I have long wondered about the “why” regarding the differences between American Football and what the rest of the world calls football (i.e. soccer). American football: so completely regimented and precise; fútbol: very free-flowing and quite uncontrolled.
This in contrast to what appears on the surface the opposite regarding the political and bureaucratic regimes. The United States: relatively free-market; Europe and Latin America (where fútbol is most popular): bureaucratic and stifling.
I have never felt satisfied with any answer I have come up with to explain this seeming contradiction; I have never found anything on point upon which I could develop a reasonable hypothesis. Well, maybe that day has arrived.
Total State/Total Sports, by Dr. Gregory C. Dilsaver.
In this essay, Dilsaver examines the role that organized youth sports indoctrinates people toward being an obedient citizen to a controlling state. It is a worthwhile read, but I want to focus on one gem that turned a light bulb on for me regarding my quest:
So too, sports inculcate the belief that life is a level playing field, where rules are made up by decree. This is legal positivism, which is the life blood of the Total State, as opposed to God-given natural law, which is the nemesis of the Total State. (Emphasis added; the light bulb.)
Football vs Fútbol
Before I dive into the history and political theory, I offer a brief examination regarding the differences in the two sports – one very regimented and controlled, the other very free-flowing. For a mental picture: take someone unfamiliar with either game and plant them in a stadium, one game at a time. In less than five minutes, he will understand fútbol; in five years, he still may not understand football.
A little detail:
Football: if it means anything, the rule book is 92 pages long. But this is the simple part. Why do they call it football? Rarely does anyone play the ball with his feet. The play stops and starts; why? A new set of players come in when the team changes from offense to defense to special teams (what’s that?).
Different players come in and out; the formations must follow a prescribed formula; the offense gets four chances to advance the ball ten yards – measured precisely by a chain of ten-yards’ length; when the play goes out of bounds, a precise placement is made of the position; the clock stops and starts with precision – the referee can review and reset the clock; the team has a specific amount of time by which they must begin the next play; there are fouls for dozens of offenses beyond dangerous plays.
Football might be the most regimented popular sport played on the planet; perhaps baseball can be included (another popular American sport) in this category.
Fútbol: there are seventeen Laws of the Game; yes, just seventeen. Only one of these would offer any confusion to the new fan, the rule of offside: basically, an offensive player must be behind the midfield line or the second-last opponent when the ball is played forward – and then, he is only offside if he is engaged in the play.
As to fouls, basically fouls are called only for dangerous plays. As to marking the ball for a throw-in, free kick, etc., let’s just say somewhere in the neighborhood is good enough.
Regarding the clock – it is there merely for general reference. It is never stopped during the half – if play stops for an extended time (an injured player, for example), the referee just adds on however many minutes he feels appropriate to the end of the half. Even this added time isn’t set in stone – when the added time expires, the referee will often let a developing play come to some conclusion before blowing the whistle.
There may not be a less regimented popular sport in the world.
The History of Fútbol
Dilsaver’s statement about natural law sent me to the history of fútbol:
The modern rules of association football [fútbol] are based on the mid-19th century efforts to standardise the widely varying forms of football played in the public schools of England. The history of football in England dates back to at least the eighth century AD.
Medieval law offers the most extended period of governance by natural law in the west. This relationship can be seen in the earliest rules (and I use the term loosely) of the sport:
By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder.
Which is pretty much the same rule today – fouls are called for dangerous play, and that’s about it.
None of the legal positivism that defines American football; none of the regimentation, precision, call it bureaucracy and regulation. Just natural law: get the ball in the goal, don’t initiate aggression against another player.
In one simple sentence, Dilsaver opened this window for me. American football conforms perfectly to a society that is indoctrinated in legal positivism – indoctrinated almost from the birth of the nation and the birth of each citizen.
Fútbol conforms to natural law – natural law that was the basis for the medieval law in the lands of fútbol’s birth; natural law that began to shift to legal positivism with the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
I was looking in the wrong place. I was looking for an explanation of this seeming contradiction in today’s bureaucratic Europe; instead, I should have looked to Europe’s roots, in natural, medieval law.
Until I come across a better explanation, this is the one I will stick with.