What It Was, Was Football

Lauren Feldman
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“What it was, was football,” said Andy Griffith 70 years ago, in a classic monologue about a naïve country preacher who goes to a “college town” to set up a tent service and finds himself caught up in a crowd headed to a football game.
February 11 will be the 58th “Big Game”, wrapping up the 2023-2024 football season. Now I could write a column with my predictions for who will win, but everyone seems to be doing that, and unfortunately I’m no psychic. So instead, I want to talk about the history of football, and posit how — and why — it has become such a zeitgeist of American sports.
Football is unique in that it gained popularity as a college game first, long before its boon on mainstream media in the mid-20th century. Boosted by fierce rivalries and colorful traditions, college football still holds widespread appeal in the United States to this day.
The so-called “Modern Era” of American football began in 1932 with the playoffs — which means that American football as we know it today is over 90 years old! The early ‘30s brought changes to the ball itself, including tapering of its ends to create its unique and unmistakable shape.
American football’s explosion in popularity during the second half of the 20th century can be traced to the 1958 Championship Game, a contest that has been dubbed the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. And two years later, the growing popularity of a rival league encouraged a merger which shaped the way the postseason would be played. The two football leagues, A and N, would play off until only one of each was left standing. Those teams would compete against one another in the “Big Game” each year in what has become a multi-million dollar televised sensation. This game is also the most watched television event in the United States on an annual basis.
This is all well and good, but the real question is why? Why do we like football in America so much? There are many sports, including soccer (futbol) and baseball, which hold a global appeal. And certainly these games are popular in the United States — baseball was the nation’s game until the mid-1950s — but nowhere to the extent of football. So, why?
According to a Gallup poll, almost 60 percent of Americans consider themselves fans of football. The favoritism might be due to simple familiarity. Football is so prevalent in modern culture and entertainment that it is a self-perpetuating system. Football is on, so we watch, we enjoy it, so we watch it more, so on. There is also the communal aspect; the feeling of unity when joining a sea of red or blue or purple. Watching, and especially attending, football games offers a sense of unity and connection to total strangers, something we crave as humans without always realizing it.
Personally, I think the way football is played is also a factor. Football is a high-intensity sport with total team movements and short bursts of energy. Teams do not trail back and forth for the duration of an unspecified half or quarter; they are given four tries to cross ten yards, all while the clock winds ever downward. It is an environment built to thrive on immediate gratification of movement, result, and visual impact. And while it is a game of skill, it is also incredibly satisfying to watch slow-motion replays of giant men fumbling over one another.
So, regardless of who you’re rooting for this season, let’s keep the love of football going as we have for almost 100 years. Touchdown!

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