as “American culture’s greatest spectacle, the primary sporting focus of homecoming and holiday celebrations and one of the country’s most prominent façades to the world” (1). From both essays you can deduce that football, as the ‘wilder son’, is simply more entertaining and more appealing to the audience than baseball. Oriard describes it as a temptation that lures one into thinking that “baseball represents to us our idealized selves, while football tells us what we really are, and self-discovery makes us nervous” (27). Professor Mark Edmundson takes the argumentation in his article Football is America’s war game even further. He states that “football is a deeply American game, that … reflects our national identity and values” better than any other sport. He furthermore quotes the longtime Washington Post columnist Mary McGregory who wrote: “Baseball is what we were, Football is what we have become” (quoted in Edmundson). The answer to his question “What exactly have we become that makes football the American game “ is, according to him, rather simple (Edmundson). He points out that “Football is a warlike game and we are now a warlike nation. Our love for football is a love, however self-aware, of ourselves as a fighting and (we hope) victorious people” (Edmundson). The famous comedian George Carlin offered a very living and vivid performance for the above mentioned arguments by summing up that:

In Football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general. To be on target with his aerial assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. (applause) In Baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home.

All of the above mentioned explanations for football’s rise as number one sport in the country have in common that they unanimously point out that football was and is, simply said, a better match for the American nation. It is the one sport that reflects the current state of it like no other sport is capable of doing. In his book America’s Game, professor of education Michael MacCambridge maintains that the 1958 NFL Champion Ship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants marks the “demarcation between past and present, not merely in sports but in the culture itself” (XIV). The end of this game caused “a seismic shift in the American sports landscape” and football overthrew Baseball and claimed the throne of sports in the USA and crowned itself as king (VIV). Football’s accession to the throne has, of course, not taken place over night and was a combination of its appeal as a spectator sport and its ability to satisfy societies need for unity. MacCambridge explains that football ultimately succeeded “because it struck a resonant chord in the American psyche. In a time of increasing alienation and urban flight, when a sense of community was dissipating, it unified cities in ways that other civic enterprises could not” (XVIII).

6. Football and the military – an everlasting romance

The Army-Navy game is more than just a game between two football teams. It is “an all-American tradition ‘bigger than football’ ” (Richardson). The first meeting of the two teams was initiated in 1890 and it “symbolized the merger of football, militarism, and patriotism as it became a national tradition” (Butterworth 245). Blansett explains that the game as a rivalry “transcends sports in a lot of ways as soldiers and sailors across the globe will watch [it] together”. Another point is the fact that “many of the senior players playing against each other Saturday will graduate … and will serve together in defense of the nation” (Blansett). The history of this traditional game started with an agreement between the army cadet Dennis Mahan Michie and the Naval Academy to play each other (Blansett). The first game resulted in a blowout loss, 24-0, in favor of the navy (Blansett). At that point in time the game was taking place, the army cadets of West Point “had no real experience with the exception of one player [,] Dennis Michie, who later became known as the father of West Point football” (Ruzicka). Ruzicka describes the games between two teams as “fierce battles between the lines” but never without “retain[ing] the utmost respect for each other once the whistle blows”. The intensity on the gridiron was more intense as one might think. The rivalry in the game “was more than a civil skirmish; it was brutal and extremely fierce” (Ruzicka). The players were occasionally fighting on the field, hitting each other’s face like a punching bag (Ruzicka). In the game in 1890 it occurred that “cadet Kirby Walker, the West Point quarterback, was unable to be revived by the teams surgeon after his fourth knockdown” and it eventually would take him more than 13 days to recover from his concussions he suffered during the game (Ruzicka). The interesting thing about the game was the fact that the audience downright loved the violence and “[f]ans screamed for blood” (Ruzicka). At the end of the game, with the blow of the whistle, everything was forgiven and players from both teams congratulated each other and celebrated in the evening (Ruzicka). The very first game between Army and Navy “would set the tone for college football’s greatest rivalry” which “has been a staple of college football for 115 years” (Ruzicka).


[1] Henceforth reffered to as „football“.

[2] “Mass plays featured every member of a side moving together to try to score; to counter them, the defenses would do the same, moving as one unit to gang tackle the ball carrier. One particular mass play, the flying wedge, was particularly vicious: 10 of the 11 offensive players would form a wedge, while one player, the ball carrier, would move behind them before leaping over them to move the ball forward and attempt to score. As a countermeasure, the defense would send a man of its own leaping over, colliding with the ball carrier in midair” (thepeoplehistory).

[3] The Super Bowl is played between the winners of the NFC/AFC championship game.

Excerpt out of 48 pages


The Super Bowl. America's Game and its instrumentalization to promote war?
University of Würzburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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762 KB
Super Bowl, American Football, NFL, war, instrumentalization, The Star Spangled Banner, military, Pat Tillman
Quote paper
Björn Nicklausson (Author), 2016, The Super Bowl. America's Game and its instrumentalization to promote war?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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