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: players start every play by forming a line on the field, and then try to move the ball past the next line. The whole field is divided up into yard lines, and the fundamental objective of the game is to cross one really important line: the goal line.

Basketball, on the other hand, is more focused on circles: putting a rubber circle inside a slightly larger, metal circle. Instead of yard lines, the basketball court is divided up into the center circle, the 3-point line (a semi-circle), and the foul circle at the top of the key. And the players keep running around in circles, trying to get open for a pass.

Lines vs. circles—that’s a key difference between these two sports. But how do these geometric forms reflect contrasting aspects of American culture and economy?

Credit:Flckr, calaggie Tom Langston

Credit: Flckr, Sewanee Univ of South

Basically, the lines in football reflect a hierarchical model of authority. Coaches, quarterbacks, and coordinators control every play.
With masterful strategies, they coordinate the actions of a large number of specialized actors (punter, receiver, linebacker, etc.). Thus, the game is oriented around lines, which form a visual image of coordinated control, the visual counterpart to common metaphors like "stay in line" and "lines of authority" (have you ever heard anyone call it “circles of authority”?).

Basketball, by contrast, come out of a more democratic model based on spontaneous teamwork. The basketball coach cannot even intervene in most plays. Basketball is about role flexibility and fast-paced improvisation. Whereas football strictly separates the offense and defense and gives each player a specialized, single role, every basketball player shoots, passes, and plays defense. Basketball's more democratic type of play is, fittingly, more circular than linear.

Moreover, these differing geometric forms reflect the economic structures most prominent when each sport rose into prominence. Football reflects America’s hierarchical, industrial economy and military after WWII, whereas basketball emerges from the more recent and flexible information economy
. Football is modeled on a large corporation, basketball on a smaller office. But there's no need to choose between lines and circles. Just as we still have both corporations and small offices, plenty of people enjoy both football and basketball.

That's where I'd start the analysis, looking at spatial symbolism and building on previous anthropological studies of sports.

Further reading and support for the highly condensed interpretations presented here:

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.

"Green Fissures." This blog post makes an interesting, insightful point about the measuring chain in football: "The referees are just guessing where to put the ball on each down. And yet when it gets close, they bring out the chain to measure it. Everyone agrees to this practice, agreeing to this basic fundamental fraud. But this is kind of how ideology functions, with guess work and excuses. We pardon these flaws because we know that to question the error as a fraud would cripple the whole enterprise."

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: A longer version of this essay originally appeared on February 3, 2011 on, titled "Tackle This: Football as an American Ritual."

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