Hi Friends, it's a pleasure to be typing again on this spontaneous essay. I've posted about 11,000 words so far, and I haven't managed to get quite to where I hoped. It isn't that I've stumbled into topics more important than the ones I hoped to shed light on. If you're in the woods on a deer-hunting trip and you discover a dead body, obviously you should abandon your original purpose. In my case, it's as if I went on a deer-hunting trip, got coughed on, got sick, lost my party, wandered around, discovered a creek with a little falls, and just sat down next to it, and eventually put my feet in it....
That's a terrible analogy. Oh well....But earlier this year, I did sit down at the kitchen table with my mother on a trip back to Ohio. I had a pencil and a piece of paper, and with a few crude diagrams and about twenty minutes of talking, I managed to explain to her how American football was a symbolic re-enactment of the forceful, strategic, violent, and successful acquisition of the American continent from its native inhabitants by English speakers. And she understood it! Because, by grace, the ideas rolled succinctly and swiftly off the tongue. I will cling to that, and hopefully I can approximate it before I'm done here on BAP.
Trying to take that trip, though, or rather give that trip, in a more scenic, prosaic, and reputable way has proven a different and difficult undertaking. If anyone out there has found anything I've typed enjoyable or interesting at all to this point, I'm thankful, because in some ways I don't know if I've even found my way into the starting gate. Regardless, I'm going to pick up where I left off in the last post, which was in the late Roman empire. We're going to look at an idea that I call "The Gladiator Fallacy" and examine the similarities and differences between the Roman games and American football.
THE GLADIATOR FALLACY: When the fans, owners, players, and marketers of the NFL acknowledge their game as having an historical precedent, they point to the sporting tradtion of one place and time: the Ancient Republic of Rome. I don't know about you, but it makes me shiver a little as an American citizen, because the last thing we like thinking of ourselves as is the next Ancient Rome. But that's another topic altogether....
How does American football relate to the Roman gladiator tradtion? Besides the Roman numerals with which the NFL tallies its Super Bowls? Besides the fact that the NFL's logo is a war implement from a pre-gunpowder world? That's what I'm trying to figure out. "Football players are gladiators." This is something we've all heard said many times, and maybe have even said ourselves. Google managed to find this exact sentence 1,010 times in .59 seconds. And it's not only the way the players are understood from the outside by media and fans, it's the way that they understand themselves. Grappling to make sense of the suicide of retired linebacker Junior Seau, Bengals great Takeo Spikes invoked his Roman antecedents in the following way: “We are so prideful in the way people view us as modern-day gladiators, how tough we are, how we can fight through anything and keep it all inside.” There is even an AFL team called the Cleveland Gladiators.
Recently, there was a rather vivid example of the cultivation of the gladiator connection. If you are a fan of the NFL, it's likely that you saw it, as the image went fairly viral. September 11, 2014, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, one of the most ferocious players in the league, without a shred of irony, donned a metal gladiator's helmet and entered M&T stadium in a wild display of smoke and drums. For this, Suggs was fined over $5,000 - more than what he paid for the mask on a trip to Italy. As for the fine and fines like it, I find them all ridiculous, but I'll save those opinions for another day. What deserves our real attention is the way that a contemporary American crowd was effortlessly able to comprehend and contextualize Suggs' gesture. They got it, and they cheered.
So what are the similarities? In both activities, paragons of male physicality are made a spectacle. Gladiators and football players, watched by the rowdy masses, compete with great intensity at high risk, violent activities that require armor of some sort. For this high risk competition, they train vigorously - physically, mentally, and spiritually. As for the tiered, billion dollar, mostly open-air structures in which today's armored, helmeted specimens of manhood collide, they actually still go by the same Latin word they did in Ancient Rome. Football is played in a stadium. Fans view the live action from sightlines thousands of years old in their viewing distance and angles, and there is, in that, a deep connection. There is a mutually altering, energetic, and ancient relationship between the men at the center of the stadium and the men that watch in the tiered seats, and Suggs tapped into it.
But to me, this is where the connections seem to end. There is a major difference between the gladiatorial games and a game like American football. When the action commences in an American football stadium, the men on the field do not participate in the war activities of the contemporary civilization in which the games take place. And that is actually a GIGANTIC value difference. Truthfully, I don't even know what it would look like if they did compete in contemporary war activities. What would they do? The closest thing that you see to an implement of contemporary war at a football stadium is the occasional pre-game flyover, and perhaps manned bombers aren't even contemporary in this new world of computerized drones....In the Roman games, though, gladiators used the gladius, the standard issue sword of the Roman army. They protected themselves with shields. They rode contemporary war chariots around in a loop and threw contemporary Austrian manganese steel-tipped spears at one another. American football players, however, do no such thing. Nor do they face off against the wildest beasts that trade might funnel towards the empire's urban center (lions, tigers, and bears); what sort of gladiatorial tradition are we witnessing then we watch it? The participants do not even go galloping towards one another on horse-back, wearing metal armor, carrying jousting poles, in honor of the English language (ha). But rather, as said before, the players attempt to possess a prolate spheroid leather ball (of which there is only one) forward toward a goal, and they do it all within a strict set of rules which developed here in America. Yes, they do tackle one another and block one another; very hard, in fact; often tragically, life-alteringly hard. But was there ever a war that was fought by literal blocking and tackling? None that I can think of. So how can football even be referred to as a "war game?"
The answer to that is actually easy. Football is a war game in the way that chess is a war game. Both are symbolic war games. The difference is that in the game of chess, we're abundantly aware that the game is symbolic; this is because chess is entirely symbolic. To play chess requires little to no physical strain and involves little to no physical coordination. When you take an opponent's "king," ending the game, all you're literally doing is placing a plastic or wooden figurine onto a square on a checkered board, and taking a different figurine up into your victorious hand. This is very different than a defensive end slamming a quarterback into the turf, or that deadly accurate specialist, the kicker, booting a ball through the uprights as time expires.
Now, this isn't to say that American football, as a symbolic war game played out by real men, doesn't play at physical activities and capacities that aren't useful in a real war situation. Players must have the ability to run; they must have physical strength, stamina, and the ability to focus on a task despite physical pain. They must have the ability to listen to intelligence, and translate what their ears hear all through their bodies; they must have discipline, and know how their role fits into the larger scheme; they must have the ability to understand an ever-shifting situation near instantly; they must have the ability to execute specific and specialized tasks toward a common goal; they must have the ability to remain calm and focused despite the distractions of noise and nerves; they must have no small amount of courage; they must enter a different, more intense, more violent head space, heart space, mind space to succeed....However, all this alone wouldn't make football an '"iconic" war-game. American football, like basketball, ice hockey, and modern lacrosse, the three sports that descend from Native America's great war game - is a symbolic war game played out by real men. And we'll get into some of the symbolism tomorrow.
Alright, I am going to stop here. My final post will be on Sunday night, though perhaps I might be granted another post or two to try to finish some of these ideas in this forum.