Life just got better for millions of Americans. The badly paid semi-professional scholar-athletes begin their campaigns this weekend at college campuses around the nation. The extravagantly paid mercenaries of the NFL begin theirs next. Are you ready for some football?! Of course you are. Our corporate overlords wouldn’t have it any other way.
Bread and circuses has been a winning strategy for centuries. Give the people pizza and a spectacle. And some beer. All the niggling, disturbing, troublesome stuff – like, say, social justice – suddenly seems a little less important, especially when our collective frustration and urge to act out violently is manifested in brilliant HD color and sound. Dress it up with sexy cheerleaders (a funny word for bodacious dancers working without a pole) and garnish with a generous dollop of faux patriotism. The Roman emperors would approve.
Some of us understand how propaganda works. Some don’t. When it comes to football, the distinction is irrelevant. No one cares. C’mon, it’s football!
Because of football, I can write the books I care about. I can give away or donate most of my work. I can devote hours a day to an organic vegetable garden, non-commercial original music, and a Website focused on the decidedly un-remunerative art of the essay, all because of football.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m grateful for football any more than, say, handguns, cigarettes, or casinos. Call me a hypocrite, an ingrate, a fool. (Guilty on all three counts, probably.) Despite strenuous efforts to present the sport as a breeding ground for heroes and leaders, I’m here to remind you that football is a horrible, exploitative sport that underscores much of what’s horrible and exploitative about our country. Sorry, Raiders fans.
Football is a myth-laden, symbol-strewn, impressively sophisticated mechanism to fetishize and sell stylized violence. Since violence, especially the carefully choreographed kind that translates well to film and video, is one of our essential cultural fascinations, football is our most powerful tool to peddle alcohol, automobiles, the armed forces, erection pills, and salt-sugar-fat bombs masquerading as food.
Also, to desensitize viewers to injury and pain.
And to foster fake provincial loyalty and genuine jingoism.
To tacitly encourage gambling while simultaneously calling for its abolition.
To celebrate bullies and denigrate victims.
To define manhood and Americanism through a warped conception of courage.
To treat head trauma as just another day at the office. To contradict the comforting nostrum that everyone in America should get a good education.
Football is a kind of pornography for those uncomfortable with nudity. Unlike gang-bang videos and naughty Web-cams, fellas can enjoy this brand of porno in public and in large groups, with their best buds. There’s no shame in watching football (or any other sport in which the object is to hurt the opposition), no shame in caring deeply about the results, even though they’re as irrelevant as a random cumshot. Football is an American sacrament, as acceptable as belonging to a church congregation or cultivating an emerald lawn.
On the one hand, no responsible parent should allow his child to engage in such a blatantly harmful activity. On the other, no responsible parent should allow his child to be a societal outcast. So we silently agree as good Americans to gather round the football fueled campfire and sing paeans to the Packers and the Patriots (the Bellicheckian kind). We celebrate the athletic exploits of our juiced-up combatants, buy the toxic crap we’re being sold, and adamantly insist it’s all in good fun, an elaborate theatrical spectacle that honors our disciplined work ethic and determined national character.
Let us commence then to our weekends-in-autumn tradition. Let the games begin. But maybe in between the instant replays and Budweiser commercials and scoring updates and supporting the troops watching the contests via satellite, we’ll have a moment to be honest with ourselves. Maybe we’ll admit that every society needs its gladiators upon whom its obsession with violence can be projected, and that the colorfully clad warriors banging into each other are the convenient repositories for our darkest thoughts.
As they say here in Southern California: Fight on!