Monday, May 30, 2011

Football vs. Baseball

This will be Triablogue's most controversial post ever!

I received an email with a link to philosopher Douglas Groothuis' critique of football in favor of baseball. Here's the responses I offered:

1. Football is intrinsically violent. It cannot be played without heavy padding and physical punishment. Professional players typically undergo multiple surgeries for repeated injuries. Many of these injuries are permanently debilitating. The nature of the sport encourages a toleration for, and even promotion of, violence. Players attempt to injure each other to take them out of the game. Many young men are seriously injured while playing football. Why risk the damage to a growing body? If the body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and the temple of the Holy Spirit for the Christian, why should anyone treat one’s own body and other’s bodies to so much physical abuse? We were not designed for this kind of punishment.

ME: I don't get it. What does he mean that football *cannot* be played without heavy padding and physical punishment? I myself have played many padless pick-up football games that occurred without "punishment" (a somewhat subjective term, btw, since an activity may be more or less physically demanding on a person depending on the shape they're in). And I assume he's not talking about flag and two-hand touch. But if violence and heavy padding are *necessary* to football, what, pray tell, are thousands of people playing when they play flag and two-hand touch *football*? Furthermore, What about soccer or rugby? They don't wear "heavy padding," but often have as much or more "physical punishment" than an american football game. What about wrestling, like collegiate or olympic? This is a very technical and chess-like sport. Moreover,wrestling was known by the Israelites, are we to think the youth never engaged in matches? Never tried to mimick the Greeks in this way? Moreover, professional players in all sports undergo debilitating injuries from which they suffer permanent damage. I also daresay that this reasoning would make certain lines of work "immoral" since we're "fearfully and wonderfully made." Has Groothuis ever watched the Discovery Channel's "World's Most Dangerous Job"? Why would someone who's body is the Holy Spirit's temple do deep sea crab fishing?

I'd also add that it is *contingent* to football that "players *attempt* to injure each other and take them out of the game." How does Groothuis even know this, first off. Has he taken a poll? I know many players at high level high school ball (we won the CIF championship) who didn't attempt to injure other players, and indeed they felt bad when another player got injured. I know more than a few college players, and I went to high school with Charlie Joiner's daughter. He didn't indicate (at get-together's at her house) that he ever attempted to injure people. Second, there have been many baseball players who have "attempted" to injure another player. This "attempting to injure" is contingent and not necessary to either sport. Lastly, the violence is contingent upon the position. Receivers don't try to tackle the defense. Most of the time, running backs try to *avoid* tackles. So, some positions are more active, physical, or violent than others. Same with baseball, see below.
2. Baseball is not intrinsically violent, but only contingently violent; it much less violent than football overall. A runner barreling home from second base on a single to the outfield may need to collide with the catcher in order to attempt to score. However, his is not necessitated by the game as such, and the catcher is well-protected by his pads and mask. Many games are played where this kind of contact never occurs. Further, many runners will try to avoid the catcher entirely with a hook slide.

ME: So wearing pads in the catcher's case is something that *negates* the violent nature of this position in baseball? But with football, being "well-protected" with padding only serves to show its violent nature! But while we're on the catcher. We all know their careers are usually cut brutally short. Catchers typically suffer debilitating knee injuries for the rest of their lives. They also get hit by pitches and *must* block the plate from a hulking, 250 lb roid-raging base runner who *must* cross home plate. What worse, only one of these guys is wearing padding — the catcher — and that padding is rather meager. There are times in the game of baseball, then, when violence is "necessitated." So, we have *certain positions* that "must" get involved in brutal physical alteration, and this is an essential part of the game when those situations arise. Moreover, many football games are played where the physical contact is at a minimum, and the more prepared and physically stronger players can take the bumps and bruises that happen in the game. And of course, as mentioned, many players will *attempt* to *avoid* the hit, just like some base runners will.
3. Baseball is intellectually superior to football, because of the degree of strategy, finesse, and intelligence required to play it well. Football knows of many plays and patterns, but most of them reduce to speed, strength, and coordination--as opposed to intelligence.

ME: Sorry, it's *this* that doesn't appear well thought-out. I grew up playing *both* baseball *and* football. I was a thrid-baseman and clean-up hitter in baseball. I was a fullback and insider linebacker for most of my football "career," but at the end just played outside linebacker, as positions became more specialized and rest became more important to play at a high level. So, I know both games. Speaking for myself, I have always thought football required far more intelligence. The playbook is typically massive and complex, and players are required to memorize much or all of the playbook. I never once had a playbook to memorize in baseball. Further, while the *individual players* in a football play must be fast and strong, that doesn't mean that *the play* reduces to such. For there is misdirection, tricks, traps, and several moving parts combining to pull off a highly developed play. Typically, quarterbacks and middle linebackers must be *very* intelligent — as far as what is required for the game — and often spend *hours* not only memorizing their own plays, but also knowing where everyone on their side of the ball is and must be. They typically watch *hours* of footage from the other team, learning what to expect and coming up with plans for how to respond to the *dozens* of various positions they might find themselves in: whether it's 1st and 10, 2nd and 5, 3rd down, 4th down, what quarter it is, what half it is, what the score is, which player is on the field (which often determines what plays might be run, but then there's tricks with players who are usually only in on third down short yardage run plays, only to have it turn into a passing play, etc).
In baseball, a pitcher with less than a cannon arm (such as Greg Maddox) can be one of the best pitchers in baseball in light of his intelligence in pitch selection, control, knowledge of batters, and fielding ability. Nothing analogous is the case with football, to my knowledge.

ME: This is just an autobiographical remark. First, this just shows that more than a "cannon arm" is required of good pitchers. Indeed, of the very best pitchers, I'd say *all* of them had more than a "cannon arm." Baseball is full of stories about guys with "cannon arms" who burn out early, or never make it. We can also give examples with football. The great linebacker Sam Mills, who at 5'9" was one of the best linebackers of all time, largely due to his heart and game preparation, his knowledge of the game (which is why he became a coach). About cannon arms, what about, say, Joe Montana, who was drafted in round three because of his weak arm (a rating of six). Montana was one of the best quarterbacks ever, and intelligence and knowledge factored large.
Historically, intellectuals have been drawn to write and reflect on baseball.

ME: In America, maybe; it is the national pastime, after all. But consider intellectuals in other countries who write on soccer or rugby. Or consider ancient intellectuals who write on popular sports of the day. Baseball much older too, so we should expect this "historical" contingency. Of course, intellectuals have written on football, e.g.,

4. Aesthetically, baseball is superior because of its unique sense of time. There is no clock in baseball.

ME: Yeah, not sure about that. Anyway, football gives us elegance and simplicity, when we consider a play qua play. The individual parts may not be as elegant (though I dare say one cannot say this after watching a quarterback thread a needle through several defenders while his receiver effortlessly catches the ball and runs like a gazelle into the end zone), but the entire play often is. But on this, see Stanford prof Hans Gumbrecht, who loves football and argues for its aesthetic beauty, arguing it's just as much art as anything else artsy is. Lastly, you can have a *perfect* season in football. Watching the Patriots 2007 season was to watch something *beautiful*. Also, let's not forget 1972 Dolphins, who went undefeated in season and post-season. Just beautiful; especially considering they did this with the "no name" defense. Lastly, Groothuis uses this to claim Baseball is more Christian, but Christianity has an end to our games down here. History won't continue forever without end. Time is important in Christianity.
In football, the game is often over (determined) before it is over (temporally), rendering the final minutes meaningless and pointless. In baseball, as in the Christian world view, a measure of hope is always alive until the game is over. Near-miraculous comebacks are possible. When they occur, there is no greater drama in all of sports.

ME: Hardly, which is why football has a saying, "A minute is an eternity, in football." If we're going to get all "Christian worldview" here, we might think of "With the Lord, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day."

Speaking of comebacks, let's not forget the 1994 Bills down 34 - 3 in the second half. The Bill's star quarterback was out, so was their star running back. Things looked bleak. The fans left early, dejected. The Bills came back and won in overtime. If we're going to talk about football, hope, and the Christian worldview, this seems very close to the crucifixion of Jesus. All looked lost. The messiah was out of the game. The disciples scattered, dejected. But Jesus pulled off the greatest comeback ever. Or let's not forget the 1980 49ers, who overcame a 28 point deficit, trailing 35-7 at one point in the game. I could go on.

And in Christianity, it was over before it started. The enemy cannot mount a comeback. So, even on his own terms . . .

Moving on.
The pace of baseball is far more deliberate and delicate than football, given that there is no time clock. It is thus more conducive to patience and reflection.

ME: In football, there's *extensive* study that goes into a game. The majority of reflection is done during the week, but let's not forget the 15 minutes of reflection at half-time. Serious analysis and adjustments are often made, sometimes resulting in fantastic and amazing comebacks, see above. Also, one must make wise decisions in a short amount of time. Should we run or pass on 3rd? Should we go for a field goal or try to score a touchdown? Should we go for a two-point conversion, or kick the extra point. Often, these decisions can have huge ramifications. There is something to be said for patient decision making, but there's also something to be said for deliberate, immediate decisions. This is similar to the military, where intelligent and highly trained men have to make heavy and right decisions in a short time frame. Yes, there's something to be said for a long game of chess, but there's also something to be said of speed chess too.
6. Both baseball and football require athletic skill for their performance, but I venture to say that an expertly turned double-play, a diving catch in the outfield, or a deftly stolen base (particularly of home) demonstrates more athletic and aesthetic excellence than anything in football. Moreover, nothing in any sport has the dramatic effect of a grand slam home run, especially in a close game.

ME: An expertly turned double reverse finished with a half-back pass to a receiver waiting in the endzone, a diving catch 70 yards downfield, or a running back beautifully juking the defense out of their jocks, running a 98 yard touch down. Moreover, I'll put up Hail Mary's, the immaculate reception, or Jack Dempsey's kicking a 63 yard field goal with 3 seconds left to win the game, etc., up against game winning grand slams, exciting as they are.
7. No one can hog the ball or exclude other players from play in baseball. This is largely because baseball is the only team sport where the defense controls the ball.

ME: This just is to say that football isn't baseball. In baseball, everyone on defense can touch the ball. In football, everyone on defense can touch the ball, but on offense, certain players cannot (unless, there's a fumble). So what? I find the silent, unnoticed, soldiers in the trenches — aka, linemen — to fill and honorable role. But while we're on fairness, what about the salary cap? Any team can win any year in football. Any given Sunday!
8. In baseball, apart from the aberration of the designated hitter (a recent perversion only used in one league), all the players must function on both defense and offense.

ME: Again, this is just to say football isn't baseball. But at youth levels, many players frequently play both sides; and in pro-football, at any moment the offense can become the defense and vice versa. (And let's not forget refrigerator Parry!) So, a quarterback isn't expected to tackle well, but he should be able to do it well-enough to stop a linebacker who has intercepted his pass and is running toward the end zone.
More could be said, but if these reflections are correct, baseball is superior to football as a cultural form.

ME: Weighed and found wanting. But if Groothuis disagrees, we can fight it out :-) This isn't to say I am anti-Baseball. I enjoy it very much. I'm a Padres fan. Some of my favorite all-time players are Mike Schmidt, Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey, Tony Gwynn, Fernando Valenzuela, and Randy Johnson. My favorite World Series was the 2001 D-Backs v. Yankees. I will don a rally cap. I like watching games with a big bag of seeds. I have carried a broom around a ballpark, rooting for a sweep. So I have nothing against baseball.

In any case, maybe we can let George Carlin settle things (HT Peter Pike):


  1. In football, the game is often over (determined) before it is over (temporally), rendering the final minutes meaningless and pointless. In baseball, as in the Christian world view, a measure of hope is always alive until the game is over. Near-miraculous comebacks are possible. When they occur, there is no greater drama in all of sports.

    In baseball, the season is often over (determined) before it is over (temporally), rendering the final games meaningless and pointless. In football, as in the Christian world view, a measure of hope is always alive until the season is over. Near-miraculous comebacks are possible. When they occur, there is no greater drama in all of sports.

  2. At least we can agree that both football and baseball are better sports than ice hockey.

  3. I see TUAD isn't very attached to his teeth...

  4. Even curling is more exciting than ice hockey!