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MythBlast | The War of Sport

BY Bradley Olson February 4, 2019

An Eagles fan celebrates as confetti falls on the field at Super Bowl LII, Minneapolis MNThe theme for the month of February at JCF is love, and February, with Valentine’s Day at its heart, is certainly the month to celebrate love. But there is another event every February that Americans love with an unrivaled intensity: The Super Bowl®. It is anticipated that somewhere around 115 million Americans, nearly one out of three, will watch as the Patriots and the Rams face each other on the field of battle this Sunday, the third of February.

How mythically laden was that last, apparently innocuous sentence? The associations constellated by the idea of Patriots, those who fight nobly and fiercely to defend and preserve their society and its ideals, its way of life, arise almost reflexively. Then there are the Rams, an animal familiar to many mythologies. The agile, sure-footed, powerful, even explosive creatures were the models for the battering ram which, Pliny tells us, was first used at Troy.  And finally, it all takes place on a Sunday, the day traditionally set aside for religious worship in this predominantly Christian nation.

We ignore the archetypal influence the names of things have at our peril; could the ship christened the Titanic have suffered any other fate than the one invited by a name that Greek mythology associates with hubris, short-sightedness, and eventual consignment to a deep abyss (Tartarus)? Likewise, it’s hard to imagine the Tennessee Titans ever being know as “America’s Team,” or establishing a winning Super Bowl record.

The NFL insists, by the way, on calling the championship game Super Bowl LIII because Roman numerals call to mind the Olympic Games, thereby aligning the American football championship with a more venerable and myth-laden event; such a linking to tradition is one of the central functions of ritual. Another function of a ritual is its ability to transcend the mundane, prosaic world and transport one—through actions, words, images, or sounds—to a contained, metaphorical world which makes intuitive sense, has discernible order and rules, and offers up its delights. Still another quality of a ritual is its power to draw people together, creating a sense of community and shared purpose. There can be no doubt the Super Bowl is a powerful, wildly popular secular ritual.

America Football (photo: public domain)
American football: in the trenches (photo: public domain)

I think that it isn’t too much of a reach to compare American football to warfare. Football has air attacks, ground attacks, blitzes, long bombs and bullet passes, and defensive and offensive linemen battle each other in the trenches. Teams wear distinctive uniforms augmented with a kind of armor, they enter the field to stimulating music and partisan encouragement, and they publish weekly casualty reports identifying their fallen comrades. Developed in the late Victorian age, American football — especially college football — was seen as a way of maintaining in young American men a military readiness in times of peace. It was also the case in the 19th Century, that war itself was often treated as a spectator sport. While it may seem strange to modern sensibilities, during the Civil War it was a popular activity for people to pack enough food and drink for the day and venture near to the battlefield, find a comfortable spot with a reasonable view, and take in the battle as though one was witnessing an athletic event.

Heraclitus noted that Polemos, War, is the father of all things, and in that formulation we find our fascination with it. Heraclitus knew that war makes some individuals free and others slaves, constitutes individual and national identities and alliances, restructures economic realities, and demythologizes and destroys some cultures while reinvigorating and enshrining others. Distinguishing oneself on the field of battle was once a time-honored pathway to success and glory in public life, especially for those not lucky enough to be born aristocrats. War has a strong appeal to the atavistic and tribal aspect of the human unconscious, and the ritual of warfare has so far been impossible for humans to dispense with. It’s influence expresses in sport, albeit in an attenuated and domesticated form, yet it still possesses the power to excite shadowy and pitilessly brutal impulses.

In contemporary life the paths to success, social distinction, fame, and wealth are still far too few for far too many, and risking one’s health and later cognitive function playing a punishing sport may seem to be a reasonable wager.  Gruesome damage to the body and the brain (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) remains disconcertingly frequent in football. Despite the fact that sometimes shocking violence has not been entirely eliminated from the game—deaths, regularly numbering in the double digits during the years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are unlikely now—it’s hard to imagine what ambitious first-round draft pick, young and soon to be wealthy, hungry for success in the NFL, would pass up a chance at glory. They would, I am sure, understand Achilles’ reasoning on the plain of Troy: “If I hold out here and lay siege to Troy my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies” (Book 9, The lliad).

Thanks for reading,

America Football (photo: public domain)

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