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