The Real All Americans

Carlisle simply wasn’t a school like other schools. It was first and last a social experiment.

The Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 by Richard Henry Pratt, is a complicated part of US history in the late 19th century. It predated the infamous Dawes Act of 1889, which broke up the collectively held tribal lands, but it was part of the general theory: that the end goal of US policy toward Native Americans was to assimilate them into White Society. Pratt worked tirelessly on behalf of his students within this broad purpose, defending natives against critics who believed them incapable of being civilized.

At the same time, the boarding school in Pennsylvania took children away from their families often for close to a decade, during which time they were subject to harsh discipline and encouraged to forget their traditional ways––much to the chagrin of their parents.

Americanization at Carlisle meant a number of things: a haircut, new clothes, learning to read, write, and speak English and learning a trade. But in the late 19th century it also meant learning the game of football.

In The Real All Americans Sally Jenkins tells the story of this football team, building to its victory on the football field over Army in 1912, symbolically avenging a century’s worth of injustices.

The Carlisle football team is a fascinating subject. In the early years of football there were no set schedules, so while Carlisle was a preparatory academy where students ages six to twenty-five received an education that topped out at high-school level, their opponents were usually the colleges of the North East, including the then-powers Penn, Yale and Harvard. The Indians (as they were called) were younger and lighter, both disadvantages in a sport that, even more than today, rewarded brute size and strength.

(President Teddy Roosevelt famously forced football stakeholders to meet, installing rule changes to a game that routinely killed players. The reforms eliminated the most violent aspects of football, but in a bid to make the game survive rather than out of a concern for player safety.)

Under their most famous coach, Glenn “Pop” Warner, who arrived in 1899, the Indians hit a wave of success, pioneering an array of misdirection plays that gave the fleet-footed Indians open running lanes––plays football watchers today might be familiar with, like the forward pass and end-arounds.

Ultimately, though, it was when Warner’s coaching was matched with the athletic talents of a player like Jim Thorpe, gold medalist in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, that the Carlisle team reached its apex.

At times I thought that Jenkins got too cute with her narrative. The book begins before the foundation of the school, with Pratt’s military service fighting against Native American tribes, but ends her main narrative with its victory in 1912 over Army. After that season the team took a downward turn, driven in large part by Thorpe’s impending eligibility issues. (Thorpe, like many other players, had played semi-pro baseball during the summers, but unlike the others he had done so under his real name even though, as an Olympic gold medalist, was among the most famous athletes in the country.) The result is an unbalanced narrative designed to highlight the headlines after the game: that the Indians had finally beaten Army. The final chapter continues from that game through the end of the program, but Jenkins seems to imply that it was over after that game as Thorpe, a complicated figure, turns into almost a tragic hero.

Still, The Real All Americans is demanding of consideration. This story, as Jenkins points out, is part and parcel of the larger arc of US history in this period, both in terms of policy toward Native Americans and in terms of the rapid modernization of the country after the Civil War. The unbalanced narrative allows Jenkins to explore the prejudices of the day, making the point that while Pratt could be brutal to his charges and destructive to native customs, his racism was distinctly progressive compared to his contemporaries.

The most remarkable feature of early football that comes out in The Real All Americans is how its concerns hover over the game still. Without making the connection explicit, Jenkins weaves concerns over safety, amateurism, and the relationship between money and collegiate athletics. Carlisle’s unique position of receiving students from reservations and budget directly from the federal government sets it apart from other schools, but with football it serves as a microcosm for one concern of the modern university.

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I just started reading Marlon James’ new book, Black Leopard Red Wolf, an epic fantasy saga inspired by African mythology. I heard James give an interview about this novel and was intrigued, but it is also part of my plan to diversify my reading this year with more books by authors from Africa and of African descent, as well as more post-colonial books generally. So far the story is equal parts riveting and dizzying.

The NFL, NCAAF, Tithonus, Ganymede

I’ve been baking today, almost a week after the NCAA football championship game and the day before NFL playoffs. The baking is neither here nor there, but it has allowed my mind to wander and one of the topics I’ve been idling on has been why I like NCAA football more than NFL football, and generally why I prefer college athletics to the professional equivalent. Along the way I was struck by a mythical parallel, which I will get to in a moment.

The first issue here is why caring about one rather than the other matters in the slightest. Other than college football being the inspiration for innumerable think-pieces about the corruption of the academy, this doesn’t matter. Football has, for a variety of reasons that I will point to in just a moment, been the most contentious of these sports for academics and for the public at large and, as ESPN’s Keith Olbermann puts it some people just have a college football gene, while others do not. There is overlap in the fan bases, but NFL and NCAAF are consistently among the most popular television events in the country–not to mention that fantasy sports are a billion dollar industry that the leagues are trying so hard to get into themselves that the NBA commissioner has spoken openly about legalizing gambling on sports. The sports are popular. I grew up watching and playing sports and often find that watching sports is the only activity I can focus on at the end of a long day of writing, even if I want to read a good book. But sports are also big businesses, government-sanctioned monopolies, and, like many other big businesses, they rise above moral ambivalence into the realm of moral bankruptcy.

The popularity of both the NFL and the NCAA are really only rivaled by their corruption. The NFL has, arguably, been in the worse straights of the two over the course of the past year. There was scandal surrounding Ray Rice’s punching of his fiancé, caught on elevator video, that the NFL so thoroughly butchered in its handling that Rice could reasonably claim to be a victim; another incident with Adrian Peterson’s “disciplining” his children, the NFL 49ers relationship with local police such that one helped cover up a domestic abuse issue, which is just part of the NFL’s domestic abuse epidemic. The league has also been under fire for years for its failure to address its concussion problem and it has a collective bargaining agreement created such that the players who are literally placing their health on the line every week have only minimally guaranteed contracts. In comparison (not exactly a contrast), the NCAA allows schools to offer non-guaranteed scholarships to players and has created a business model where the schools and the institution profit from the players’ likenesses. Under the curtain of “amateurism” these players are minimally paid (though not in real money), work full-time schedules, while also being expected to be full-time students and cannot have agents or sell autographs or memorabilia without being made ineligible, which, for most, is a major hurdle to actually reaching the professional ranks and profit from the skills they spent the majority of their young lives honing.

[note: I am not here to vilify everyone affiliated with the institutions, since many, if not most, are probably funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring individuals; the same cannot be said of the institutions and what they support. To wit, the NCAA just restored previously vacated wins for a former PSU coach who was at best negligent when it came to an extended issue of child abuse.]

I am not here to debate which of the two is more moral or a better experience. People spend a great deal of time griping about the problems with sports and how much money athletes make, even though, by nearly every account, athletes in every sport make too little of the money. But why might people prefer college football to the NFL, even though the injury issues of football are the same at every level? There are many reasons, including the lack of a local professional team, but I think there is something a little more subtle, that is the difference between Tithonus and Ganymede.

Sports are considered a young person’s activity. They consist of games of physicality, conditioning and skill. Even for those physical marvels whose bodies are big, fast, and strong enough to play on the highest level, their bodies peak in their mid-twenties. Most are done with the game by their early thirties and those who played into their forties are few and far between. No NFL player has ever played past fifty. Aging curves for other activities are far different and there are only a few where the highest proportion of any age group practicing it is in elementary school–for instance, learning the alphabet. Playing sports is a young man’s game any way you cut it, and there is an almost unconscious association of those few who go pro with doing a youthful activity. The emotions of watching sports as a child also burn brighter, and it is easy to recall youthful impressions of players and have athletes as childhood heroes.

Now for Tithonus and Ganymede. Both are figures from Greek mythology and they are the two paradigms for immortality. Tithonus was the human lover of Eos (Dawn), who is immortal and therefore fearful of watching her beloved grow old and die. Therefore she appealed to Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality, but forgets to ask for eternal youth, so Tithonus ages in perpetuity and shrivels into immobile, inconstant old age, and eventually becomes a cicada. In contrast, Ganymede is abducted by Zeus and becomes the cupbearer of the gods because Zeus granted him both immortality and eternal youth. In this metaphor, the NCAA system is Ganymede, while the NFL is Tithonus, while the audience is the older figure who wants the beloved to last forever. The individual players themselves age, grow old, and retire, as do all people, but the players on college teams are perpetually youthful and it is possible to forget that the same injuries that ravage their bodies in the pro game are already taking place, but the effects don’t appear until they have moved on to a different league. New players come into the professional league, but when players leave it is because they are done with the game.

This is not a rational decision to prefer one paradigm to another, and neither is it a moral judgement, an indictment of players, or analysis of the styles of how the game is played. It is merely an attempt to articulate one of pieces of underlying infrastructure that appeals about college athletics.