Football vs. Basketball as American Rituals

To understand the cultural difference between American football and basketball, we need to look at their underlying geometric forms.

Football is all about lines: lining up on lines, measuring lines, making it past the next line. The fundamental objective of the game is to cross one really important line: the goal line.

Basketball, on the other hand, is all about circles: putting a rubber circle inside a slightly larger, metal circle (the ball and the hoop). Instead of yard lines, the basketball court is divided up into circles: the center circle (which contains a circle within a circle), the 3-point line (which is a semi-circle), and the foul circle at the top of the key. Not to mention all the players running around in circles, trying to get open for a pass.

Lines vs. circles—that’s the key difference. If Rembrandt sketched these sports, he would start by drawing lines for football and circles for basketball.

Credit: Flckr, Chess REO
Credit:Flckr, calaggie Tom Langston

And then there are the outer layers, the uniforms. 

In football, players dress in Superhero outfits.

In basketball, players dress in beach clothes.

In other words, the level of formalism and type of heroism are also important differences between the two sports.

Credit: Flckr, Sewanee Univ of South
Credit: Flckr, familymwr, Tim Hipps

So how do these micro, ritual aspects of football and basketball reflect different aspects of American culture? 
Basically, football reflects a hierarchical model of authority. Coaches, quarterbacks, and coordinators control every play. Basketball comes out of a more democratic model based on spontaneous teamwork. The basketball coach cannot even intervene in most plays.

Football is about masterful strategies, specialized roles (punter, receiver, linebacker, etc.), and strict lines of authority (have you ever heard anyone call it “circles of authority”?). Basketball is about role flexibility (every player shoots, passes, plays defense) and fast-paced improvisation.

Football comes out of America’s hierarchical, industrial economy and military strategizing, whereas basketball emerges from the more recent knowledge economy. Lines and circles.

It’s not just about political economy, however. Basketball, with its sweaty players in bathing suits, matches the growing informality and bare-all impulses of post-1960’s, mass media culture (casual Fridays, confessional memoirs, reality TV, Facebook, etc.). An ethos of social openness also plays a role. Circles are more associated than lines in American culture with equality and togetherness. Not coincidentally, basketball, the Circle Game, has skyrocketed in popularity at the same time that there’s been a push toward greater multiculturalism and gender equality.

Circles and lines. That's where I'd start the analysis.

For further reading:
Arens, W. “Professional Football: An American Symbol and Ritual.” In The American Dimension, Arens and Montague, eds., Alfred Publishing, 1976. A wonderful, early anthropological essay on football, with insight into things like football’s resonance with labor specialization in postwar America.

Carlin, George “Baseball vs. Football.” Carlin’s famous stand-up comedy routine is funny, insightful, and another source of inspiration here.

Geertz, Clifford “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” In The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973. An extremely influential example of interpretive anthropology’s method, though, curiously, it never led to as many anthropological studies of sports as you might imagine.

Mandelbaum, Michael The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do, Public Affairs, 2005. Mandelbaum is a professor of foreign policy, and also the son of the late, great anthropologist David Mandelbaum, a fact that becomes apparent in the anthropologically-minded sections of the book where he relates sports to underlying economic structures.

Sutton, David, and Peter Wogan Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies, Berg, 2009. Many of the ideas in this post emerge from our chapter on “Field of Dreams,” where we focus on baseball, lines, and social control.

Wogan, Peter Magical Writing in Salasaca: Literary and Power in Highland Ecuador. Westview, 2004. Researching and writing this book about Ecuador first got me thinking about lines as social control,  especially lines in written paper.

Note: This essay originally appeared on February 3, 2011 on, titled "Tackle This: Football as an American Ritual."

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