Today, we tackle football. It’s the most popular sport in the US, shining a sometimes harsh light on so much of what we have been, what we are, and what we hope to be. Savage, creative, brutal and balletic, whether you love it or loathe it … it’s a touchstone of the American identity.
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Along with conflicted parents and players and coaches who aren’t sure if the game will survive, we take a deep dive into the surprising history of how the game came to be. At the end of the 19th century, football is a nascent and nasty sport. The sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. But then the Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the Native American men who fought the final Plains Wars, fields the most American team of all. The kids at Carlisle took the field to face off against a new world that was destroying theirs, and along the way, they changed the fundamentals of football forever.
Ghosts of Football Past
It's the end of the 19th century -- the Civil War is over, and the frontier is dead. And young college men are anxious. What great struggle will test their character? Then along comes a new craze: football. A brutally violent game where young men can show a stadium full of fans just what they're made of. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn -- the sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. And then the most American team of all, with the most to prove, gets in the game and owns it. The Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the men who fought the final Plains Wars against the fathers and grandfathers of the Ivy Leaguers, starts challenging the best teams in the country. On the football field, Carlisle had a chance for a fair fight with high stakes -- a chance to earn respect, a chance to be winners, and a chance to go forward in a changing world that was destroying theirs.
Ghosts of Football Future
Next, we take a closer look at the game the way it is played today. Sports writer Chuck Klosterman tells us about a sort of con at the center of the game that, he thinks, has made it the most popular sport in the US. And he points us to a deep conflict at the heart of football, even for the people who love it dearly.
For a closer look at that conflict, our producer Soren Wheeler pays a visit to Monet Bartell. Some families pass down quilts, or recipes, or a family business, but Monet's family tradition was football. Her dad played, her uncle played, her brothers played … Football gave her dad, her family, a life. So when her son Parker was born, she was ready to be a proud mom in the stands. But she has to balance that against her experience seeing the aftermath of football up close and personal.
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All of which makes producer Molly Webster curious — as families wrestle to understand how the game fits into their lives, what's it like on-the-ground, in football programs across the country? What she finds goes beyond the pigskin, making us consider what sports, across generations, really reveal about us.
Correction: An earlier version of this episode included a few errors that we have corrected. We've also added one new piece of information.
The piece originally stated that British football had no referees. While this was true in the earliest days of British football, they were eventually added. We stated that referees were added to American football in response to Pop Warner. American referees existed prior to Pop Warner, in order to address brutality as well as the kind of rule-bending that Pop Warner specialized in.
Chuck Klosterman said that the three most popular sports in the US are football, college football and major league baseball. In fact, baseball actually ranks 2nd, college football is third.
Monet Edwards stated that 33 members of her family were players in the NFL. That number is actually 13.
We also added one new fact: over 200 students at The Carlisle Indian School died of malnutrition, poor health or distress from homesickness.