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October 7, 2008

Sal Paolantonio’s Book on Football as America


When people talk about a sport being uniquely American, representing a microcosm of our country’s history and culture, or being our nation’s signature sport, nine times out of 10 they’re referring to baseball. We’ve all heard that dozens of times. It’s the subject of new baseball books published every spring.


Now one author has taken the argument in another direction, looking into what’s especially American about pro football, a game even more exclusive to the U.S. than its seamed-ball cousin. The book is How Football Explains America, and it’s written by Sal Paolantonio, the national NFL correspondent on ESPN.


The author is a longtime broadcasting presence who also formerly covered politics for the Philadelphia Inquirer and authored a well-received biography of Mayor Frank Rizzo in the early 1990s. Also a former naval officer, Paolantonio applies his knowledge to what are presumably two of his favorite subjects – football and America.


In the book, Paolantonio takes a variety of American touchstones – from Manifest Destiny to Davy Crockett to the 1960s – and plays mix-and-match with stories and events from throughout the history of the National Football League. It’s a bit of a gimmick, but nonetheless a fascinating and illuminating one.


For instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts on the way Americans associate are seen by Paolantonio as a precursor to the huddle. He also sees a straight line from the barrier-breaking of John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson to the substantial integration of the quarterback and coaching fraternities a half-century later.


Paolantonio also draws on America’s military tradition to explain the regimentation of the game, while comparing the cult of the head coach to Father Knows Best. The changes brought to both the nation and the game by the 1960s get their due too, as does the league’s notion of celebrity, from Joe Namath to Tom Brady.


But it’s not all historical analogies. The biggest controversies in recent years, from the New England Patriots’ “Spygate” scandal to steroid use, get their due as well.


Paolantonio’s book is a response, as the author admits, to How Soccer Explains the World, a fascinating 2004 book by Franklin Foer, now the editor of the New Republic. (Of the similarity, Paolantonio writes that “the sincerest form of flattery was a little thievery.”)


Foer’s book, one of the best sports books of recent years, told all sorts of fascinating stories about soccer all over the world, from a soccer team being used as “shock troops” by the Serb warlord Željko “Arkan” Ražnatović, to rival Protestant and Catholic teams in Scotland whose fans chant for each other’s deaths to the British club team that responded to anti-Semitic taunts by nicknaming itself the “Yid Army.” That book taught me, among many other things, that when it comes to both rabid fandom and violent behavior in the stands, NFL fans have nothing on their roundball counterparts overseas.


Paolantonio’s book doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it is still a worthy, fascinating look at pro football and what’s uniquely American about it. At a time when football, by any practical measure, is both more popular than ever and the most popular sport in America, it’s worth examining how the game fits into the country that loves it so much. After all, we’ve heard enough of the same thing about baseball already.  


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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