'How Football Explains America'

Timothy Braun on Sal Paolantonio's excellent new history/sports book

'How Football Explains America'

I found Sal Paolantonio’s How Football Explains America (Triumph Books, $24.95) in the “Sports” section of a local Barnes and Noble, and now I plan to write a note of complaint. Although peppered with amazing facts and trivial treats (did you know Richard Nixon asked John Mitchell to investigate Vince Lombardi as a possible running mate in 1968?), Paolantonio’s book is less a meditation about football, and more a book on the cultural relevance of the game.

Paolantonio, a former history major at the State University of New York at Oneonta, introduces his meaty thesis that football is a dramatic tale that explains why Americans do as America does, with the story of the New York Giants achieving a perfect story by defeating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and ending a perfect season. From there, Paolantonio details how football explains Manifest Destiny, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Coltrane (a personal favorite of mine), West Point, the television show Father Knows Best, and finally, how football explains “us all."

The most fascinating chapter centers on the Sixties. “You’ve got to remember what was happening at the time in the country,” said professor Michael Oriard of Oregon State, who played center for the Kansas City Chiefs in the Seventies. “We were dealing with the Vietnam War. A generation of young men viewed the military and pro football in the same way, as destructive and dehumanizing.” Paolantonio explains how this all came back to Lombardi’s win-at-all-cost mindset and his notorious abuse of his players. Elsewhere in the chapter Paolantonio compares and contrasts Kennedy’s Camelot to Lombardi (a Democrat), and even the rise of Hunter S. Thompson with his seminal essay “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl.”

Paolantonio has stitched together a thick, hall of fame, examination of a book. How Football Explains America is not for the casual reader, or the causal fan of the game. It’s a multifaceted argumentative trip that requires patience and every history book in the house to stay on pace with each drop of a name and plop of a date. It shouldn’t be found in the sports section of the local Barnes and Noble, it should be placed in the cultural studies area alongside Fast Food Nation, Bowling Alone, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. And that is my only complaint.

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