North Malice Forty

January brings the annual rituals of the National Football League (NFL) playoffs and the major college bowl games, and if any more evidence were needed about how football-obsessed a nation ours has become, consider the following: Of the top 10 television programs for 2003, three were football games, and a fourth was the Super Bowl post-game show. And 2003 was a down year.

The numbers, like all such numbers, reflect a passion that numbers alone can't convey. I grew up in a college-football town, and while I certainly make no claim that Morgantown, West Virginia, compares to Ann Arbor, Michigan, or South Bend, Indiana, it's nevertheless a place where one sees the passion firsthand. On home-game Saturdays, the malls are deserted, the convenience stores run dry of six-packs, and the traffic along the “Mileground” road is the small-town equivalent of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway during morning rush hour.

Throughout the country, Saturday sacraments such as these, and their Sunday counterparts around the professional games, have existed unchanged for decades. But in the last decade, something about football has changed: Throughout this period of the galloping reification of our red-blue cultural divide, football has become, metaphorically speaking, a Republican sport. The Democrats, meanwhile, have had to make do with baseball and tennis. Those who recall George Carlin's famous football-versus-baseball routine (“Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on … ,” he would announce in a manly voice, before adopting a fey tone to say meekly, “Baseball has the sacrifice”) will know: For the purposes of electoral politics, this is not good.

Think of all the times that you read how “NASCAR dads” were the sort of voter the Democratic Party needed to reach. The sentiment is correct, but NASCAR is the wrong -- to use an au courant word -- frame. The NASCAR culture, like that of professional golf, is far too conservative (and too white) for Democrats to make any inroads. But football is different: There are more black athletes, the fan base is much larger and far more diverse, and the game is a more universal symbol of the culture of manhood (there's a reason Jack Kennedy was tossing a football, not a baseball, with his brothers on the Hyannisport beach). Democrats anxious to reconnect with the heartland should be thinking about “football fathers” and wrapping themselves in pigskin.

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You're thinking, “but football was always a Republican sport.” Oh, ho -- not so. Football was invented in the blue state of New Jersey, and, at least in its professional variety, was entirely a phenomenon of the North for decades. The Deep South never even had a pro team to root for until 1966, when the Miami Dolphins and the Atlanta Falcons began play. The South, until then, lived on college ball exclusively. Southern college football was sometimes dominant, but as the 1960s progressed, far less so, as the northern and West Coast teams began recruiting black players while southern squads stayed lily-white until the early 1970s. It was not for nothing that Richard Nixon, the man who invented racial politics in its modern form, intentionally created a tremendous controversy in December 1969 when he announced that the winner of the upcoming game between undefeateds Texas and Arkansas (all-white teams from states where the Republicans were building their nascent majority) should be crowned the national champion, and not biracial Penn State, also undefeated at the time. Texas won the championship -- but it was the last all-white team to do so, and it started fielding black players the next year. Integration of the southern teams did more for civil rights than a score of liberal groups ever managed.

Meanwhile, in the professional game, matters were tilting very left. The American Football League (AFL) -- young, upstart, and somehow associated in the zeitgeist with the youth movement of the day -- started beating the tar out of the older, more conservative NFL. Joe Namath was the symbol of the new g-g-generation, sporting long hair and swilling Johnnie Walker Red; with androgynous touches like his billowy fur coat and the television commercial in which he wore women's panty hose, he was practically football's Mick Jagger. There was a San Diego Charger in those days named Dickie Post who wore his hair even longer than Namath and used lingo like “dullsville.” A Pittsburgh Steeler named John “Frenchy” Fuqua was famously photographed in Sports Illustrated wearing platform shoes in the style popular among hipster men at the time, except that his had water and a goldfish in the heel. Most impertinently of all, Dave Meggyesy of the then–St. Louis Cardinals wrote a book called Out of Their League -- published by Ramparts Press!—in which he delivered a blistering denunciation of the NFL power structure and even shot a few arsenic-laced arrows in the direction of the Nixon administration (“the most repressive in U.S. history”).

A kind of thermidor settled in after that burst of Jacobin liveliness, in football as in American life overall. But the sport did not swing as violently to the right as the nation did in the 1980s. In 1984, the year of Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election, college football was shaken by the Miami Hurricanes, as aggressively black an enterprise as the sport had ever seen. It's no coincidence that the 'Canes were often denounced as cocksure and almost sociopathic, and that Notre Dame fans were heard to describe games between the two schools -- in language all too familiar to us today -- as battles between good and evil. Fortunately, evil usually won.

No, the Republicanization of football began during the Clinton era, when the right set about the task of dividing our one nation into two armed camps, associating liberals with Hollywood, the coasts, and enthusiasm for the perverse and the epicene while cornering the testosterone market for itself. Did I previously invoke Penn State as a liberal symbol on the strength of its racially mixed roster? That was then. By 1995, Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno -- a literature major at Brown, of all places -- was openly attending a celebration party thrown by Newt Gingrich. (How I have reveled, as both a Mountaineer and a liberal, in his recent misfortunes.) At the professional level, the dominance of owner Jerry Jones' Dallas Cowboys -- a “conservative team,” Fred Barnes correctly dubbed them in The Weekly Standard in 1996 -- completed the exacta.

Recent years -- during which the players have become more and more über-human -- have tended to emphasize the regimented, martial, and (let's face it) quasi-fascistic aspects of the game. And speaking of martialism, there is the ever-increasing gladiatorial nature of the spectacle. This change began (surprise, surprise) when Rupert Murdoch's FOX got the contract to televise the NFL's National Football Conference games. FOX introduced the aggressive, zip-zap graphics familiar to viewers of its cable “news” network and the Christians-versus-lions theme music -- effects that sometimes made the liberal viewer feel like Proust shivering in his bed, wondering whether he was manly enough even to watch. Lately, this trend has been augmented by such soldierly touches as fighter jets flying in formation during the Super Bowl pre-game shows and the networks' decision after September 11 to broadcast the national anthem, a two-minute slot that in the footloose nation we once inhabited used to be devoted to commercials.

So we are where we are -- unfriendly terrain. It'll be a long slog back toward reclaiming a share of the testosterone market. But here's one way to start: Make sure the next presidential candidate knows how to throw a football and doesn't favor -- just to pick a sport out of the air -- windsurfing.

Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.