The Tribal Origins of American Football Culture

A listener of my podcast Welcome to the Machine recently posited an interesting question: “Why do you think it is that people in their thirties to sixties place so much emotional energy on the outcome of a game played by 18 to 22-year-old young men?” Once you’ve moved beyond this condition, the question becomes an interesting one indeed. Are there any other analogies that might help us in finding an answer?

First, some might ask: Does football result in tribalism? I would suggest the opposite is actually more accurate: We have always been tribal, and American football is the modern outlet for our innate, tribal instincts. Most anthropologists agree that from the beginning of our existence, human beings have grouped themselves together into tribes.

The word tribe, in anthropology, is a notional form of human social organization based on a set of smaller groups, having temporary or permanent political integration and defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, and ideology.

Of note, the term originated in ancient Rome, where the word tribus denoted a division within the state. It later came into use as a way to describe the cultures encountered through European exploration. By the mid-19th century, many anthropologists and other scholars were using the term, as well as band, chiefdom, and state, to denote particular stages in cultural development.

Although the term continues to be used as a sort of technical shorthand in college courses, documentaries, and popular reference works. In such circumstances, members of a tribe are typically said to share a self-name and a contiguous territory; to work together in such joint endeavors as trade, agriculture, house construction, warfare, and ceremonial activities; and to be composed of a number of smaller local communities such as bands or villages. In addition, they may be grouped into higher-order clusters, such as nations.

As an anthropological term, the word tribe fell out of favor in the latter part of the 20th century. Some anthropologists rejected the term itself, on the grounds that it could not be precisely defined. Others came to dislike the term because of its negative connotations that arose out of the colonial era. Scholars of Africa, in particular, felt that it was pejorative as well as inaccurate. Thus, many anthropologists replaced it with the term ethnic group.

It is important to note, this is not an anthropological analysis; it is a sociological one. And regardless, the term tribe is useful when using it in a discussion of social and cultural psychology; that is, the question of how and why certain nation states, for example, have arrived at their current station in a cultural psychological sense. This, then, is something that crosses all racial, ethnic, religious, and political lines. As I use it here, it has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, religion, political party, or nationality, for instance; it has to do with why certain groups in America — regardless of the groups’ above-referenced demographic makeup — resemble a tribe when it comes to the topic of American football.

The word gemeinschaft is helpful in this mission. Gemeinschaft is defined as a spontaneously arising organic social relationship characterized by strong reciprocal bonds of sentiment and kinship within a common tradition. Gemeinschaft community broadly represents the organic, premodern, small-scale way exemplified by clans and tribes that humans grouped themselves together in before the modern era.

So back to the original questions: Why do people who are old enough to be the parents or grandparents of 18 to 22 year old young men invest so much emotional energy in whether they win or lose a football game, or any other sports contest for that matter? It seems sort of ridiculous at first blush. But as I have written before, there are several reasons that explain this phenomenon.

In ancient times tribes sent out their youngest members to fight battles against other tribes. This is common sense; the youngest members of any group, tribe, or nation state are usually the strongest, fittest, and healthiest, and this conclusion is backed up by the actual numbers.

For instance, in 2019, the United States military had a total force of 1,326,200 servicemembers. Of this overall group, 605,942 — or 46% — were under the age of 25. That’s correct; almost one-half of our total military forces are under the age of 25. This should not surprise anyone, for the reasons I mention. Our youngest generation fights our battles for us. Our youngest generations have always fought our battles for us. And older generations derive the benefits of this. And this was just as true in ancient times, as the youngest members of tribes formed their warrior class and were sent out to fight tribal battles. Tribal existence, tribal stature, tribal reputation, and most practically speaking, the tribes’ very existence, rested upon the performance of the tribes’ youngest citizens.

Ancient Rome and the Gladiator Games

There are several historical analogies for this social phenomenon. Rome provides perhaps the most recent example. By the time of the gladiator games’ inception, Rome had conquered what was then the known world. It had no more external threats during this period and as such, no battles to fight on foreign soil. So it turned inward and found life boring.

Observers have described this era as being characterized by “bread and circuses.” With no perceived external threat, the Roman populace became indolent, seeking only food and entertainment. Some have theorized that “subsidized grain” and violent gladiatorial games were part of a Machiavellian political strategy by the Roman elite to keep the masses under control.

“Irrespective of the overall state of the economy, how efficiently the government ran, or the level of corruption in Roman society, the mob was only interested in — and the emperors only had to provide — a daily dose of bread and circuses.” With no wars to fight, something was needed to replace them; something was needed to reignite the instinct for war, so the gladiator games were created to serve as a simulation for what was lacking: A real war.

Post WWII American and the Modern Resurgence of Football

The analogies between football and the military — no matter how trite and cliched — stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, many college football coaches had actually served in the military, and they used their military training and experience to motivate their players. It wasn’t long before football thrived at the country’s military academies, and in the years before and after World War Two, Army and Navy were perennially two of the nations’ top programs.

Most agree that the three decades from 1930 to 1960 were the “golden age” of college football, and this so-called golden age coincided with the years 1939 to 1945, the years World War Two was fought. It was a period that saw Army produce three national championships, three Heisman Trophy winners, and a national appeal. In the years after the war, the symbolic importance of football played at West Point soon spread nationwide. Indeed, the entire nation looked to the Army football team and rode its success or failure in college football in those years to parallel the successes or failures of our military engagements that would soon follow.

And like the ancient Romans, since there were no more world wars to fight and invest emotional energy in — no real, existential threat, as it were — people had to find something else to invest their emotional energy in. The youngest generation was no longer fighting an existential tribal battle. And so, as tribes have done since the creation of time, as the ancient Romans did, and as Americans did in the post war era, Americans found something else as an outlet for these old tribal instincts. And it persists to this day.

This then, answers and explains why many people are emotionally invested in the athletic achievements of 18 to 22-year-old young men. You are a tribal person. You cannot help but be one. In many ways, it’s in your genetic material. You may not even have realized this until now.

You probably recoil and disagree with the notion that your interest in your favorite college or professional team has its roots in some form of tribalism, but when you consider it coldly and stoically, without judging yourself or anyone else, you will find the conclusion inescapable. If you’re honest with yourself.

Honestly. Ask yourself these questions. Who first put the idea in your head to cheer for a certain college or pro team? Did it have anything to do with your family, or the community or city you grew up in, or the schools you attended? You know; your family, your community, and your school; your tribe.

If you had lived hundreds of years ago, you would have been invested in the outcomes of whatever battles your tribe was engaging in with enemy tribes; indeed, the outcome may have dictated your very survival. Once those battles were over, your tribe had to come up with ways to entertain itself, so it invented games.

This is what the ancient Romans did when they invented the gladiator games to entertain their citizens after they had conquered the known world and before they were eventually destroyed by invading tribes from Europe. The gladiator games kept the bored and indolent masses entertained between wars, and even took the form of simulated military land and sea battles providing the spectators with an outlet for their innate tribal instincts.

And after winning World War Two, it’s what we did in America. With no more world wars that threatened the very existence of Western civilization and America’s existence, in a time of relative peace and prosperity in the decades after the end of the war, we turned to a game to quench our innate need for someone to fight our battles. And although it’s really just a game, to the most afflicted, it’s still a war.

And these are just a few reasons why they are so emotionally invested in what 18 to 22 year-old young men do on Saturdays. They are your warrior class. They go out and fight your tribal “battles.” And this is why you are emotionally invested in whether they win or lose.

Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the highly regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.

Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.