In his 1967 novel Why Are We In Vietnam?, Norman Mailer searches for answers to that vexing question in northern Alaska, in Fairbanks briefly and then in the Brooks Range. The compass needle pointed that way, Mailer's protagonist reasons, so some secret truths must be hidden there.
A specious thesis, perhaps, and yet I thought of the novel as I sat in Fairbanks recently contemplating a new question weighing on the American conscience, that being what is to be done with football, our true national past-time, as we come to terms with the fact that it kills its players and maims many of the women who stand too close to it. The headlines are coming so fast these days that it's hard to keep track of which college program covered up which rape allegation; which running back has pleaded not guilty to which domestic violence charge; which former star now says they have trouble finishing sentences on account of brain injuries.
Which brings us back to Fairbanks, a gold-rush town hacked out of a wide expanse of spruce and birch forest just south of the 65th parallel. This year, four high schools in the area became the latest in the country to offer girls football as a varsity sport. As opposed to the inherently diminutive “powder puff” games played by girls across the nation as one-off fundraisers, or even worse the lingerie football games played by buxom women in Seattle, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, these girls come out for an entire season, seeking to play the game for its own sake. It's flag football, meaning that as opposed to tackling each other to bring ball-carriers to a stop they try to strip pieces of plastic from each other's belts. But anyone who thinks that rule change renders the players on the field any less earnest and determined is allowing the subarctic winds to get to their brain. Nor does it make what's happening in Fairbanks irrelevant to football in general. On the contrary.
Last season, only 30 U.S. cities offered flag football to middle and high school girls. Nine thousand girls earned letters playing flag football last year, putting the sport on par with high school nordic ski racing in terms of participation. By comparison, five times as many kids earned their letters bowling. But it is growing, and Anchorage became a trailblazer for the fledgling game when it started a program nine years ago, which played a large roll Alaska's second-biggest city taking it up this year. Alaska is perhaps an unusual place for girls football to take hold. The flagship university in Fairbanks doesn't have a football team, nor do some of the high schools. On account of that fact, Fairbanks' Hutchison High School this year had a girls football program with no boys counterpart. Or perhaps it's a natural place for it to take hold, since there isn't an ironclad Friday-night-lights football to contend with. Either way, taken hold it has, complete with press coverage that lands football heaving gals on the front page of the local News-Miner's sports page.
At one game, huddling in some aluminum bleachers against a biting westerly wind that made Sept. 30 feel like something most of the country would recognize as winter, Keith Daniels couldn't quite explain why his daughter was out on a football field at the moment. She'd been a competitive rifle shooter the year before—got silver in the borough for her category—but gave that up when she learned she could play football instead.
“It's not like Texas, where football is a religion,” he said. “That's hockey here. But I think it's great.” Then he chucked. “Now I just have to sell the gun.”
Talking to Daniels and other parents during the first matchup I watched, it was clear I was the only one who saw anything of a national zeitgeist on the field, any kind of refutation to anyone who would exalt or deride football as a final redoubt of American masculinity. Just girls having fun, being competitive, testing themselves against their opponents. Nor did they see significance in the pronounced lack of violence on the field, the way the flag-football rules make the game less damaging while retaining its core. Just happy their girls are safe.
So when I watched a second game, I only watched and let the parents continue on in their conversations about how dressing the year's moose was going (it's going good). The game was the season's last for both teams, and according to their records it was the best (West Valley) against the worst (Hutchison). The final score would bear the records out, but it was by no means bad football on either side of the ball. Because flag-football makes it easier for the defense to stop a player, it's imperative that routes put distance between the ball carrier and the defense; it becomes a game of speed and agility, not strength and grit. What this means for the spectator is far fewer plays that end in indistinguishable scrums in the middle of the field as half backs claw for a few yards and more thrilling sweeps, double-reverses and deep passes. For all their troubles this year, the Hutchison girls executed a beautiful flea-flicker (a deception play in which three players handle the ball) for a touchdown, and West Valley completed three passes for more than 30 yards.
It was during the game I thought of Mailer's book, his protagonist sitting on a high ridge looking out upon the clean and stark Alaskan wilderness and contemplating the American soul. The book is successful in its exploration of the Vietnam question for the very reason that it doesn't mention Vietnam until the last page. It draws a picture of the issue by dealing in the negative space around it--what fears American leaders hold deepest, what dreams the boys who'll go to die in the jungle keep most secret. That is where the war lay, Mailer suggested. Likewise, I felt the brain traumas and misogyny and all the other scandals of football come to bear during West Valley vs. Hutchison, their absence helping me to understand their roll in the game all the better--that role being one of tumorous growths which those who love the game most inexplicably fight against removing. And as another long bomb was hurled by West Valley's quarterback, it cut through the artificial lights burning against the autumn dusk, and football continued on the near-frozen pitch just south of the 65th parallel.