The casual observer of our most popular sport, American football, may notice that it shares a lot of qualities with America. The players are incomprehensibly mammoth, overpoweringly strong, startlingly violent. The more analytical viewer will note that football shares less obvious qualities with our country as well: It’s beautiful, it’s complex, and it exemplifies the American work ethic, our genius and innovation. Football is a reminder that while sheer might was what our enemies most feared about us in World War II, it was a small coterie of physicists who sealed the final victory.
The writer Michael Lewis, whose books on baseball and football changed the way we think about both sports, and who played a lot of baseball himself as a youth, once told me that baseball players are amazingly dumb but football players are highly intelligent. They have to be; they are pieces in a risky, brutal, fast-moving chess game who act according to a rigorously designed set of human blueprints that requires them to adapt to changing circumstances in fractions of a second, based on the actions of 21 other players. Far from being a sport about brute force, football is such a cerebral affair that there is no question that the most valuable professional in the game is a coach, Bill Belichick, whose record speaks, or rather shouts, for itself. Despite managing to keep only a single player with him across his many New England Patriots teams since 2000, with most positions other than Tom Brady’s churning through many rounds of replacements, he consistently leads the best, or very nearly the best, team in the hotly competitive National Football League, whose salary-cap structure makes it impossible for any single squad to hoard a highly disproportionate amount of individual talent.
With its rednecks and its Poindexters, its outcomes equally likely to turn on the actions of a pudgy little placekicker, a fleet cornerback, or a lineman the size of Mount Rushmore, football is a simulacrum of the glorious breadth and diversity of America. Muscle and finesse each get their due. In other sports, with their fluid play, coaches are primarily concerned with whom they put on the field and only occasionally intervene with strategic choices. In football, every few seconds things stop so that each side may implement elaborately pre-choreographed tactical plans made on either side of the ball. Brain matters at least as much as brawn, just as America’s success is not just about our continental reach, our large population, or our economic preeminence.
That’s how it may look to outsiders, and how our global chorus of detractors may describe us (as they secretly long to live in Dallas or Chevy Chase). They deride us as big, sloppy golden retrievers who are forever knocking over the world’s furniture, but they know that we are more remarkable for our thought than for our power. We lead the world in everything from Nobel Prize–winning scientists to comedians. Scary strength and breathtaking ingenuity: That’s football, that’s America.
This article appears as “Football” in the September 9, 2019, print edition of National Review.