As the Super Bowl approaches, the hype around American football reaches its annual high, but just how far down do the roots of football go?
February 10, 2023
When most people in the world think football, they think of the familiar black-and-white ball, the cleats on the grass, the white net of the goal.
But not Americans. For Americans, football is the brown leather ball with the white stitching, the jostling of helmets and heavy shoulder pads, and the bright yellow goalpost at each end zone. It’s about the Super Bowl and getting together with buddies on a specific Sunday each year, the plate of wings shaking as the table gets repeatedly slammed. It’s about watching renowned music artists perform at the coveted halftime show.
It’s about America.
Football is the most celebrated sport in the majority of American high schools, and Carlmont is no exception. The attention the sport receives often comes at the expense of other “minority” sports, financially and socially.
Every year, Carlmont spends around $8,000 to $10,000 on football equipment, which is the most expensive budget out of all Carlmont sports, according to athletic director Patrick Smith.
“American football is a ridiculously expensive sport to engage in, and what that means is the resources that could go to other sporting or extracurricular activities get routed into football because people love the game so much and believe it has such an important purpose in our society,” said Jeffrey Montez de Oca, a professor of sociology and founding director of the center for critical sports studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.
Not only is football leading in expenses, but also in popularity. The Carlmont homecoming football game this year had almost 1,700 spectators according to Carlmont ASB director Jim Kelly.
“The school spirit is tremendous. We always get great crowds for our student-athletes and the community. The student-packed stadium; we all feed off of the energy and I love that,” said Eric Rado, the head coach for Carlmont’s varsity football team.
While the popularity of football in American culture is widely accepted as a fixed part of American life, reasons behind the sport’s popularity go unquestioned.
“The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to sports generally, and certainly American football in particular,” said Jay Coakley, a former university professor and current author, public speaker, and sports sociologist.
The popularity of football in America is an outlier in the international context, and its history can answer the perplexing question: Why football?
As professional American football reaches its 100-year anniversary, the sport only seems to increase in popularity. The power of football and the influence of the NFL is all around us, appearing in numerous aspects of our lives including TV, politics, food, gaming, business, fashion, and more.
“There isn’t the same kind of media coverage of any other extracurricular activity that matches the media coverage that’s given to sports and football in particular,” Coakley said.
Credit: NFL on ESPN
As televisions arrived in American households, the NFL provided at-home viewers with the Super Bowl, which would become the biggest television event of the year. Statista reports that last year’s Super Bowl LVI was aired in front of almost 100 million viewers, nearly a third of the U.S. population in 2022.
“Football is the most popular spectator sport in the United States,” Coakley said.
Despite the football craze Americans partake in today, in the 1920s, football was not as respected as it is today by many Americans. However, football evolved and began to stand for much more than just a hobby.
“Back in the day when football was really big in Ivy League institutions, it basically became this nationalized sport for a certain type of muscular, Christian masculinity,” said Alex Manning, a lecturer and research scholar at Yale University.
A major turning point in the history of football in America was the merging of the NFL and the American Football League. Professional football teams began to expand rapidly across the country as the two major football leagues combined to create an all-powerful force of football that swept in an immense number of followers as it continued to spread to the Western coast.
Professional football has developed in the new millennium, and new factors such as celebrity statuses and social media have played into the popularity of football and the NFL.
“The media became a megaphone for the sport and provided tremendously valuable and yet free publicity. And so the two institutions developed together. Football and the media are inextricably intertwined with each other,” Montez de Oca said.
The tradition of football remains as firmly rooted in American culture as ever, and the professional leagues even endeavor to branch out internationally. But taking a closer look on the inside, the prevalence of football is not only a staple in America but specifically so in high school culture. The tradition even transcends the rising popularity of other sports.
The History of American Football by Zara Hai
In most American high schools, Friday night football games are the place to be. At Carlmont, the stands are almost always packed with students across all four grade levels. Face painting stations are set up, concession stands are open for business, and Associated Student Body (ASB) students and cheerleaders are at the front of it all, boosting the spirit of the crowd.
“We want ways we can get people involved with our football team at the games. We try to create a really positive atmosphere and boost the energy at the games and just interact with the audience,” said Carlmont senior and ASB president Max Vano.
Students arrive at the football field, pay for tickets, and join the crowd of spectators. The varsity football games usually end at 9 p.m., and the players of the opposing teams line up to shake each others’ hands as throngs of students stream out of the watching area, chattering about the game.
“Friday nights, you know, a popular place to be. Your varsity game is later in the evening, and it’s a big community event. You’ll even have people that come that aren’t going to Carlmont yet,” Smith said.
Even though Carlmont baseball plays in the first division, it still falls behind football and basketball in terms of spectator numbers. The popularity of baseball has declined over the years, according to Ryan Hamilton, the head coach for Carlmont’s varsity baseball team.
“Baseball used to be the most popular sport in America. But football is really made for TV. Football has just become more popular than baseball because of technological advances. Football is a fast game and baseball is not,” Hamilton said.
Outside of conventional American sports, other sports at Carlmont seem to thrive as well. Despite not having the largest crowds, the athletics program at Carlmont is largely successful.
“There are definitely other sports that are really good. The tennis team is phenomenal, and the volleyball team has won a lot of games,” said Swaraa Joshi, a junior at Carlmont High School.
Football vs. Everything Else by Zara Hai
Despite abundant media portrayals of football as the sport that all high schoolers’ lives revolve around, the influence the sport has on a student’s life varies. Not everyone is as interested in the sport itself as football players.
“I haven’t put it all together, but at the heart of it, what I’m trying to understand is how, despite all of the controversies surrounding the NFL and football, how is this sport still so tremendously popular, profitable, and culturally influential?” Montez de Oca said.
I haven’t put it all together, but at the heart of it, what I’m trying to understand is how, despite all of the controversies surrounding the NFL and football, how is this sport still so tremendously popular, profitable, and culturally influential?” — Jeffrey Montez de Oca
I haven’t put it all together, but at the heart of it, what I’m trying to understand is how, despite all of the controversies surrounding the NFL and football, how is this sport still so tremendously popular, profitable, and culturally influential?”
— Jeffrey Montez de Oca
A major factor in the heavy influence American football has today is the media. Consumption of popular TV shows and movies about football reinforces the cultural influence of football in America, especially in high school.
“There have been books written about Texas high school football culture, and TV shows like ‘Friday Night Lights’ have been in the cultural zeitgeist for decades. I know kids are talking about the show ‘All American.’ There are always shows where football is viewed or reproduced as a central feature of American high school life,” Manning said.
The history and longstanding tradition of “engaged students, spirited community” is ASB’s mission statement, and Kelly believes football season provides different opportunities for community activities and togetherness.
“Football is a very traditional thing. What you get with tradition is safety; people know what it is. Hundreds and hundreds of students sitting in the same space, doing the same thing. There’s social safety in numbers and tradition to the high school teenager. It’s a tried and true event,” Kelly said.
In addition to being a community-building event, the high energy of the crowd also helps the players through the longer pauses in the game.
“It definitely helps me play better. It just feels good. Whenever you do something well, whenever we score a touchdown, the crowd cheers. All the other guys on the team, including myself, we really enjoy it,” said Jack Wiessinger, a senior on the Carlmont varsity football team.
The spectators of a football game are not just passive crowd members; they take on their own role in cheering and supporting the football team, especially for Carlmont’s own cheer section, Screamin’ Scots.
“A lot of people just come to football games for the atmosphere. They come to scream and to yell, and to just have a good time and be with friends,” Vano said.
Students from other schools share similar sentiments about football in their school culture, yet the popularity of the sport varies across the country and in different schools.
“I think that football definitely can increase the social aspect of school, making it more enjoyable,” said Jeffrey Kwan, a junior currently attending Gunn High School. “However, our school is known to be quite rigorous, so some students stay home during football games to study.”
While the dedicated and passionate culture surrounding football can seem harmless, the real message the sport conveys is up for debate.
“What are we actually bonding around? Are we bonding around violence? Are we bonding around hypermasculinity? Or are we bonding around togetherness?” Manning said.
Whether it’s the sport itself or everything else it inspires in people, the sport remains ever-prominent in America’s culture as it continues to unite communities in their shared goal of rooting for their home team.