Football: Total War

By Shamus Posted Friday Dec 9, 2005

Filed under: Nerd Culture 31 comments

In my view, all team sports are a simulation of warfare on one level or another. Some are just more explicit about it. All societies have the desire to compete (just as many individuals do) to be the best, to conquer the enemy. Team sports provide a way for us to pursue this without actually killing people or destroying stuff. We can scratch our itch for conquest and dominance every week, watching as our army invades an opposing city, or their army invades ours. When it’s over we can go back to work without worrying if our employer has been enslaved and our office reduced to rubble. It’s a good deal.

In all the dozens of professional team sports in the world, I can’t think of any that bears such a striking resemblance to actual warfare as American Football. In particular, it looks a lot (to me) like classic medieval war.

In no other sport is the taking and holding of territory an actual part of the game. While many sports (Basketball, Hockey, Soccer*, Baseball, et al.) are more or less continuous action, football has a very different flow. Consider that each war (football game) is divided into many distinct battles (plays) where your army (team) attempts to sieze terrritory (gain yardage) so that they may reach the opposing city (the end zone) and conquer it (score a touchdown). If you can’t breach the city (they stop the drive) then you lay siege (kick a field goal).

Instead of a bunch of people running all over the field, you have the soldiers line up and face each other on a skirmish line. Once the battle begins, it is the goal of both sides to break the enemy’s lines.

Downs have the effect of simulating attrittion. Like Napoleon (or Hitler) marching through Russia, if the enemy manages to dig in and stops your advance, then you’re screwed. You can’t sustain the attack forever. There is only one road to victory, and it leads through the gates of your opponent’s city.

The players wear armor and helmets, and mix it up with direct, deliberate physical contact. Sure, basketball has its share of elbows and pushing. Hockey has checking. Baseball has rude gestures that damage the self-esteem. But in football it is expected and inevitable that your players will use violence to advance your goals and frustrate the goals of the enemy.

Many other sports have key players and important positions, but I can’t think of one where a single althelete directly controls the rest of the team the way a quarterback does. The coach may decide overall strategy, but the per-play decisions are made by the man on the field. Injuring the quarterback (field general) is important not just for taking out a talented member of the team, but has the effect of crippling the leadership and damaging the morale of the enemy.

* Yes, I know Europeans get annoyed when we call their football “soccer”, but there is no other way to handle this without causing excess verbosity or confusion. Don’t be so thin-skinned.


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31 thoughts on “Football: Total War

  1. Tyler says:

    What about golf? How the hell does sychronized swimming resemble war? I think your analogy sucks…and i think you’re a fag

  2. Shamus says:

    Sychronized swimming is more like war than you realize. I’m serious. Just watch it for about 10 minutes and see if you don’t want to jump in the pool and kill every one of those goofballs.

    Here is a hint: it’s easy to tell who you are when you sit 1 desk over from me, and I’m the one who assigned you that IP address.

    So, Eomer just lost 5000xp. And all his gold. And his pants fell down. Plus he totally wants to kiss Mordan. Right on the lips.

    But yeah, I’m a fag.

  3. Shamus says:

    Oh yeah: How is Golf like war?

    Golfers are snipers.

    That is all.

    1. Epopisces says:

      Truly, they are indeed snipers. In fact, there was even ‘The Golf War‘.

  4. AndrewNZachsDad says:

    Geez. You’d think my keyboard would be safe while I’m trolling your back issues. Soaked again.

  5. Dantekrad says:

    Jejeje, snipers…. good analogy. keep on!

  6. Bob says:

    You recognise that Europeans don’t call soccer soccer. That’s better than most North Americans and makes me happy. It’s not your fault that soccer is a crappy name for a sport.

    Rugby is a lot like war, but then rugby is a lot like American Football (as it’s known in Europe). The only difference is Rugby has a few more rules restricting what’s a legal way of hurting someone and what isn’t and no armour or helmets. There was a (unscientific TV) experiment once where they got a bunch of Rugby players and American Footballers to swap sports for a while. Both sides concluded the others were nutters with a far more dangerous sport.

  7. Dan says:

    Soccer is an awesome name. As awesome as the sport it describes.

  8. Evan says:

    kudos, great analagy.

  9. Calavingian says:

    Bob`s right. I`m a European (scratch that, I`m a Scotsman, the rest of the world might think of Scots and their fellow Brits as Europeans but as far as we`re concerned theres a whole sea between us and them) who has played both Rugby and American Football. I used to think that American Football was basically Rugby for wimps who were scared of a few bruises, the odd broken nose and a few chipped teeth. Then I got the chance to play American Football during an exchange and I have to say how nuts those guys are to play a game like that wearing so much padding in a hot place like Virginia.

    That being said, the guys in the team thought I was nuts when I asked if I could be allowed to play without the hemlet and padding.

    Different strokes I suppose.

  10. crazedcucco says:

    George Carlin (comedian) actually did a piece similar to this, comparing football to a war/battle and juxtaposing baseball. It’s probably called “Football and Baseball” or something similar.

  11. hdh says:

    I think the Carlin piece is in When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chop?. In football you take the enemy’s territory. In baseball you go home. I’m going hoooome.

    That’s what I remember in my head. But people on the Internet quote from Brain Droppings consistently differently.

  12. John Darque says:


    whats not to like?

  13. Julian says:

    So what is The Luge? Kamikaze pilots?

  14. James says:

    Luge isn’t kamikaze… its “The Right Stuff,” you know, pushing the sound barrier, heading into space, that sort of thing.

    And Golfers are totally snipers… they move around in two-man teams, have a (drag)bag full of weapons and equipment, and they have to analyze wind direction and their position constantly.

  15. football helmet decals says:

    Great analogy on the football similar to warfare. That was hilarious on the whole synchronized swimming bit. Yes, I would like to kill everyone of them after just 30 seconds. Also, great pic of Gordon Freeman from Half-Life. Thanks for the post man.

  16. Rock Caesar (no.. really) says:

    Great comparison dude!
    Calavingian is right by the way.. the UK isn’t part of Europe.. I’m European I should know =) When I want to visit my gf at her Uni I need to take a plain to get there..

  17. Jennifer says:

    When I was a kid and saw football games on TV, I honestly didn’t know there was a ball involved; it was too small to see. I thought the whole point of the game was to bash into the other players and try to knock them down.

  18. Blake says:

    Not sure if the armour is relevant to the war thing, pretty sure Rugby League and Rugby Union are just as war like (although perhaps more barbarian than roman).

    Australian Rules Football on the other hand is more like a brawl. Everyone can run anywhere, full contact, sprinting, tackling, kicking and punching the ball trying to get it through the goals.
    Where Rugby games are built off slow accumulation of ground, holding the line and not letting them through, AFL is all about spectacular moments, come from behind victories and makes for a hell of a game.

  19. Cahoun says:

    Man. I’d kind of like a bit more context on the first two comments from Tyler and Shamus in 2005.

    1. Shamus says:

      He (ironically) called me a fag. That is a long-running thing that I won’t bother to explain, but that exchange reaches back to the mid-80’s. My response was referring to the D&D campaign at the time. (Check out the D&D campaign section of this site if you want to read the whole thing.)

      1. Harry says:

        When he first trolled your blog, I bet he never expected it to get popular and his comment to be examined curiously by hundreds of nerds 7 years later.

  20. aakibar says:

    Ok so as a runner myself I would wonder what you characterize us as? But I totally agree on the whole football (european or american) analogy, it is pretty darn apt.

    1. CTrees! says:


      (before you get mad, I was varsity cross country and track up through college)

    2. Skye says:

      Well, there’s the story of the original marathon for starters.

      1. aakibar says:

        hmmm good point :)

    3. Technically, he doesn’t have to–not on golf either. He said “team sports”. Individual stuff, even duo stuff like doubles tennis, is officially not part of the analogy. So team-based synchronized swimming and modern cheerleading competitions with the human pyramids and whatnot are about the only examples I can think of that strain the analogy much. Although baseball is kinda lacking in thorough war-ness compared to football, hockey, lacrosse, basketball and so forth . . . all the “on the field trying to nail the enemy’s goal back in their territory” sports.

      1. CTrees! says:

        Cross Country running, at high school and college levels, is scored as a team sport. Track and field are also scored as team sports, and includes any number of four-man relays. Also, some cycling events – look at the tour de france, and the team competition.

        Just because events may have individual scores, doesn’t mean they don’t necessarily ALSO have team scores.

        1. Creating a “team score” through aggregation does not a “team sport” make. If they can’t have any impact on one another’s performance they aren’t a “team” in the “team sport” sense.

          The only track event with anything resembling a genuine “team” is the relay.

  21. It just occurred to me that it’s not so much that hockey (for instance) is less like war than American football. Hockey and the other games in that pattern are less like *infantry* war. They’re rather more like cavalry, particularly light cavalry, war. Genghis Khan would not have considered American football that much like war at all. The ultimate example of the “light cavalry war” paradigm in team sports would obviously be polo being as how the players actually are light cavalry. But hockey also fits that frame particularly well because the players can move so bloody fast and have a certain momentum factor.
    But the general fluidity of movement in hockey, soccer, basketball and so on are very cavalry-like.

    1. anaphysik says:

      Apt analogy there.

      Anyway, even non-modern societies develop the same sort of ritualized mock combat that sports represent – it’s just harder to distinguish that mock combat from SERIOUS-EXTERMINATION-TIME combat, particularly since that ‘mock’ combat usually includes killing (just on an individual level, not on a mass level). Still, it can make for an effective means of distinguishing between tribes: ‘mock’ combat exists /within/ the tribe. ‘Real’ combat exists between tribes.

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