A slightly dated piece I hadn’t yet encountered by Stanley K. Ridgley, Ph.D has an article claiming that The Secret of American Foreign Affairs lies in our love of pro football. It’s an amusing piece, even if the analysis is rather thin and it begins with a rather idiotic premise:

During his administration, Bill Clinton cut the United States Army from 18 active divisions to 10 and presided over an aimless “Blackhawk Down” foreign policy. How, then, could the U.S. military remain so formidable as to conquer Iraq, a nation of 24 million people, in three weeks?

I’m no Clinton fan–really, ask anyone–but the post-Cold War drawdown was started under Bush 41, with SECDEF Dick Cheney and CJCS Colin Powell advising him. Virtually everyone who knew anything about military affairs thought the drawdown was prudent and logical given that the number of enemy superpowers declined from one to zero. And, although I opposed almost everything Clinton did foreign policy-wise outside of the trade arena, I’m not sure what the hell a Blackhawk Down foriegn policy is.

But I digress. Ridgley’s thesis:

There is one primary reason for the rise of U.S. military power over the past century and its overwhelming capability to fight and win wars: American football.

Decried by some as a simple-minded sport that “glorifies” violence and appeals to the blue-collar, beer-bellied crowd, football is a phenomenon woven into America’s social fabric and into the psyche of her people.

The United States is a football nation – football players and football fans – and this sociological factor sets Americans apart from every other nation on earth. American football is a brutal collision sport in which every player’s mettle is tested on every play. At its supreme level, the mutual human violence done in football is greater than that of any other sport in the world.

The only other sport that approaches football in bone-crunching controlled mayhem is rugby, another Anglo-Saxon game played almost exclusively by the British and Australians. Coincidentally, they were the two major powers providing ground troops for the war in Iraq.

This is really cool, since I like football. But it’s obviously untrue. The percentage of Americans who have ever played organized tackle football has to be infinitescimile. And, while football is indeed the most popular spectator sport, I’m not sure even a majority would consider themselves football fans. And even fewer watch football regularly. For the five out of twelve months when it’s on. And, of course, there are all manner of contact sports played in virtually every society. Does he really think the world’s richest, advanced society beat Iraq so easily because the Iraqis are less violent? Because the Iraqis are too soft? Indeed, I’m guessing a goodly chunk of the computer nerds that designed all the high tech gizmos that serve as combat multipliers for our soldiers are non-fans and that virtually none of them ever played football.

The rest of the piece, comparing football to soccer, is somewhat more convincing and makes some interesting societal points about competition. But, overall, a pretty lame analysis.

(Hat tip Inoperable Terran who links Nothing Happened)

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    I like to make football analogies in class, as football is a good metaphor for politics in some instances, but really, I can’t do it as much as I would like, as a large number of students don’t really know enough about football (or, for that matter, about politics 🙂 for the analogies to make sense.

    In other words, I agree with you assessment in the penultimate paragraph.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Yep. And that’s in ALABAMA! Where football is God and Bear Bryant is his prophet.

  3. Steven says:


  4. My cousins wrestled in college — to paraphrase Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, like in the Olympics, not like on channel 23. Anyway, my understanding was that Iraq and Iran were both big on wrestling. I’m sure all kinds of specious analyses can be made on the basis of sports. (E.g., “so you’re saying the Canadians don’t like war because they play Hockey?) Then, how do you compare, say, Sumo (Japan) to Soccer (Italy)? Or Soccer (the U.K.) to Soccer (France)? Too much work for me . . .

    And, as noted above, my wife and many of my friends who happen to be women couldn’t care less about football. My mother-in-law yells “touch-down!” as kids round the bases at little league games. My mother would get it (Geaux Tigers!), but I’m not sure she’d want to explain it. (Now, what’s a full court press, again?)

    So I think that football analogies fall apart, like most analogies, as the detail of your comparison and the size of your audience increases. Fine for rhetoric, or to start a conversation. Ultimately, though, foredoomed to a limited role.

  5. Rodney Dill says:

    by Vince Lombardi

    Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing.

    You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time.

    Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

    There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that’s first place.

    I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don’t ever want to finish second again.

    There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers.

    It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.

    Every time a football player goes to play his trade he’s got to play from the ground up-from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play.

    Some guys play with their heads. That’s O.K. You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you’ve got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.

    Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization, an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win. To beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don’t think it is.

    It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That’s why they are there. To compete. To know the rules and objectives when they get in the game.

    The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules-but to win. And in truth, I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline.

    There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.

    I don’t say these things because I believe in the “brute” nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious.

    Vince Lombardi

    ‘Nuff said — Rodney Dill