Frontiers and football

So yesterday I attended UMW’s Great Lives lecture series event, in which biographer Kate Buford discussed Jim Thorpe. This post isn’t really about the lecture, but about a thought that Buford’s comments prompted.

She mentioned that American sports grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, partly as a replacement for the frontier, which the US Census Bureau and subsequently Frederick Jackson Turner had proclaimed closed in the 1890s. Sports, along with wilderness experiences (also on my mind, in case you hadn’t noticed), provided a venue for cultivating physical prowess endangered by over-civilization, for cultivating a supposedly distinct American masculinity. But I wondered about football in particular, and a line of scrimmage demarcating the territory won by the offense and the territory being lost by the defense as akin to a frontier line dividing civilization and wilderness, presumably advancing inexorably but sometimes retreating, sometimes only stalling. Was there something symbolic for people in the games pitting Ivy League teams against teams from Indian boarding schools like Carlisle? How did that symbolism translate when Yale and Harvard played each other–was it possible simply to transpose the idea of a wilderness inhabited by savages onto the opponent, whoever it was?

Then again, maybe there’s no relation at all, and this is all just the product of a tired me on a Friday night.

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