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Metaphor For War: How The Civil War Created College Football

If you read any article this year, make it this one.

One of the most complex men in American history.
One of the most complex men in American history.
Library of Congress/Getty Images

Amanda Brickell Bellows, a doctoral student at UNC, has penned one of the most fascinating pieces you'll ever read: a discussion on how the Civil War and post-Bellum era shaped, even created, college football.

The game is, and remains, a metaphor for war -- of that there can be little doubt. The virtues of violence, martial vigor, Protestant work ethos, zero-sum outcomes (recently, at least,) and militaristic jingoism dot the landscape as ubiquitously as pollen on a black car in March. Nor is this phenomenon unique to the South, where we in Alabama especially claim college football as a small token of redemption for a lost war, and (to some) the Lost Cause.

There is no primacy for the sport in the South, but the sense of exceptionalism lives and reigns with every chant of "SEC,"  and becomes more trenchant with every Ohio State highlight reel, every angry Jim Harbaugh tweet, every trailer, tornado and poverty joke. Hell, even the logo of our friends at Off Tackle Empire celebrates the game's origins and the cultural reminder of what college football's intersectionalism really means.

I'm not here to judge the psyche of the college football fan in general, or to spill yet more ink regarding the importance that the sport plays in the Deep South, the original North, and the old Southwest. There are better writers and better-read people to do that and that have done that.

I can only share a fascinating and well-researched piece that is worth your time and consideration:

How the Civil War Created College Football - The New York Times

In 1921, Charles Daly, the coach of the United States Military Academy, called football “a war game” and described troops marching to battle, teams combatting an enemy squad, scouts reconnoitering and linemen charging in his manual “American Football: How to Play It.” Striving to show the “remarkable similarity [that] exists between war and football,” Daly even advocated the application of military exercises to players, arguing, “No soldier ever benefited more by intensive and carefully planned drill than does the football player.”


A hybrid of early American folk football and British rugby, post-bellum American football was a violent sport that, according to the historian Allen Guttmann, appealed to young men hoping to “demonstrate the manly courage that their fathers and older brothers had recently proved on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War.” Bravery was a prerequisite for players in an era preceding the widespread use of helmets.

I believe Ms. Bellows is on to something very visceral and important.

What do you think?