In lieu of song today, I was struck dumb when viewing yet another grotesque injury on the gridiron (from the Canadian Football League, mind you; video of this injury is here: Deadspin).
Gridiron, or American Football, whichever you prefer, is unto the North American imagination the sport of the masses. It is a rite of passage, especially here in the US Southeast, for young men to become involved in the sport. It is explicitly intwined with the community as a whole, serves as the school’s identity, and often funds the school’s ancillary programs, such as track and field, baseball, band, &c. Insomuch, schools are identified by their ferocious mascots which are often derived from the community’s history at large. In summation, it is a uniquely cultural experience, in which one becomes inherently involved the community as a juvenile by their glory on the field. Individuals are defined by their actions on the field in the community’s imagination more than their scholastic achievements.
For example, during the Fall Term of my senior year, I ran for 120 some odd yards on 10 or so carries in a game on Friday, then woke up on a Saturday and went to Memphis and competed in a Japanese Language Competition at which I led my school to second place in the quiz bowl and placed second in the vocabulary section. In my hometown’s newspaper the next week, my picture was on the Sport Page section in black and white followed by a lengthy write up on the game’s vagaries. In the community section of the paper, my achievements scholastically were hidden in a lower right hand corner as part of a bulletined agenda. I’m sure the word count mentioning my name was far longer regarding the game.
Often for underprivileged individuals, football becomes a path to economic freedom whether by education or furthering into the professional realm. This is not to write that everyone that involves with this sport come from a poor/working class background; rather it is more common that they do when you get to the collegiate and professional levels. It becomes a way out of poverty, a means for individuals to provide for their friends and families, &c. Instead of wishing to be a scientist, a teacher, or a doctor, boys in the States often imagine that they are their favorite player, at the end of the game in the sport’s most important moment, leading their team to glory through their play. It is the American Dream personified, in other words. The football player has replaced Horatio Alger in the imagination of the country’s consciousness, where luck is measured by favorable genes, hard work and discipline. Ultimately, fans ravenously consume the sport, becoming a member in one of the professional teams’ “Nations” of fans; the same holds true of the fans of the collegiate version of the sport as those that did not attend school are able to support and be a part of the University’s body at large ; and, in the High School endeavor, the fan is often a parent and a former player whose life was often shaped by the coaching staff and who are often remembered in the community’s imagination as hero for their deeds on the field.
Further, adults spend a large amount of time and words devoted to playing each other in Fantasy Football Leagues; Universities in the US are just as much imagined by their mascots and students often attend schools off the basis of a school’s success on the field. In other words, American Football encompasses a large part of the American male’s imagination from community involvement, masculinity, enjoyment and competition. The sport’s hagiography builds transcendent athletes into heroic, warrior-like individuals whose self-discipline, training, and study of the game has brought them to the highest echelons of the sport’s gods. They are written in biblical terms at times (see Notre Dame’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and the game’s announcers often remark at how battles are won and lost, how heroes are made and broken, &c. It feels as though it occupies a space in the American sense as a form of ritual combat performed in front of televised masses of fans in a stadium. Along with the food and beer served at the games, it is a beautifully Romanesque ideal; a system that ultimately bathes itself in violence, injury, war, and organization and yet propagandizes its greatness continually. It is now the American “panem et circenses” in precisely the same fashion that gladiatorial games where the Roman masses. Instead of real lions or tigers, we play the Detroit Lions against the Cincinnati Bengals. Further, this creates an imaginative market to be filled for the vestments of the sport so that fans can self identify as members of each teams’ respective backing (wherein Marx saw religion as opium to the masses; this becomes the independent polities of the masses).
The risk/reward of the game is that the player can earn millions of dollars over a career. However, injuries like the linked video above occur, individuals that play even for a short period of time are shown to have disfiguring or debilitating injuries that affect them for the remainder of their lives. Yes, people profit off the imagery of the sport; yes, the players receive a large amount of compensation that many others, often with advanced degrees, could only hope to imagine; yes, the system works. However, what then the health of the people of this country? We send men and women to war, to fight and die in foreign lands and then compare their achievements and their sacrifices to men, dressed in full body armor, wearing their team’s heraldry, that play a game and are willing to risk injury, maiming, and shortened lifespans due to repeated head trauma. This lessens the sacrifice of those whom served in the US military; this over inflates the importance of our bloody Colosseums of which we have hundreds in this country alone.
America looks back to Rome as a point of progression in its development to the “world’s greatest country” (a fact that is very much up for debate). And like Rome, we have our game of blood, broken bones and shattered brains. We have men, who entering in their middle aged years, that are committing suicide to have their brains examined. We have men like Mike Webster that are dying young due to the chronic and repeated head trauma. We have boys in the hospital in Serious Condition due to a head injury on a play that is otherwise considered normal. Yeah, we do not question the institution. It is shrugged aside quickly: “they knew the risks when they put on the uniform.” What is even more sad is that the NFL spent more money on testing and designing their players’ armors than the US government did in sending the troops with actual armor to the front lines in Iraq in 2003.
It is Veterans Day in the US on Sunday. The ultimate irony is that it is filled with a sport that has been designed into our Arena Days, in which men take risks of maiming and injury to inflict punishment on others in the name of serving individual Nations of each team’s fans. They, like the gladiators of Ancient Rome, do this for money and prestige apart and independent of the military, facing half the risk at nearly 1000 times the compensation.