Though baseball came to be known as the American Pastime in the 19th century, football largely usurped that mantel in the age of television. So much so, that beyond these borders the game is called American Football to differentiate it from what Americans call soccer, but what the rest of the world knows as football.
In this age of globalization, the National Football League is trying to market American football overseas with games in London, Mexico City, and soon in China. However, the growing awareness of the games’ inherent violence, and its consequences to the long-term health of its players are contributing to a lessening of interest in the once and still mighty sporting juggernaut. Add the current backlash against players expressing social dissent on the field – #takeaknee- and the danger to its own well-being is magnified.
National pastimes are based on mutual understandings and shared experiences. But as the makeup of the nation continues to change, there are fewer elements linking us together. We still have the E Pluribus but are quickly losing the Unum. Like track and field events that don’t amount to a unified track meet, but are merely individual events that share the same venue, so are myriad Americans increasingly sharing a land, but fewer and fewer of its common values or past national assumptions.
One such assumption is that the United States is a nation of immigrants. But in order for immigrants to become full-fledged Americans rather than just people who live in America, immigration must be followed by absorption and integration as the fabled melting pot simmers.
Bringing it into the world of running – always a useful prism – the training effect is based on the theory of hard days and easy days, applications of stress followed by periods of rest to allow for the absorption of the stress. Constant stress tears down, rather than builds up.
When we look at the U.S. immigration patterns from the mid-19th through to the first quarter of the 20th century, we see a robust influx due to the opening of the west and the advent of better shipping, which allowed more people to come across the oceans safely. Following that long influx, however, the Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.
That slowing allowed the previous influx to more fully integrate, because without integration the country loses unity, and without unity, we lose common purpose. The “melting pot” requires assimilation or else it simply becomes a dumping ground.
But immigration doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is a consequence of many factors, including the need for a larger workforce, existent foreign policy, and the like.
When areas of the world are disrupted politically, and we are complicit in that disruption – whether righteously or simply for national interest – we are pressed to relieve that pressure by taking in more immigrants from the disrupted area. But that places a strain on our own body politic, and even more so when the state of the body politic is, itself, in a semblance of crisis from other historical, economic, and political forces.
The idea of the U.S. as a citizen-government was understood by its founders to be an “experiment”, not necessarily fated to success. The very concept of unity itself is tenuous, as it flies in the face of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker writes, “closed systems inexorably become less structured, less organized, less able to accomplish interesting and useful outcomes until they slide into an equilibrium of gray, tepid, homogeneous monotony and stay there.”
Have you looked at Congress lately?
When we lose the sense of unity that is contained in our title – United States of America – the thing can drift apart. Look how quickly the Soviet Union disintegrated. And it’s not like we haven’t been existentially tested by a civil war in the past.
The ongoing drop in National Football League television ratings has many causes, but lack of a shared upbringing with the sport can’t be dismissed as a contributor. Look at the growth of soccer over the last generation in America.
The nation once had well-defined area codes and telephone exchanges. Network television affiliates remained affixed to the lower end of the TV dial. None of those old assumptions remain. The fabric of national identity is fraying as globalization and technology blur the lines of once stable nation-states.
At the same time, we are seeing revanchist movements crop up in places like Great Britain where the Brexit vote pulled it free of the European Union, while elections in France and Germany saw populist movements surge into contention, similar to what was seen during the Trump candidacy in the USA. And today, independence movements amongst the Kurds in Iraq and Catalans in Spain have triggered strong responses from their host nations.
An unbending sense of certainty does not consider an oppositional point of view. This is how irreconcilable differences lead to a zero-sum standoff. Either side eventually believes it is their duty to eliminate the apostate philosophy.
We are living in an ever more complex society within an ever more integrated yet reactionary world community. Our cities are ever more crowded, with new technologies placing ever-increasing strains on institutions built for a different time and a different us.
Today, we are seeing the limits of an old governing philosophy as economic forces see money chasing money, cheap labor, and low taxes across national borders.
Let’s not be so certain where this might all lead, or who should be the quarterback leading us there.