The United States is a Republic of Sports. Without any doubt, football and baseball stand at the apex of the myriad of games that are constantly played and enjoyed. Taken together, these Kings of sports affect deeply the American psyche and provide an apt metaphor for America's contemporary society. Baseball offers an ideal and idealistic vision of American life. Football is the necessary corrective, grounded in realism and pragmatism. Both coexist and as a result give a much needed sense of balance; which is why their continued popularity will be good for the Republic.
If it sounds somewhat convoluted, consider the following:
Baseball is all about transparency. You clearly see and understand what happens, while it is happening. No great mystery there. But football is about obfuscation, mayhem, even organized chaos. Of course we comprehend the result of each play -- in a sense it is pretty straightforward (just look at the scoreboard). But do we really understand the simultaneous assignments, actions (and often mistakes) of all 22 players on the field? For most of us hoi polloi, this is impossible and it is why slow motion replay and expert commentary on TV are of such great assistance. In reality, coaches and players spend countless hours watching film in trying to decode various plays. You have to be a devoted professional (or a math genius-type) to have a clear picture of football. The obvious parallel is to be found in the U.S. Congress. We can easily see the tally for each vote and find out how everyone voted. But to really understand why members of Congress voted in a particular way, well, that probably requires the help of investigative reporters and specialized studies (though we might be better off this way, given the cliché that no one really wants to know how hot dogs and laws are made).
Baseball stands for fairness. A team plays so many games each season, that a mistake, a fluke play or an accident are ultimately of limited consequence. After 162 games, no team can really feel cheated out of the playoffs; and the best team invariably wins the World Series. In football, chance and luck can play huge roles. Regular season is only 16 games and all playoff match ups are elimination games. One dropped ball or a sudden gust of wind can dramatically alter the fortunes of a team's annual campaign; and consider that NFL Film even has a series of documentaries titled The Missing Rings, about teams that were probably the year's best but failed to win the Super Bowl. Now do not get me wrong. I am not saying that the best team cannot hoist the Lombardi trophy. Actually, this is usually what happens. The point is rather that whereas the structure of MLB almost guarantees that the best team will win, there are simply no guarantees in the world of the NFL.
Baseball embraces and celebrates a leisurely pace, providing unlimited time for every game. Not football, where clock management is often of the essence. In football, as in real life, deadlines are for real. Baseball is like a friend who is constantly available to you. Football requires more advance planning and is akin to a passionate, stormy date; and although both games have the same stated goal of winning, a subtle difference does exist: In baseball, you try to defeat your opponent. In football, to obliterate him.
So let us take a step back and see how these observations provide metaphors for life in America. Baseball is the national pastime that offers justice, transparency, second chances, a leisurely pace, friendship and rather gentle defeats. It demonstrates how life and society ought to be.
Football is the national passion that is predicated on obfuscation, chance, few (if any) second chances and the violent taking down of your opponent. As physical and intellectual a sport as it is, it also offers a more realistic understanding of contemporary life and politics (perhaps this is an additional reason why it has surpassed baseball in popularity).
Baseball is the mythic ideal. Football is the brutal reality. Both represent the two symbolic sides of the coin that is America. Both provide valuable lessons and metaphors. Both coexist in an uneasy tension; and in doing so, they can make us think about how to provide balance in our lives and society. Ultimately, this Republic and its citizens are better off by passionately following baseball and football.
Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.