Theodore Roosevelt was the U.S. President from 1901-1909, a “manly man,” and an avid football advocate. As the “new American man” was beginning to take shape in the latter portion of the 19th century, the ideal was primarily being forged by
narratives that captured the experience and imagination of the Anglo-American settler, stories that were surely instrumental in nullifying guilt related to genocide and set the pattern of narrative for future US writers, poets, and historians.
As this ideology of “manifest destiny” became normalized, internalized, and institutionalized, there was a need for white masculinity to continue to redefine and re-invent itself. In doing so, figures like Roosevelt paved the way for a post-genocidal expansion ideal for white masculinity. Defining this new tough, rugged, militaristic form of what constitutes a “man” incited a social and cultural response in white America that still drives American society today: organized football. In this blog post I examine a trend uncovered in Google’s Ngram viewer and situate the sport of football as a social and cultural response to white masculinity as it was being defined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Defining (white) masculinity
As the settler-colonial conquest of Euro-Americans over the North American lands came to a close, most white-opposition (e.g., opposition by Native American nations, Mexicans, etc.) had been completely removed from the imperial vision of the U.S. White masculinity had predominantly been defined through the subjugation, colonization, and genocide of other peoples of color, such as the African/African-American slaves, the “Indian savages,” etc. However, as manifest destiny came to fruition in the North American lands, there was a need to redefine the “predatory ethic” inherent to white masculinity with a growing absence of those upon which whites could “prey.” From 1800-1890, Ngram shows a steady rise in the usage of the word “manliness” in popular texts of the time. These seminal writings of the time include works by Chapin in 1856, Hotchkin in 1864, and Hughes and Figgis in the 1880s. All of these defining texts are rooted in the Anglo-Protestant definition of a “man” (i.e., strong, brave, pious, intelligent, hard-worker, etc.). These Protestant definitions were always in relation the subjugated female who was to be docile, faithful, subservient, etc. As an example of the Anglo-Protestant root of white manliness, Figgis writes
Most young men know that the Latin word for “man” – at least, for a right manly man – is the word from which our English word virtue comes. Its derivative, as Dr. Trench has noticed, meant, on the lips of a Roman, physical strength and courage. It has sunk with the modern Italians, and with us when we speak of articles of “vertu,” to be applied to external art. And it has risen in the English word virtue, to the act and habit of duty. We may feel a modest national pride in this, and may gratefully conclude that in the thought of Englishmen virtue is the highest quality of a man; and so that manliness is most fully developed – the virtues, shall we say, of BRAVERY, HONESTY, ACTIVITY, and PIETY.(Capitalized for emphasis)
Here we see close ties in defining manhood between concepts like virtuosity, strength and courage, Englishness, and piety. So what we have then is a defining period for white masculinity, particularly in North America as white men demonstrated a delusional need for domination of others.
According to my search using the Ngram viewer, the textual use of the word “manliness” peaks around 1890. Interestingly, as the use of manliness approaches its peak throughout the 1880s, we begin to see the use (and increase in the use of) the word “football.” In 1894, the usage of both manliness and football converge, only to see football’s usage take off in the coming decades while the use of the word manliness declined to eventually maintain a steady low-usage rate throughout the 20th century. Next, the author discusses how this defining crisis in white masculinity led to the creation of the sport of American football.
Football as a cultural response
With a post-Native American and Mexican expropriation from North America, the U.S. needed a new outlet for white masculinity. This is where the sport of football comes in. The very first game of American football took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers universities. These institutions primarily (if not only) served young, well-off, white males and the game of football itself was played only by white men at the beginning. During this time, the game closely resembled that of European football (i.e., soccer). As white masculinity was in the midst of a crisis in defining its hegemonic boundaries, the game of football continued to evolve in the 19th century reflecting a desire to demonstrate white masculine dominance. The sport began adopting certain aspects of rugby, the “roughest” and “toughest” sport known at the time (and certainly still one today).
As the need to “manify” the sport continued to influence the development of football, we began to see something that resembles football as we know it today take shape. Towards the close of the 19th century, football had never been more popular. The sport reflected physicality, war-like tactics, and a desire to dominate through physical and psychological force. However, as the gladiator-like sport increased in popularity, so too did the resultant deaths from football participation. The sport was too crude to last as an institution. In comes Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt, often referred to as the savior of football.
Teddy Roosevelt became the national mythos for white masculinity at the turn of the 20th century. Although not a football player himself, Roosevelt often extolled the virtues of the sport of football and its contribution to American manliness (e.g., toughness, bravery, fearlessness, etc.). Meeting with other white male representatives from universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Roosevelt was able to step in and mandate certain rule and policy changes to the sport of football that would ensure the sport’s longevity in the midst of increasingly popular campaigns to ban the deathly sport. These changes would include the implementation of padding and leather helmets for players. Though still viewed as a crude form of football today, this change revolutionized the long-term viability of the sport. Roosevelt firmly believed that the sport of football was the key to developing “fine American men.” In a speech he once gave on how sport makes boys into men, Roosevelt stated
[An American man] cannot do good work if he is not strong and does not try with his whole heart and soul to count in any contest; and his strength will be a curse to himself and to everyone else if he does not have a thorough command over himself and over his own evil passions, and if he does not use his strength on the side of decency, justice and fair dealing… [I]t was a very bad thing when [the Greeks] kept up their athletic games while letting the stern qualities of soldiership and statemenship sink into disuse… In short, in life, as in a football game, the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard: don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard.
In consistently comparing the sport of football to a life and manhood, Roosevelt set a top-down standard defining white masculinity at the turn of the century. American football would not only survive the threat of banishment, it would thrive. The sport rapidly spread to universities throughout the U.S. until we eventually had youth leagues, interscholastic competition, and professional leagues.
Today, the sport of football is the embodiment of masculinity, militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Though much has happened with regard to civil progress in the U.S. since the turn of the 20th century, football has always embodied these values. Today, the game has changed in that we now see a plantation-like system of black men engaging in physical labor for the production of white capital wealth. However, much like many other institutions, football was originally designed to work for the white male anyways. Examining a trend on Google’s Ngram viewer shows that a spike in the textual usage of “manliness” preceded an enormous spike in the usage of the word “football.” Indeed, this trend over the waning decades of the 19th century shows that white Christian masculinity was being hegemonically contested and defined in such a way that the formation of the game of football was the ideal social and cultural response to white masculinity. In defining both masculinity and football, we see how the two intersect with a white supremacist framing (particularly in a post-manifest destiny U.S.) in that all three constructs are rooted in white-defined notions of freedom, meritocracy, righteousness, colonialism, and imperialism.
Theodore Roosevelt, as the new standard for white American maleness, vehemently supported the sport of football as a catalyst to breed “good, strong American men.” In doing so, football indoctrinated values of manliness, hyper-competition, dominance, and imperialism into the public consciousness of the American people all while rooted in an Anglo-Protestant interpretation of “being a man.”
Today football continues to serve in this societal capacity, pushing settler-colonial narratives (e.g., Patriots, Cowboys, and 49ers) while also white-washing anti-other mascots such as the “R” team in Washington. All the while, football is still predominantly interpreted as a “fair” playing field in which men achieve greatness in a meritocratic system; that is, unless those men are black. In which case, black masculine success in a historically white masculine space is chalked up to be “natural athleticism” or “freakish talent.” Much contemporary inter-masculine subjugation (i.e., white-on-black subjugation) in football can be observed within the organizational hierarchies as black athletes continue to be excluded from powerful positions with decision-making authority. As a systemic issue, the “corporate-friendly militarism” of Roosevelt, plus his white supremacist and sexist ideologies, continues to form the heart and soul (or lack thereof) of contemporary American football.
Anthony Weems is a doctoral student in Sport Management studying under Dr. John N. Singer at Texas A&M University. His research focuses on issues of race, power, and politics in and through the sport organizational setting.