Football is war!
Not really though, and you’ll often see people get in trouble for comparing the sacrifices made on the gridiron to the incomparable sacrifices that have to be made in a war. “Politics by other means” is a ruthless, horrible process in which anything could be on the table because everything could be at stake.
War is such a horrible and powerful force in human history that we necessarily need to be evolved with a capacity to undertake it. There are deeply engrained instincts in men for recklessness, risk, violence, and self-sacrifice that exist in part to allow them to serve their communities in a time of war. This is largely overlooked when people discuss the violence of football and whether it’s worth keeping the sport given the risks it presents to the long-term health of its participants.
That analysis neglects to account for this deep instinct within young men to engage in violent, risky behaviors. Erasing all physical, competitive events in order to keep people safe could have one of two possible outcomes. One would be to slowly root out that instinct in men and make them gentler. Another possibility would be that this instinct simply comes out in an unguided and unsupervised fashion, perhaps before the eventual settling down of alleged “toxic masculinity.” The extreme of either scenario leaves a society with the choice of being destroyed by a more aggressive culture or else destroyed by a lack of restraint or discipline from their own people.
What football does is serve as a safe outlet for man’s instincts towards violence and risk, a safe outlet for communities within a society to compete against each other and stay sharp thanks to a need for constant evolution (albeit in a field with no real stakes), and a way to teach young men the value of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and evolution in pursuit of being productive members of their communities. It’s a war game and you can’t help but notice that its formations and style closely mirror ancient combat, particularly of the sort that the Greek city-states and Rome excelled in that allowed those ancient cultures to build the foundation of Western culture.
While football can help society as a safe outlet for natural inclinations in men, it also serves to repeat the stories of history in a way that’s entertaining if not also instructive and valuable. One story that we’ve seen repeat throughout the history of Western culture up till now is the struggle between two opposing visions for society in the war between Athens and Sparta.
Athens vs Sparta
All of the Greek city-states were pretty intense and hardened in terms of their capacity for war and combat. The big struggle between Athens and Sparta took place after the two city-states won their collective struggle to keep the Persian empire from conquering the entire region. That struggle really helped cement the two diverging identities of these two cities.
For the Spartans, their heroic “to the last man” stand at Thermopylae where one of their two kings was killed along with 300 other Spartiates helped feed Spartan identity as the toughest, most die-hard fighters in the entire world. Meanwhile Athens had a major triumph where they tricked their fellow Greeks into engaging the Persians in a naval battle at Salamis where they smashed the Persian fleet and Athens was established as a maritime power.
Athens is more or less a stand in for the liberal vision for society. They built massive, public works in the form of temples and buildings while pushing forward philosophical thought and art. They used their navy to build an empire around the Mediterranean that helped expand the reach of their culture and ideas. Individualism was a key component to Athenian culture and intellect a deeply valued trait.
Sparta is the stand in for a more conservative vision for society. They had a very hierarchical structure with everyone deeply committed to excelling in the roles that they’d carved out as essential for conserving Sparta’s place as the major power amongst the Greek city-states. They valued traits like simple wisdom (trusting in and understanding what has worked in the past rather than trying to build new ideas to shape the future), and sacrifice for the collective. Their elites were all fighters and they sought to be the best, most disciplined warriors of all the Greeks. In that task, they were successful.
Now, when these two cities found themselves in competition in the wake of the Persian defeat, it set up one of the ultimate “styles make fights” matchups in history. You can read about this long war through Thucydides “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Thucydides was an Athenian general who served in the war and his history is more or less a must-read for fans of history.
The problem for the Athenians was that all Greeks relied on Hoplites in their armies, which were the citizens of the respective city-states that all fought as heavy infantry in close formations. Hoplite warfare was a contest between two opposing lines of heavily armored citizens smashing into each other and stabbing with spears until one side broke and ran, allowing the other to chase and slaughter their defeated foes.
The first fight sequence in 300 actually depicted this somewhat accurately, to the best of our knowledge, at least. (BTW the scene below is violent so be warned if you’re going to watch it)
As Frank Miller’s original graphic novel and this Zach Snyder adaptation to film aimed to capture, the Spartans prided themselves on their ultra-martial culture and the way it produced the best hoplite infantry in the known world.
The Athenians were a prideful bunch, willing enough to take on the Spartans but not stupid enough to think they could do so on the field in a typical Greek struggle with two armies of hoplites crashing into each other if it mean hoping that their own citizens would beat the elites of Sparta. That’d have been comparable to Texas trying to beat Alabama in 2009 by lining up and running the ball between the tackles. Even on the minimal occasions in which they tried that early on it only resulted in disaster.
So the Athenians built up a wall around their city and when summer campaign season came and the Spartans would show up with their allies they’d be allowed to ransack the country side while the Athenians holed up behind their walls and waited until they left. That worked fairly well, although bringing so many Greeks into close proximity without modern medicine left them vulnerable to plague(s) that cost them perhaps as many as half their people.
The Spartans didn’t really have a way to get at the Athenians behind their walls, nor could they do enough damage outside of them to overcome the fact that the Athenian naval supremacy and empire allowed them to bring in cash and grain to sustain themselves.
So the conflict bogged down with the Athenians trying to work out a way to deal a crushing blow to the Spartans without having to actually beat the Spartiates on the field while the Spartans tried to figure out a way to level the playing field by smashing the Athenian navy despite not having a navy of their own.
You can see similar parallels in football tactics as different teams have different advantages that they strategize to made primary to the game’s outcome. The spread passing team hopes to turn the game into a shootout up and down the field while the run-centric, defensive team hopes to limit possessions and grind out wins in the trenches.
This conflict was eventually resolved when the Athenians depleted their own resources by adding a misguided second front against Syracuse halfway across the Mediterranean that ended in disaster and when the Spartans incorporated the Persians to level the playing field at sea. They managed to capture the bulk of the Athenian navy, leaving Athens itself entirely defenseless. The Spartans then showed mercy on Athens due to their major role in repelling Persia and out of respect for Athenian cultural innovations.
You can see that sort of compromise still at work in Western culture today, wherein the conservative, martial side will often win out but still preserve the progressive side for its value in advancing culture and thought.
The struggle repeats itself in Western history and finally in football
You can see the Athens vs Sparta or “liberal, maritime power vs conservative, martial culture” struggle play out multiple times in Western history. The first major rematch was between Rome and Carthage, the former of which was a tough, militaristic culture ruled by martial elites and fashioned through years and years of adapting to survive on the violent Italian peninsula against frequent Gallic invasions.
Carthage was ruled by a rich oligarchy that were brilliant tradesmen and the supreme naval power of the Mediterranean. The Romans produced armies from their own citizen base while the Carthaginians had to hire out mercenaries to do their work for them that were mostly unable to best the Romans on the field (save for the ones trained and commanded by Hannibal). Unlike the Spartans, the Romans figured out how to negate Carthaginian naval advantages by building platforms on their boats that allowed them to hook on to vessels and send their legionnaires over to do what they did best, kill people in close combat.
You could count England vs Germany as another example of this phenomenon, with the British relying on their naval supremacy to build a world-wide empire, all the while fearful of the tougher, more militaristic Germans that were trapped inland. This time it was the more “Spartan” culture that kept overextending itself with additional fronts and the more “Athenian” culture that won out with the aid of allies. The West has gone in a more liberal, progressive direction ever since that conflict, it’ll be interesting to see if there’s another major struggle between the two tendencies in Western society.
In college football you see this sort of cultural clash between rival programs ALL THE TIME.
Michigan is Athens, one of the more well renowned public schools in the country and always progressive in thought and culture but reliant on bringing in recruits from other regions to combat the more conservative Ohio State Buckeyes who crank out physical, run-centric, defensive-oriented teams year after year regardless of who the head coach is. Without Bo Schembechler serving as their own version of Hannibal (or perhaps now Harbaugh), Michigan would have been doomed to play second fiddle.
Michigan State has fittingly managed a sort of “Spartan” ethos as well, although they’ve not managed to be quite the regional power that Ohio State or ancient Sparta was.
Down south you see it with Texas, who needed an Oklahoman in DKR to overcome the more Spartan-like Oklahoma, to the southeast with Florida/Miami and Florida State. The Pac-12 lacks a Sparta because there is no stronghold for working class, conservative values in the major programs out west unless someone like Jim Harbaugh brings it to a place like Stanford. The SEC lacks an Athens, make of that what you will.
It’s fun to observe the different cultures working against each other in college football and to pick out the historical parallels with the same struggles that have played out throughout Western history. There’s a lot of value to be gained from those struggles, particularly when they are waged on the gridiron rather than with spears or tanks.