In my first year of law school, the professor for my civil procedure class (i.e. the class in which you learn all of the rules of litigation) spent the whole first day going over baseball rules. The point was to show how the particular rules of a game — be it baseball or litigation — dictate not only the rules under which a game is played, but how the players approach and execute the game as well. It was a great lecture. Actually, it was the only great lecture I had in three years of law school. I wish I had taped it.
I’m reminded of that this morning after listening to ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio talk about his new book How Football Explains America in an interview on NPR. It’s audio only, and you can hear it here. Paolantonio has a lot of points, actually, but one of them is that two simple rule changes in the 1880s — the invention of the first down and the creation of the quarterback — helped create the mythology of the game, with that mythology having a lot to do with a general leading his troops in a territory acquisition exercise, which in turn lends itself pretty easily to nationalist mythologizing and all of the attendant rah-rah. Yes, I realize George Carlin observed this first, but that’s not important right now.
What is kind of important is that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that baseball’s relatively gentlemanly rules — in which no one hits each other and each side gets a sporting chance, you know — sprung up in the antebellum period while football’s war of attrition thing came up after 600,000 people died in a bloody civil war. Indeed, if you squint, you can almost see the baseball players in their dress uniforms, lined up in rows, exchanging fire, and then fixing bayonets, while the football players dig trenches and prepare for total war.
(Thanks to reader Sara K — ShysterBall’s Minister of Cultural Studies — for shooting me the NPR link)