What Would John Adams Say about the Super Bowl?

If he were alive today, what would John Adams, the nation’s second president, say about the Super Bowl? Was football even a thing at the start of the United States? Surprisingly, the term football existed in Adams’ day.

Samuel Johnson defined football in his 1755 dictionary as “a ball commonly made of a blown bladder cased with leather, driven by the foot.” Football was a game played by boys and young men. The game involved kicking and teams of players.

In fact, Continental Army soldiers played football so often in and around Boston during their idle time, that Adams’ wife, Abigail, complained about it.

“This continent has paid thousands to officers and men, who have been loitering about playing foot-ball and nine pins [bowling], and doing their own private business whilst they ought to have been defending our forts and we are now suffering for the neglect,” Abigail observed in a letter to John Adams in 1777.

Nathan Hale, the famous Revolutionary War soldier who became a spy, noted in his diary that he spent his free time playing football and checkers while stationed in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1775. Hale’s friends reflected he was such a good kicker that he could kick a football over the trees.

Football was also a political term to indicate being used or tossed about by political opponents, as John Adams’ son Thomas explained. “How art thou bandied about like a football, kicked, cuffed and squeezed, until thou hast scarce breath enough left to sigh a complaint, at thy indignities!”

While in Paris during the war, John Adams compared France and England’s treatment of America to being tossed like a football.

“For my own part I thought America had been long enough involved in the wars of Europe. She had been a football between contending nations from the beginning, and it was easy to foresee that France and England both would endeavor to involve us in their future wars,” Adams wrote in his diary.

After serving as America’s top diplomat to England, Adams used the term to explain that he was an independent politician. “To be the football of faction, I never was, and never will be.”

If he were alive today, Adams would most definitely understand both political football on Capitol Hill and recreational football on television. He would love to watch both college and professional football. He would not recognize many of the rules, such as the line of scrimmage and the number of downs, because they were invented after the Civil War.

The concept of competing for a football championship in the Super Bowl would not surprise him. In fact, he would view the existence of the Super Bowl as a fulfillment of his dream for America.

Adams believed that by defeating King George III’s tyranny during the American Revolution, future generations of Americans would have more time to pursue recreational activities.

While serving as a diplomat in Paris, he avoided spending time enjoying the paintings and palaces of France because he did not want to neglect his duty.

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”

He concluded that because his generation had obtained independence for America, then his sons’ generation would build the infrastructure and systems needed to make America economically stable and nationally secure from invasion. Then his grandsons’ generation and future Americans would not have to worry about political enslavement by tyranny or economic scarcity. They could live a better life, one filled with the beauty of the arts and the pleasure of recreation. 

And football.

Writing to his 12-year-old grandson John Adams in 1812, Adams encouraged him to play football at school. “I approve of . . . your playing football, cricket; running, climbing, leaping, swimming, skating; and have no great objection to your play at marbles. These are good for your health.”

Adams would, however, expect today’s leaders, whether the leaders of the NFL, Congress or the president, to lead with integrity. In the same year that he approved of his grandson playing football at school, he worried about America’s leaders.

“I am really grieved; I am ashamed; I am confounded to read such sophistry, such insincerity, such want of candor, or want of information in such bodies of American citizens,” he wrote about recent publications coming from both parties in Congress. Their lack of candor and selfish ambition concerned him. He believed that integrity was one of the most important qualities for America’s cultural and political survival.

Like Americans today, he would want America’s leaders to be honest. He would expect integrity on serious matters, such as cases before local, state and federal judges, as much as he would expect the Super Bowl’s referees to make fair calls. America would fall back under tyranny without widespread integrity guarding against corruption.

If he were alive today, Adams would be pleased that Americans have the time to watch football. He probably wouldn’t appreciate the humor in last year’s ClickUp Super Bowl commercial, which fictitiously portrayed him as losing the latest draft of the Declaration of Independence. Though he’d probably support the Eagles because of the time he spent living in Philadelphia during meetings of the Continental Congress, he probably wouldn’t care who wins this year’s Super Bowl because Adams, a proud Bostonian, would be a Patriots fan.

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