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The Persistence of Local Cultures

This is an excerpt from History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity eBook by R. Scott Kretchmar,Mark Dyreson,Matthew Liewellyn & John Gleaves.

For all the talk of globalization in our present historical moment, much of human experience remains rooted in the particular dimensions of local habits. Consider, for instance, the unique sportsworld that appears in many parts of the United States on Friday evenings during autumn. For close to a century now, the darkness of fall Friday nights has been lit by the glow of electric lights shining over high school football fields throughout the country. High school football remains a popular ritual that showcases the pride and passion of local communities in urban, suburban, and rural areas. "Friday night lights," as high school football rituals are popularly known, burn especially bright in certain locales - in small towns in the American hinterlands, perhaps in Texas or Pennsylvania, where there is little else to do in isolated desert hamlets or rusted former mill towns where the factories have been shuttered. High school football games in these localities draw almost every member of the community. Grandparents root for their grandchildren who play football, perform in the marching band, or chant support as cheerleaders. Residents fill the stands and exchange gossip or talk business while reminiscing about their own glorious (or not so glorious) exploits under the lights in generations past. Young children dash and play just beyond the sidelines of the electric-lit gridiron, dreaming of a near future in which they will perform under the lights. On the field, in the band section, and among the cheer squads, teenagers enact common rites of passage that fuel community pride and determine status in the adolescent hierarchy of their tribes.


The phenomenon of Friday night lights represents a fundamentally local endeavor in spite of the fact that some American cable networks now broadcast high school games and that most players wear equipment manufactured by Nike and other multinational corporations. The interests and identities created by high school football are rooted in local cultures and express local allegiances. The most important rivalry for the residents of any two given towns may be unknown to the Friday-night-lights communities in the next county over. Bragging rights for victories over neighboring communities represent the continuing power of local identification for many Americans.Thus high school football of the American variety is a highly parochial sport, though a Canadian variant has emerged beyond the northern border. Friday night lights do not burn anywhere else in the Americas, or Asia, or Africa, or Europe. They burn with a particular intensity, however, in rural hamlets and small towns throughout the United States.


Whether they will continue to burn brightly for another century, however, is an open question. As much as those of us who grew up with Friday night lights may believe that they are an eternal local ritual, signs abound that this era may soon end. The specter of serious injury and even death from the violent collisions that seem essential to football have begun to raise questions about the wisdom of playing the game at any level, from professional to intercollegiate to high school to youth. As evidence mounts of the potential for serious brain injury from repeated blows to the head, an increasing number of American parents may well prohibit their children from suiting up for Friday night lights. Indeed, participation rates in American high school football have shrunk steadily over the last half century. In the 1950s, joining the high school football team was a rite of masculine passage that most American boys felt compelled to undertake, whether or not they were interested or skilled. Now, teenage boys have a wide variety of alternative activities, and some high schools struggle to find enough players to field a team. Thus, fear of injury represents only one of several factors in this decline in participation; equally or even more important seems to be the proliferation of other youth sporting activities (such as soccer and lacrosse) and nonsporting activities (such as video gaming, though debates about whether these electronic games should fall under the general umbrella of sport remains an open question, as you will read later in this chapter).


Another inherent problem with the Friday-night-lights phenomenon is that it virtually limits participation in the feature attraction - the football game itself - to boys. More than a million boys still participate in high school football every year, and, though over the last few decades a small number of girls (about a thousand per year) have joined them, playing football remains an almost entirely male endeavor. Thus, although females can find numerous roles in the ancillary activities that add to the pageantry, such as cheerleading and band, the event's leading roles are reserved for males. Perhaps Friday-night-lights spectaculars that provide more equivalent opportunities for boys and girls - such as soccer doubleheaders featuring both teams or even contests featuring co-ed squads - will someday replace football, as the egalitarian logics of modern sport continue to evolve and develop with regard to gender.


Perhaps the most difficult trend facing Friday night lights is the increasing marginalization of small towns and rural areas in both U.S. and global life. For a couple of centuries now, urban areas served as the engines of economic, social, and political innovation - and as the destination of migrants from the countryside. Today, population continues to flow from rural to urban areas, making modern global societies overwhelmingly urban in character and structure. In contrast, though high school football certainly has a foothold in American cities, it is hardly the only game in town in those locations. As a result, in order to serve as sources of identity formation, high school programs in urban and suburban areas must compete with a wide variety of other entities, including intercollegiate programs and professional franchises. Although predictions of the extinction of local identities in an urban age have been vastly exaggerated, metropolitan domination has heightened the trend toward an increasing concentration of power in national and global connections.


Will Association Football (Soccer) Ever Replace American Football in U.S. Culture?


Historical Profile

In the 21st century, the most popular sport in which Americans participate is soccer; the most popular sport that Americans watch, however, is American football. This dichotomy - that more American children, youth, and even adults play soccer but far more Americans in every age category follow American football - has led some observers to predict that we may be near a tipping point in which soccer replaces football as America's national pastime. The reasoning behind such claims derives from studies of national pastimes around the world, which reveal that people rarely develop intense fandom for games that they do not grow up playing. Will the demographics of participation soon mean that more Americans watch the World Cup than the Super Bowl?


Contrary to popular notions, soccer is hardly a new import to the United States. In fact, the game that most historians point to as the first intercollegiate football contest in American history, an 1869 match in which Rutgers defeated Princeton by a score of 6 to 4, was played with rules inspired by soccer codes. Soccer teams, both professional and amateur, have been playing their games in the United States ever since, particularly in areas where immigrant groups have fostered the association football game. Thus the hotbeds of American soccer have ranged from the mill towns of New England to the urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia and St. Louis. The United States also sent soccer teams to the early Olympic and World Cup tournaments. Still, for the first century of American soccer, the game was mainly identified as an interest of immigrants and foreigners that was popular around the world but did not rank among the national pastimes of the United States.


Meanwhile, American football originated in the 1870s from revisions of the British rugby codes intended to create a distinctly American game that reflected the patterns and practices of American nationalism. This alternative form of football enjoyed a century as a game that the vast majority of people in the United States both played and watched. During the 1970s, however, soccer became increasingly popular in the United States as a game for children and youth. In the ensuing decades, as participation in soccer has risen, participation in American football has declined. The recurrent concerns about the dangers of American football have diminished the zeal with which some parents approach the game as an introduction to athletic competition for their children. The shift in participation rates has also resulted in part from the general lack of opportunities for females to compete in American football.


As the number of children playing soccer began to rise, entrepreneurs began to launch new professional leagues with the idea that soccer would become the next national pastime in the United States. In spite of a half century of such predictions, however, American football still dwarfs soccer as a spectator sport. Although more and more of us play soccer and pass our knowledge of the game on to our children, most of us also continue to pass on to our children a passion for watching, if not always for playing, American football. Will these patterns change if current trends continue and future generations play even more soccer and less American football? Entrepreneurs who have bet on soccer have high hopes, but American football continues to dominate ticket sales and television ratings by wide margins - at least for now.

Learn more about History and Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity.