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Season 13 | Episode 4

American Football

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(flickr: Dewayne Neely/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Today, we tackle football. It’s the most popular sport in the US, shining a sometimes harsh light on so much of what we have been, what we are, and what we hope to be. Savage, creative, brutal and balletic, whether you love it or loathe it … it’s a touchstone of the American identity.

Along with conflicted parents and players and coaches who aren’t sure if the game will survive, we take a deep dive into the surprising history of how the game came to be. At the end of the 19th century, football is a nascent and nasty sport. The sons of the most powerful men in the country are literally knocking themselves out to win these gladiatorial battles. But then the Carlisle Indian School, formed in 1879 to assimilate the children and grandchildren of the Native American men who fought the final Plains Wars, fields the most American team of all. The kids at Carlisle took the field to face off against a new world that was destroying theirs, and along the way, they changed the fundamentals of football forever. 

Correction: An earlier version of this episode included a few errors that we have corrected. We've also added one new piece of information. 
The piece originally stated that British football had no referees.  While this was true in the earliest days of British football, they were eventually added. We stated that referees were added to American football in response to Pop Warner. American referees existed prior to Pop Warner, in order to address brutality as well as the kind of rule-bending that Pop Warner specialized in.
Chuck Klosterman said that the three most popular sports in the US are football, college football and major league baseball. In fact, baseball actually ranks 2nd, college football is third.
Monet Edwards stated that 33 members of her family were players in the NFL. That number is actually 13. 
We also added one new fact: over 200 students at The Carlisle Indian School died of malnutrition, poor health or distress from homesickness. 

The audio has been adjusted to reflect these corrections.


Sally Jenkins and Chuck Klosterman

Ghosts of Football Past

This is the story of a proving ground. Where battles slugged out in the mud helped Americans take on their biggest hopes and fears.

Comments [15]

Ghosts of Football Future

Parents, players and coaches offer different perspectives on the current state of football. And hint at where the sport might go next. 

Comments [27]

Comments [97]

Menmo from Virginia

I was sadly not surprised at this show for one fact - whitewashing, yet again, history.
Some of the commenters have touched on it and gratefully so.
This country has YET to live up to and acknowledge and take responsibility for the horrors carried out on the indigenous peoples here.
Of course it continues today with extremists in the White House - the religious fanatics want a chrisitan theocracy and will do anything and everything in their power to make it so. Including speaking some truths like this story, yes, bad things were done to the indians, and then trying to make it ok by saying they got "educated" and got to play a sport.
NPR, now also under the sway of huge Koch $ has been trodding further and further down the white daisy path as the years go by. Even today there was a story about science, supposedly one of the main interviewees was/is a presumed scientist who wrote a book about science and with a straight face/voice - total deadpan talked about how citizens have been scientific observers back to "the time of the fall". Huh?? Pardon me while I barf all over your myth! It has always been their intention to penetrate every strata of society and try to rewrite history and life in their vision. And they will fail because reality will continue to show its bright shining head to contradict the myth. Come on NPR. Get REAL.

Oct. 01 2017 02:09 PM
Jennifer Kopf from Tampa

I didn't realize today's episode was a repeat. I had a couple of very strong reactions.

The Carlisle School's intent, methods, and aftermath are horrific. I know that wasn't the focus of this episode, but it could have gotten a couple of strong sentences early in that part and a few parenthetical comments throughout. You briefly touched on the "culture wars" part of that first game, but surely there is much more that could have been said about stereotypes of Native Americans, tying into challenges today and why so many teams use Native Americans as their mascots.

Hooray for Parker! What an awesome kid, to have grasped the value of helping each other out, winning honorably rather than making your opponent eat dirt, and not taking advantage of things you can't control, like how big you are at age four. I hope he finds support in his life for his interest in teamwork and athleticism. Shame on Radiolab's reporter for shaming him. At first I thought he was just going a bit too far in not affirming anything the kid said about getting along with others, but then he actually snickered at an 8 year old boy's interest in a sport he'd never tried and said the kid was just making that up. This is a great kid who embodies so much that should be supported, and your reporter put him down for that.

Parker, if you read this, keep going <3 . There are lots of us who support you! I don't think they'd let you be on a synchronized swim team unless someone really went to bat for you, and even then it'd be hard because part of synchronized swimming is every body looking similar to make those symmetrical designs. But if you still like to swim, you could look into diving. It is hard. You have to really be in shape and have strong legs and abs, but it could be fun. Whatever you do, keep being that great kid!

Oct. 01 2017 12:25 PM

FYI, it was NOT Harvard-Yale at the start of intercollegiate football but Rutgers-Princeton. Won by the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, by the way.


Class of 1979

Sep. 30 2017 03:52 PM
Mike from Hanover, PA

Disclosure... I only listened to the first half, I couldn't care less about the modern game.
When I heard that today's show was about football, I was going to change the station over to BBC, that is how much I do not care about the game. I am so glad that I kept listening. While the assimilation of the American Indians seems like such a horrible thing today, I can only imagine that they would have lost so much more had Pratt's program not been around. I very much enjoyed hearing about the history of the game.
I live very close to the Carlisle Indian School and may look into arranging a trip with some friends.

Thank you, Radio Lab

Sep. 29 2017 08:52 AM

well this is a waste . XD

Dec. 01 2016 04:38 PM

I subscribe to your podcasts and was horrified that such a well-respected source of news and information would purposely choose not to place the boarding school era in proper context. Please review the legal definition of Genocide as set forth in the Genocide Convention. Also, you failed to do research on how our Black Hills were stolen and misled the public by stating something to the effect that sending kids to boarding school and teaching them English would have possibly prevented it. Our own parents were of the boarding school generation and suffered horrible abuses, some children to the point of death. As recent as last year, some of our tribal leaders went to Carlisle Indian School to say prayers for those children who died at the hands of their abusers at the school. Our people, those that survived the boarding school era of kill the Indian save the man, still talk of their experiences of being subjected to attempted genocide. I find it horrifying to listen to the podcast and view the photos that attempt to justify this genocide by pointing out what is an attempt at looking at the "positive" of genocide. Look at how these Indians played football seems to the the attempt at justifying the boarding school era. It's disrespectful to Indigenous Peoples who have suffered and continue to suffer the genocidal policy of the united states government to not adequately research and provide the truth. Consider if you did that for Jews who survived the holocaust - showed before and after pictures of their children and then talked about how the children who were forcibly removed learned how to run fast.

Dec. 27 2015 10:16 AM

I love the Carlisle Football episode. Does anyone know the lovely music starts from 20:00~?

Oct. 25 2015 03:55 AM
Ben W from Montreal Canada

Another great podcast!
i want to send money to you guys to keep this great podcast going but im far too broke because i am a student at university right now. If this is still happening by the time im out of this money trap i guarantee you shall be getting a pledge from me! Keep up the great work, and thanks for opening my mind all the time to these fantastic new ideas.

Oct. 07 2015 09:16 PM
Cynthia from Midtown

That former baby football kid rocked the boat, & rocked the broadcast. Brilliant truth.

Sep. 07 2015 09:06 PM
Boxcar Willie from Bend, OR

I just listened to this program yesterday and found it pretty fascinating.

While "paging down" to get to where I can leave my comment, I noticed and read some of the other comments. Without remarking about the points some were trying to make (on either side of the fence, btw) I will say that it is not reasonable to expect a 1 hour program to cover EVERYTHING about the history of American football or EVERYTHING about the history of the largely untold (in "mainstream" America) story of America's genocide with respect to Native Americans.

That said, I highly recommend that people listen to this program.

In fact, my best friend here in Bend, OR is Native American and a big sports fan (especially baseball) and I will be sharing it with him and I'm interested in his reaction to the piece.

I was surprised that no mention was made of Pop Warner's association with youth football in general (i.e.,beyond the Carlisle/Yale period study).

I LOVE the fact that Carlisle's (native) Americans beat the Yale preppies at their own game despite being outweighed across the board.

One last thought. In one of the segments there is an old recording of an announcer referring to the Carlisle kids as "redskins". I've always wondered where that term arose (and still do) but perhaps that is part of the Washington Redskins' moniker story.

OK, one more thought ... The best "scene" in the program is near the end when the Yale "Eli's" tactic of shoving potential receivers out of bounds immediately after the snap backfired when one of the Carlisle players runs behind the stands and reappears downfield to catch a ball that flew farther than anyone (other than Pop Warner and his players) could even imagine and they won the game.

Sep. 06 2015 04:22 PM
Dan Daly from North Dakota

Good to hear this story especially the way the Yale/Carlisle games unfolded. Very thought provoking. Give us more like this. Thank you for a start on our own path of investigation and learning.

Sep. 06 2015 03:38 PM
Karin from Rockville Md

Parker is a great kid. I loved his concern over his personal history and his awareness of who he wants to be. This is a kid who knows right and wrong. You go Parker, you are a wonderful human being.

Sep. 06 2015 01:06 PM
Joe Reilly from Detroit, MI

I was highly dismayed by your omission of the abuse and cultural oppression that took place for generations in Native American families and communities as a result of Indian boarding schools and General Pratt's philosophy. You present General Pratt as someone who really believed in "racial equality" yet you fail to make the connection to the detrimental harm he caused American Indian children, families, and communities.

You tell the story of Native parents voluntarily enrolling their children in boarding schools and in some cases this was true. However, in many instances Native children were forcibly removed from their families and were not allowed to see their parents for years or sometimes ever. This policy tore apart countless Native American families for generations.

You reported Native American children as receiving an "extreme makeover" upon arriving to Carlyle, completely diminishing the cultural violence that forced these children to abandon their traditional dress, indigenous languages, and their spirituality and religion. You reported about a young girl who "forgot" how to speak her language while at a boarding school but you did not tell listeners how these children were beaten and tortured for speaking their languages. You reported that hundreds of Native children died while at Carlyle but you failed to mention the history of physical and sexual abuse that plagued Indian boarding schools and deeply wounded Native American families, often resulting in the death of students. Indeed, the effects of such historical traumas, caused by General Pratt's flawed boarding school policy, continue to reverberate in Indian country today.

Finally, you failed to make the connection to the current Washington football team's racist name and logo in this story of Native Americans' historic contribution to football. Thanks to the resilience and creativity of the Native American students at Carlyle, American football was transformed and evolved into what it is today. Unfortunately today's NFL and the Washington team in particular are not able to pay true respect to Native American people as anything other than a stereotype and mascot.

Sep. 04 2015 11:31 PM
Jim D. from Edmonton Canada

I was very impressed with Parker& his mother.Wise child & mother with a sense of humour.I laughed out loud. Excellent episode!The historical part was interesting too.

Sep. 04 2015 05:46 PM
Jeremy Robinson from Virginia

I have a hard time believing that you managed to get through an extensive feature centering on football at Carlyle without a mention of Carlyle's greatest football player, and one of the greatest of all time: Jim Thorpe.

Sep. 03 2015 07:42 PM
Milton Davies from Canada

Here I am commenting knowing that the comment ever being read is unlikely due to this being an old episode.

Just to throw a monkey wrench into some of the theories bandied about in the ep.,and by some of the commenters,

Take a look at the online gaming leagues out there, then tell me society is "progressing ". In my opinion, physical exertion is the only aspect that's being left behind.

Sep. 03 2015 08:17 AM
Gary from Los Angeles, CA

Jad - "I am willing to wager that [at] the end they will care more." You sure lost that one. I am one of those Americans who dislikes and is disinterested in football. A little personal background - I am of European/American pioneer and Osage ancestry. Prior to listening to this story I had no idea how intertwined the history of football is with the genocide of my indigenous ancestors. A genocide which is ongoing, not simply historical. Now I have reason to despise the "sport". I do appreciate the education. But you sure missed the real implications of your story.

Sep. 03 2015 02:57 AM
George C from Maryland

Parker's attitude was so impressive and such a relief. My son has always been such a good athlete and never really had to deal with taunts, but I have a nephew who loves to play baseball eventhough he's had to struggle his beggining years. Some of his teammates have been a nagging hindrance and should of been an embrassment to their parents, by blatently scoffing and nagging petty beginer mistakes. With lots of practice and actually just now maturing enough to play well in his age range. More kids like Parker would be nice, if not then the future of athletics will be in trouble.

Jun. 11 2015 01:28 AM
Zach from Detroit

What is the music at 34 minutes?? So chilling!

May. 05 2015 03:48 PM
Michael from South Carolina

I know you had to push the story that Carlile invented everything about football, but how do not even mention John Heisman? He developed the hidden ball trick play that Warner used. He was the key proponent of the forward pass and probably the reason it was implemented. The 1916 game in which his team won 222-0 might have been cool to hear about.

Apr. 22 2015 10:44 AM
Jeff from Cleveland, OH

according to the forward pass had little to do with the carlisle indian school but Notre Dame.

Apr. 21 2015 05:10 PM
Hermione Grisham

I enjoy watching and playing a pick up game of football. I did assume people made this game when times where rough and did not have access to expansive and rich games that have multiple parts and pieces to equipment. I now knowing all the background and history behind the game can make me enjoy it and realize all the legacies behind it.

Apr. 14 2015 10:57 AM
Elizabeth E. Moore from FL

I don't really know much about football, but it was interesting to hear about its history. I actually didn't know that it was influenced by Native Americans. Its cool to see how what seemed like a little sport back then became the most important sport in America. Our country as a whole is affected by football.

Apr. 14 2015 06:04 AM
Elizabeth King

This podcast was actually pretty cool. I already knew a lot about football, and how it was influenced by Native Americans, but it was interesting to hear about the sport so in depth. Football has been one of my favorite sports, and when other girls don't understand the game I think its annoying. Anyways I could see why we love football so much, because inside of us all there is something a little wild, and this aggressive sport feeds that side, not that other sports don't.

Apr. 14 2015 12:05 AM
Jack from Minnesota

I would bet that the decline in interest in sports has more to do with the internet exposing kids to so many more things for them to be interested than the previous generation had access to. That's probably why so many niche hobbies are skyrocketting right now. Kids are getting into board games, dirt biking, rock climbing, etc instead.

Apr. 07 2015 12:26 AM
Becky S. Gatsby from FL

That's so cool! Football has a very interesting back history. I didn't know that the Native Americans came up with it!

Apr. 06 2015 07:22 PM
Rudyard L. Kevoac from Rudyard L. Kevoac

It's interesting to think that modern football originated from an Ivy League university. Granted, they were different than they are now, but it would be expected that more emphasis would be put on education, especially because economic inequality was more apparent.

Apr. 06 2015 02:47 PM
Ayn A Tennyson from Oviedo FL

Football has always held my interest and will continue to do so. I am not familiar with the logistics to it, but it is very entertaining to say the least. I chose this podcast in hopes to learn more about it, which I did, but not as much as I would have liked. It was a bit too technical for me, but I still did gain some knowledge about the sport and where it came from!

Apr. 05 2015 04:17 PM
Aldous t Chrichton from USA

I had no idea that native americans had an influence on american football. That is very interesting.

Mar. 30 2015 10:48 PM
Catniss J Moore

Love it or hate it, football is an American icon. During football season, families spend all of Sunday glued to the TV eating chicken wings, chips, and pizza. People get crazy into football. As the podcast said, it's "massive!"

Mar. 30 2015 04:46 PM
Jonathan from United States

Interesting, but radiolab seems to have forgotten that it is a science podcast.

Mar. 26 2015 12:18 PM
Alice H. Nash

I liked this podcast and enjoyed it because I am a big football fan, but I prefer the podcasts with more of a science base. However it is interesting how much of an impact football has on American society.

Mar. 23 2015 09:37 PM
Elie S. Totsky from Oviedo, FL

It was very enlightening and interesting, but it really lacked logos and more logical facts and arguments involved with science or statistics. Overall, great podcast though, but left me wanting more logic involved.

Mar. 23 2015 08:54 PM
Katniss K. Bond from Florida

I find it hilarious that Football, an odd and dangerous sport, is what brings Americans together.

Mar. 23 2015 06:07 PM
Mia Belanger from oviedo, FL

I love football and I loved this podcast. I didn't know the becoming of football went back into the late 1800s and the beginning of it was interesting. I think it's ironic that Pratt takes these Indains boys and put them in a boarding school and these boys begin to perfect American football.

Mar. 23 2015 02:34 PM

I enjoyed the episode, but like several other episodes of late, it had nothing to do with science. Sadly, Radiolab should be a retired as a podcast, and Jad and Robert should start a new show with a different name. Completely changing the focus of what is arguably the best podcast series ever just doesn't seem right.

Mar. 23 2015 10:55 AM
Sajtia from Australia

I enjoyed this episode. The part about kids and sports did bring to mind- WFTDA, (Womens Flat Track Derby Association). Junior Derby is on the rise as is the continued growth of adult Roller Derby. Wouldn't it be interesting if in ten years time, girls are dominating the numbers in sport?

Mar. 12 2015 08:57 PM


Mar. 12 2015 12:05 PM

Hahaha being a Radiolab producer is evidently one of the most thankless, no-win scenario jobs out there. "You didn't talk enough about sexism!" "You didn't talk enough about Native American genocide!" "You didn't talk enough about forced assimilation!" "You didn't talk enough about !"

I thought the 60 minutes they put together was pretty interesting. You could potentially go off on a billion different tangents in any given episode of Radiolab, so how about cutting the producers some slack in terms of the direction they decide to take the show?

Mar. 09 2015 03:36 PM
JenniferF from Washington DC

I was engaged by the episode but was surprised by its consistent blind spot: sexism. The episode portrayed the forced assimilation of Native Americans with some sensitivity and nuance, but completely missed the gender issue.

The episode informed us repeatedly that American men were initially, and still are today, motivated to play football because of fear that their fathers or other men would view them as "unmanly" or "feminized." A four-year-old playing Pop Warner football was directed to make other boys eat dirt and taunted not to play like a "pus***". This terminology is blatantly sexist and is rampant among football coaches: "Don't play like a girl. Don't throw like a girl. Don't run like a girl. Don't be a pus**. Don't be a fag [because fags are like girls]."

You waxed poetic mid-episode about the openness and wonder of the football field, where anything is possible, even participation and excellence by groups like Native Americans who'd systematically been oppressed and viewed as inferior. But you forgot one group that doesn't participate and is still viewed as inferior: the half of the population that is female. We play soccer, volleyball, and yes, synchronized swimming. But we don't generally play football (flag football, yes, but not the smash-mouth variety that causes all those concussions). This is likely the great appeal of football: it's the last bastion of traditional notions of masculinity, where brute force equals dominance and status.

Your interviewer was incredulous when a big eight-year-old affectionately nicknamed Tank expressed interest in synchronized swimming but didn't want to play football. Your interviewer laughed uncomfortably and wondered if the kid was messing with him. I'm surprised I have to point out the reason for the uncomfortable laughter. It's because the interviewer is from a more sexist generation than is Tank. And Tank, thankfully, is a big enough kid that he can express interest in a traditionally feminine sport without anyone accusing him of being "like a girl" or "a pus**" or "a fag."

Perhaps part of the reason youth participation in sports is declining -- if that is true -- is because kids who would rather be playing chess or cooking or creating art or writing poems aren't goaded or forced into playing by fathers who need them to "man up." Just the kids -- boys and girls -- who want to play sports, play sports. It's becoming OK *not* to play sports because it is gradually becoming OK to be a girl or to be "like a girl." It's also becoming OK not to play sports because girls play them too, so sports does not equal masculinity, and failure to play sports does not equal inferiority.

With the exception of the NFL (witness the Ray Rice incident), America is gradually becoming a less sexist culture. But we still have a long way to go, even on RadioLab.

Mar. 07 2015 10:06 AM
Micah from Jackson, MS

A really interesting tangent here - article on William Dietz that ties in with the Carlisle School and the Washington football team. Would make a great addition to a future episode, and it's just a fascinating read in general.

"On Trial: The Washington R*dskins’ Wily Mascot: Coach William “Lone Star” Dietz"
by Linda M Waggoner in Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Spring 2013

Mar. 06 2015 01:42 AM
Binh Nguyen from United States

Ignorance ass still referring native american as Indian.

Mar. 03 2015 08:52 PM
Sasha from Brooklyn

Is there anywhere that we can find the full audio of the Albert Exendine interview?

Mar. 02 2015 08:34 AM
Shane Simmons from United States

In the second half, even though I understand the coaches' frustration, I have a hard time believing that video games can be blamed. I mean, here I am, less than a month away from 40, and the NES was released when I was 10. Before that, the Atari VCS (later 2600) was released when I was 2. Coin-op arcades grew and died during my lifetime.

And yet, athletics grew.

And the cost has grown, spectacularly.

And maybe it's okay if organized sports get knocked down a few notches in school.

I think it'd make for a fascinating Radiolab: the difference in how organized sports are prioritized in the United States, vs. the rest of the world.

Feb. 24 2015 02:44 PM
Sloppy from Sweden

Between the intense necessity put upon winning, which in it self makes victory much more difficult, combined with the "importance" of a sport in the community is a very bizarre pressure to apply to any developing young child.
In meeting apex athletes there is a predominant characteristic in that they never had time for much else and as rounded human beings they are quite narrow, limited and often socially dysfunctional. Unlike other areas where people overspecialize, sports has this fanfare to support it and drive youth to seek it out. All the characteristics of child actors can be attributed to youth in sports but we choose not to view it that way.
Good for the kids to make a choice for them selves, either way.

Feb. 23 2015 05:01 AM
Mag from USA

Pop Warner is from Springville, NY not Texas...

Feb. 21 2015 04:19 PM
Klauss from Vancouver

Looks like Parker is a little light in the loafers...

Feb. 14 2015 08:02 PM
jackPineSavage from Internet

Yay for Parker!

Someone had to save that show..

I get it - Radiolab is an edu-tainment show fun for the entire family.. but you cannot bring up the Carlisle Indian School and quickly gloss over the atrocities. Focusing on just one part of the story is not all that different from a blatantly dishonest report. You guys know that.

Loved the segment with Monet and Parker Edwards though. I wish that was my kid. Parkers message is right, hurting people to win messes up your history. Right on.

Feb. 13 2015 06:43 PM

Parker - what an amazing kid!

Feb. 13 2015 12:29 PM
Larry from United States

This is why I love you guys - you can make even football interesting. You faced some great truths in this episode, especially this mind vs. the body, intelligence vs. brute force, etc. These battles always become more interesting when we can talk about how they need each other rather than which one is "better." The last guy expressed himself pretty fully, feeling and speaking into the stress between what we're "trying to leave behind" as a culture (of men trying to redefine what it means to be masculine, after most of our fathers, who loved football, wasn't around to be real fathers), and that innate thing, probably left over in our genes somewhere, that says, "Yes! I can overcome you!" Kinda reminds me of fight club.

Thanks for your work!

Feb. 12 2015 05:44 PM

It'd be nice if you posted credits for the music in the shows. What's the music at 14:06? Great work, love the show! :D

Feb. 11 2015 10:48 AM

I've always been indifferent to football, but now that I see it for the tool of assimilation of cultural annihilation that it is I think I can manage to loathe it after all. Let's be real here, there is nothing redeeming about Pratt or the pernicious part he played in the careful and thorough genocide of the Native American people.

Feb. 11 2015 02:43 AM

I enjoyed the podcast and to be honest only listened to the first portion. My only concern and comment is that Richard Henry Pratt is credited too much for that win or how the team left. He was a terrible person and the death at his school in a short 39 years is proof. Not even to mention the mental, physical, and emotional abuse young children experienced.

The reason why this was successful wasn't because these Indian kids were successfully assimilated, but because this was an opportunity to prove themselves against the people who were trying to destroy them.

Sport is a powerful tool, it removes barriers, stigmas, and prejudices. Even today, as Indian people we relish in sports, because many are still looked down upon but sport creates an even playing field, besides the referees.

Feb. 11 2015 01:28 AM
Carlos S from Salt Lake

Great episode. Now I will wait for a podcast about the real Football

Feb. 10 2015 02:37 PM
Anna Morrison from Florida, USA

This podcast was very interesting. I've never enjoyed sports, and football in general has always just simply annoyed me, especially when the entirety of the nation goes absolutely crazy for it. The world doesn't stop everything for the Tony Awards... Why should we stop it for the Super Bowl? However, I enjoyed getting this new perspective on football, and although I don't think I'll ever care for it, this podcast still proved very interesting. I just hope that in the future our society will evolve to celebrating the arts as much as we celebrate sports.

Feb. 10 2015 06:46 AM
Katniss B. Sinclair from Oviedooo

TOUCHDOWNNNNN!!! Futbol is my first choice in sports but football is my other love, even if I am a girl. This was pretty cool to listen to about how it came about and the realization that a majority of people actually dislike it. I don't think video games are discouraging athletic participation because as we learned in AP psych, correlation does not prove causation. It is a very rough sport which many think promote violence in children and is really bad. However, I have seen documentaries that it can be a very positive thing as well. It gives young men and sometimes even girls an outlet to get rid of their anger instead of releasing it in a negative manner. They have done studies, one being a local Police Department creating a football team of for the underprivileged boys by giving them an opportunity to play, and it cut down crimes in the area. I just thought that was pretty interesting.

Feb. 09 2015 06:47 PM
Veritasema from United States

Sorry, all that talk about football, college football....and NOTHING about the first college football game? Which was not played by Harvard or Yale, but Rutgers v Princeton. Rutgers won, of course. But since it happened in NJ, and a Public University won, it isn't worth mentioning. Or the fact that one of the earliest star players was Paul Robeson, Rutgers grad and civil rights pioneer.

Feb. 09 2015 12:26 PM
DaveK from Omaha, NE

I disagree with the contention that video games are causing a "decline" in sports participation among children. I'm 39 years old, so I grew up in the 80s. We played video games for hours a day, but that did not stop my generation from playing sports. Nor are video games lowering participation today. "Hitting the reset button" is an invalid explanation; if it was valid, we would have seen this 15-30 years ago, not just now.

The decline is'n in the number of children playing sports; the decline is in the number of sports children play. I'm using my observations in Omaha, which is not a huge city, but not a small town (just under 1M people in the metro); this makes Omaha generalizable to larger and smaller metro areas, although I can't claim this to be 100% generalizable. I don't have children, but I am an uncle and have many friends with children. I have observed and had extensive discussions with friends (often coaches for their children’s teams), and we see children are becoming more specialized with playing sports. When I grew up, I played every sport I could, along with all of my friends - basketball, baseball, golf, soccer, (others played football, not me), tennis, track, swimming. It wasn't until high school that I needed to choose which sports to play.

Organized sports occurred at few levels when I was a kid. My grade school had soccer starting in 1st grade. But basketball didn’t start until 5th grade. Football and track didn’t start until 7th. There were a few clubs in town, but most people didn’t join until 5th grade or later. Now, clubs litter the entire city, with opportunities for basketball, baseball, and football in 1st grade. When I was in 5th grade, we played 8 games in a season – now kids that age are playing 40-50 games or more. I went to my 7-year old nephew’s basketball game recently, at a gym with 5 courts – there were games nonstop, all day, all weekend. There must have been a few hundred kids playing those games over the weekend, from age 6-13. I hadn’t even played an organized game at his age, now they constantly play. And that is just one of many gyms like that in the city. In little league baseball, we played a dozen games; club baseball maybe gave us another 20. Now, kids are playing baseball 8 months a year, logging far more games. This means they are picking one or two sports by about 3rd grade, and focusing on those sports. The point is, kids are playing sports just as often (or maybe more) as we did in the 80s.

One other point this story missed is that there are more sports now, such as the “extreme” sports like skateboarding, snowboarding, etc. These were hobbies when I was a kid, now they are becoming organized sports.

I believe it is irresponsible journalism to assert a decline in sports participation, without further investigation. Getting a few coaches’ opinions & a freelance sports journalist isn't telling the story, it's lazy reporting. I urge a follow up on this story, Radiolab!

Feb. 09 2015 10:19 AM
Brandon from San Francisco, CA

Anyone out there know the artist or name of the song that starts around 33:50? Great tune! Thanks.

Feb. 08 2015 09:30 PM

Thank heavens for Marta from Texas's comment. It's so fascinating the way Radiolab folds into the glorification of the nation-state in many of its episodes. I understand playing it safe but that's different from whitewashing violent histories easily found through Google. There's no "balanced" story when it comes to violent histories of genocide.

Feb. 08 2015 05:33 PM
Marta from McKinney, TX

Absolutely a joke.
If you didn't play football at Carlisle the "Indian" was beaten out of you. Perhaps you didn't run across the well-documented horror stories of assimilation available pretty much any-and every-where? Check out the vinatge tiny handcuffs that accompany a story of assimilation in Indian Country's article on the topic:

The disgusting legacy of the US in it's "assimilation" programs for indigenous people shouldn't be represented with anything but the horror and revulsion it rightly deserves. That you found an "angle" to praise Pratt and Carlise makes me question the integrity and motives of your entire program.

Feb. 08 2015 03:01 PM
Claire from Washington, DC

Favorite. Radiolab episode. Ever.

Feb. 08 2015 02:37 PM
jr from Brooklyn, NY

I was so inspired by the 8 year old boy, Parker "the tank." I have never heard an eight year old be so self-confident, articulate, and self-aware. I congratulate his mother for letting him be an individual, and follow his own path. He's an inspiration to kids everywhere who are being forced by their parents into doing things that they don't believe in or want to do.

Feb. 05 2015 07:32 PM
baba from Los Angeles

The second half of the story was BS. Football has been around for decades and concussions are an issue now?
I believe this all stems from the story on "Real Sports" regarding NFLs greed and not helping retired players with chronic health issues.

Former players get depressed because they had to give up something they love and from withdrawal.

If this was more about busted knees, then that would be more believable.

Feb. 05 2015 06:35 PM
John V from Chicago

This episode struck a chord for me - I played football from 5th-10th grade, and during that time I was all about it. Today, at 31, I don't watch a single minute of televised sports, nor do I care to. But I wouldn't trade my "sports years" for anything because of the benefits I still enjoy to this day. As brutal and intense as being on a football team can be, I believe that it left me with a thick hide and a deep appreciation for honest feedback and correction. Right now, you couldn't hurt my feelings if you tried (ok, you could, but you would have to try really hard). It's not because football left me jaded or scarred, but because it imbued me with a strong, free-standing self-esteem and a thirst for self-improvement. Growing up, I noticed something common among friends of mine who never played contact or even organized sports: they all had extremely fragile egos (some still do). Once high school started, it was clear that I was quickly becoming outclassed by those giant classmates of mine who were committed to going all the way with football, so it was an easy decision to stop. But, for the sake of my thick hide, I am grateful that I was pressed into contact sports as a child, and I suspect I'll be doing the same for my kids.

Feb. 05 2015 01:54 PM
Mark G from Chesterton, IN

"Messing with my history" Love it! I hope it goes 'viral'. Not much into football, though. Or opera, too much ridiculous vibrato.

Feb. 05 2015 10:18 AM
Chris Parker from Nanaimo, BC, Canada

You guys left out the part where McGill University (Montreal, Canada) introduced the precursor to the modern version of football to Harvard. Prior to the McGill/Harvard game in 1874, Americans played with a round ball (instead of the modern rugby-like ball). Canada also introduced touchdown-style scoring to Americans, as well as some other innovations. We still play with 3 downs up here in the great white north ;) We also had the horrific national experience with what you referred to as "Indian campuses" (but which we call "Residential Schools"), and we still are going through the healing process and coming to terms with the damage that was done to our First Nations.

Feb. 04 2015 05:49 PM
Alex from Vancouver, CA

Thank you guys for this episode (and ALL the wonderful episodes of Radiolab)! I had no clue about this element in the history of American Football.

After listening to the second part of the episode in which coaches around the country blame video games for lower rates of participation in America, and the drop in team sports application rates, it makes me wonder whether there are other explanations for that. Specifically, I'm wondering whether team sports in America may be dropping in favor of individual challenges like marathons and obstacle courses. In terms of my own social group (mostly mid-20s to 30s), I've seen what I believe to be a dramatic increase in friends running marathons and going into such obstacle course events (i.e. Tough Mudder, Viking Run, etc.). I believe these could be replacing the team sports culture of the past in favor of something that still offers a physical fitness culture and achievement but without the same kind of hyper competitiveness and what I presume to be less injuries.

Thanks again! :)

Feb. 04 2015 02:53 PM
Brad from Kirkland, Washington

+1 on Tom from Virginia's comment. The piece over dramatizes many aspects of the game that were simply evolutions of the more popular sport at the time: Rugby. In fact, the USA holds the most gold medals in Rugby! We won in both 1920 and 1924 and then it was dropped only to return next year in the 2016 Olympics.

Rugby balls were (and still are) thrown as spirals in a line-out in rugby. Not as far or dramatic as a long spiraling football, but still spiraling a football was not a new thing and had little to do with airplanes and hot air romantic as that sounds. I've even played against teams who would send 'receivers' down field only to have another player kick them the ball.

Rugby is one of the fastest growing sports in America today...but don't hold your breath on another gold metal in Rio. Too bad that didn't crop into the piece as you talked about declining participation in team sports.

Feb. 03 2015 10:56 PM

This was actually my least favorite episode of Radiolab, 1.10 hours of meh.

Feb. 03 2015 10:45 AM
Desiree from Park Slope, Brooklyn

This is one of, if not THE BEST EPISODES OF RADIOLAB I've ever experienced. I went through every possible emotion listening to this show. Thanks to everyone on the team for this wonderful journal. I'm just blown away. Just brilliant all around. Well done!

Feb. 03 2015 08:14 AM
Zach from St. Louis

I played football in HS and suffered a couple of concussions. Knowing what I know now, I would have not played.

The second part of this story was revolting. Clearly Monet sees the effects of what is going to happen to her own son in another relative, a fate of an early demise, and yet she roots for this future for her son. There's apparently too much "Koolaid" going around at those family parties. You can advocate for everybody else under the sun, but if you don't do it for the people closest to you, it's a hollow gesture at best. I wish nothing but for this kid to be a synchronize swimmer and really win, not the kind of ugly "winning" that Monet wants. Congratulations to Monet for laughing at her kid's true desired sport and to Soren for underminding it as something that is not on the same level as football, you guys are some true sports fans.

Feb. 03 2015 05:46 AM
Elie S. Totsky from Oviedo, FL

It was very interesting hearing about how football became so embedded in American culture. It is interesting how it came about through Native Americans and the impact of these events that would eventually effect a culture such as America. Also, I would have never thought that Ivy league schools would have a great effect on football either, especially since nowadays, their football programs aren't the most revered amongst the college football powers.

Feb. 02 2015 10:35 PM
Toni J Wilde from Savannah, Georgia

Coming from a family that lives and breathes football, never did I once imagine that the orgin of it came from Native Americans. Growing up I always knew they came up with various sports and hobbies that have further modernized in today's society, but not football. Hearing this podcast was very interesting to me. Also I never knew that the Ivy League schools had such an impact of football since they aren't very popular for those schools now compared the the schools in the SEC and Big Ten.

Feb. 02 2015 10:33 PM
Oscar Rosseau

Despite playing football for a long time, I don't really know much about its history. It was really cool to hear the effect that the Native American team had on football. Its interesting how football was a leveler, and helped them to fit in. It is always sad to hear how we destroyed the Native culture.

Feb. 02 2015 09:07 PM
Catniss J. Plath

It's crazy how much football is embedded in America's history. We spend so much time, money and energy supporting a sport dating back to the 1800's. I would never have thought that Ivy league schools such as Harvard had such a big factor in the origin of football.

Feb. 02 2015 06:03 PM
Abraham from Boston

Thank you for your beautiful podcast. I was, however, disappointed when the interviewer laughed at young Parker's honest and thoughtful answers to his questions. I expected him to validate Parker's genuine feelings, rather than making fun of them and redirecting everything back to "but WHY don't you want to play football?" The topic of the podcast became more important, in that moment, than the uniqueness of the individuals telling the stories. I imagine that Parker was "exhausted" by the end of the conversation because he was talking to people who were not open and curious to understanding who he actually was. He struck me, through the radio, to be a brilliant, courageous, and free-thinking child.

Feb. 02 2015 05:02 PM
Antonia Neruda from Florida

This is an interesting experiment they did on the Indian children. They stripped them from their culture and assimilated them forcefully. The Indians need to learn how to deal with the white man. Football came from the Indians. Today's football is very different from the earlier times of football. Football is looked at as a manly and conservative sport, but it is actually the opposite. Football is the biggest in enterprise. Football is constantly evolving. It is altered to make the game more aggressive. This Npr wasn't too bad.

Feb. 02 2015 03:57 PM
Sarah Angus from Michigan

This jumped forward and back a few times and cut out the ending. Is it just my mode of listening?

Feb. 02 2015 03:15 PM
chim chambley from United States

Remember when this show was about science?

Feb. 02 2015 05:39 AM
Paul from Ohio

You should have mentioned Jim Thorpe, recognized as the greatest athlete of the 20th century. He was the star of the Carlisle football team and later medaled in the 1912 Olympics.

Feb. 01 2015 11:13 PM
Justin from United States

American Football: Does RadioLab even know what happened at Carlisle Indian School?
@Radiolab #SuperBowl #NativePride

Feb. 01 2015 04:29 PM
JJ from Boston

Loved the episode, as usual! Interesting to think about my own childhood experience with contact sports, which were integral to my development as a person. Competitive sports taught me about camaraderie and honor, but most importantly they were an invaluable mental exercise. Learning to overcome my physical limitations with hard work and pure willpower gave me confidence and served me well in every other area of my life. Maybe kids shouldn't play their parents' football, but the shrinking of athletic programs should concern us. If administered correctly, sports are less about brutality and more about finesse - using your physical and mental strength to best your opponent without fouling him.

Feb. 01 2015 04:28 PM
Andrew Bernstein from Charlotte, NC

You guys did a podcast about football and never spent any time truly talking to the players and why they love the sport. You completely missed it. People watch football for all kinds of reasons. Players play because there is no sport that is more about team. Even with all the superstars, they can't do their job if the other 10 on the field do theirs. 11 players working together to score or prevent scoring... the hard work off the field, the fellowship, the common goal, its all a part of it... The idea, at every level, that each season starts brand new and anything is possible. The concept that I am as only as good as my teammates trust... You missed all of that. Why is football so much more popular then the rest? Because you might know the QBs and the RBs and the LBs... but the real lovers of the game know they are successful because of what the OL and DTs does.
Next time, talk to those who played the game and love it... you might understand something you missed.

Feb. 01 2015 01:02 PM

I will start of this comment by saying that I am definitely anti-football. This makes me a disappointment to my parents but oh well, too bad. The games have too much standing around, too many commercials and why the hell does there need to be 5 and a half hours of pre-game before the super bowl? That is just absurd.

HOWEVER, you all did a wonderful job at finding a great story. It is a tragedy that so many Native Americans were forced into assimilating and to them it was seen as the only option left. This podcast shows that they were able to transform football and were more than able to hold their own. The school had a fantastic team and while they may have earned the respect of anyone that saw them play, there is still a team with the horribly offensive name of "Redskins". I know that systemic racism cannot be conquered with merely an exceptional football team but still, in the context of this story it makes it even more disreputable.

Feb. 01 2015 12:16 PM
shaun from scotland

I might have misheard but I think there was a claim that the superbowl is the most watched sporting event. World Cup final's attract much higher audiences, even the UEFA Champion's League final gets more i think.

Jan. 31 2015 10:23 PM
BHerman from United States

The Tax Exempt status of the NFL need to be revoked.
It is an industry not a club.

Jan. 31 2015 09:36 PM
Geekoid from United States

A group of people want to blame video games for change instead of looking at the game.

Surprise, surprise.

Surely it's not becasue Football cost 100's(if not thousands) of dollar a season, or parents not wanting to watch there children get set up for brain damage, or that it's just a money churning uncaring industry, or the people are sick of football players getting and easy ride, or any number of other things.

Maybe you should talk to actual scientists and statisticians that don't have a emotion bias they refuse to admit?

Jan. 31 2015 06:42 PM

I was hoping to hear in your story why the American game is still called football. Perhaps Mr. Rosenblatt knows. The American game, from what I've watched, is so far removed from its name. I can only imagine while the rules were evolving, evolving the name was not even an after thought. Funny that it never occurred to anyone [?]. So here I am still searching for that answer and meanwhile learning more about this game.

Jan. 31 2015 05:29 PM
RL Mays from United States

Loved it for all of the possible reasons!

Jan. 31 2015 04:10 PM

That was one of my favorite Radiolab episodes I've ever listened to! I am not a fan of football. Never have been and probably never will. But hearing the back story puts it all in perspective. I had a pretty entrenched opinion about the name of one east coast football team. That opinion has softened a bit now that I have some historical context.

The second half was my favorite! I nearly fell off my chair when that kid announced that his interest in football was evolving into an interest in synchronized swimming! That kid is going to be one either one of the most revered football players, a great comedian, or the harbinger of national shift of interest from football to aquatics!

Well done, Radiolab!

Jan. 31 2015 10:31 AM
Julian Lloyd from Calgary, Alberta

I liked the reading the woman did better than the one at the end.

Jan. 31 2015 05:34 AM
Trot Nixon from Maine

According to the sports information dept. at Harvard, one plan for addressing the epidemic of college football deaths was to expand the width of the football field to 100 yards. The rationale was that the game would become more lateral and instead of relying on brute strength to smash the ball up the middle, teams would begin to favor faster, sleeker players who would use speed to get around the brawny players. Blows would be more glancing and fewer collisions between players would be head-on.

The dimensions of Harvard Stadium at Soldiers Field (newly constructed when this debate raged) were roughly approximate to the dimensions of the 1st Olympic stadium in Athens, Greece and adding an additional 50 yards to the width to the field would mean the Harvard Crimson would need to abandoned their state-of-the-art stadium.

Harvard's representatives in this debate chose to support the plan to adopt the forward pass which, of course, became one of the accepted rules changes to try and make football a bit safer.

Jan. 30 2015 08:23 PM
Kathleen from SC

Fascinating.I learned so much.

Jan. 30 2015 07:54 PM
Melissa Hall from Denver, CO

I'm not trying to sound like I am THE coolest nerd slash jock around, but it is obvious to me why none of the folks who showed up to the park for your show are anti football. I dated way too many San Francisco hipsters who loved to 'play sports' but not 'watch them'... eye rolls eye rolls eye rolls.

Jan. 30 2015 07:07 PM
Tom from Virginia

Really interesting episode, but to the extent that it seeks to suss out the origin of football, it ignores the really formative years when European football (soccer), rugby and American football were all the same game, being played in Britain. Take a look at David Rosenblatt's "The Ball is Round," which goes into a lot of detail on this, including dates and events in the mid- to late- 1800's.

Other than that, just fantastic work.

Jan. 30 2015 05:06 PM

Great episode, but you know the accompanying photo is between two Canadian Football League teams, right?

Jan. 30 2015 03:40 PM

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