Sunday, December 4, 2016

American football could fall like the gladiators of ancient Rome - Note for a discussion, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United."

image from article

Mary Pilon,; via GG on Facebook

JB comment:  Blame me for having spent part of my adolescence in calcio-mad Rome (58-62) -- well, ok, Romans never really got over their gladiators: I'm a sucker-soccer [see], rather than American football fan; and I kicked the ball (by definition round) in high school (sometimes it went into the other team's goal), never in my younger snobby St. Paul's prep-school years having touched that strange prolate spheroid humongous helmeted players fight over in the land of the free. I do occasionally watch professional American football on Tee-Vee, if only to have something to talk about with my fellow U.S. citizens; but what strikes me about this brutal contest of modern-day gladiators is:
(a) the violence;
(b) the number of injuries endured by players (BTW, I've advocated for years renaming the Washington Redskins [a politically incorrect designation] the Washington Concussions);
(c) the incredible number of "yellow flags" dumped on the playing field by referees (how many, how many of them are there?) for improper player behavior/breaking of incomprehensible protocol; time for "sponsors" to pedde their adds on Tee-Vee?;
(d) the multitude of equipment-loaded, gum-chewing coaches (guys -- I feeeeeel for 
you)  on the sidelines (perhaps its most striking difference with professional soccer, with its relatively small coaching staff present during games; do some of these "foreign" coaches chew gum? Doubtless they do, but somehow manage to keep their jaws  -- pardon the word -- "cultivated");
(e) it's not really a game that allows much inventiveness by the players, but a military-style operation directed/planned to the last, most, like, oh-so-boooring, detail. (On Tee-Vee, many of the ads for NFL contests are supplied by the Pentagon). Sure, there's some spontaneity in football when things "go wrong" -- but its modus operandi is TOTAL CONTROL of automatons (ok, too strong a word) executing pre-planned plays (I will not pass judgement on NFL [National Football League] football being a modern form of USA slavery, when slaves were "bought" and "sold" -- like today's NFL players, given  [or, better said, from the perspective of Amercica's racial "issues" [Warning to foreigners; "We don't have racial "problems"in the USA, just "issues" ... well, ok :).] Among American modern slave-sports (today called "entertainment"), I much prefer the far more free-wheeling basketball ... ;
I often wonder why American football -- unlike many other aspects of U.S. popular culture -- has not really caught on overseas ... well, who knows? Maybe one day there will be a Brazilian and even Italian team in the NFL (by then renamed International Football League), IF PRESIDENT TRUMP WILL ALLOW IT.

When I called my father back home in Oregon on a recent Sunday, he rattled off his thoughts about the election, the health of his two dogs and queries about holiday plans. But, as the child of a sports-loving house (Go, Ducks!), I was most surprised by what my dad wasn’t talking about on Sunday — football.

He’s not alone in his waning interest. This season, ratings for professional football are down 27 percentacross all of the major networks: ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS, according Forbes. The decline in the ratings underscores a bigger truth that no one wants to face: Nothing lasts forever. And that includes the popularity of professional football, which now may be experiencing the slow, inevitable crumble of a Roman-style empire.
This week, the NFL denied a rumor that the league was reconsidering the fate of “Thursday Night Football,” namely that it was looking to revamp or — gasp — cut back on the sacred media property.
The league said it was “fully committed” to Thursday games, in spite of complaints from players about having to shift too quickly into a midweek game after weekend play, and from fans that Thursday matches have been stale. It’s a slate spread too thin: too many slots, too few compelling matchups. Even so, with a far shorter schedule than professional basketball and baseball, the demand for football has, until recently, remained high.
NFL executives have placed some of the ratings blame on the election. Although NBC’s two games after the election did see a boost, the network’s Kansas City-Denver game had a double-digit drop compared to the same time last year. And, if anything, it seems as though the stress of two unpopular candidates slogging it out would only increase the appetite for diversion. If ever there was a time for gladiator heroes, now would appear to be it.
The fall of Rome seemed unthinkable to people at the time, but inevitable to historians reflecting upon it with the benefit of context. At their height, gladiator contests made war a diversion, thousands charged into majestic amphitheaters, including Rome’s Colosseum, to watch hundreds of gladiators slay wild beasts and each other.
Such was the case until at least the early 5th century AD, as the disapproval of Christians and philosophers grew. When the philosopher Seneca wrote of his impressions of the contest, he was sharp.
“Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder,” Seneca wrote. “The combatants have no protective covering; their entire bodies are exposed to the blows. This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests… And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armor? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.”
The rise of Christianity also made the games “culturally unacceptable” because of the money, betting and partisanship involved, said Peter Heather, a professor of medieval history at King’s College in London. So the emperor began to limit the number and scale of gladiator contests until they were phased out.
While the US government is unlikely to ever limit the number of football games, plenty of parents are refusing to let their children play the sport due to the risk of head injuries. The more we learn about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease that has plagued scores of professional players, the harder it becomes for many of us to watch the gladiators out on the field. And the more we know about players committing violence off the field, especially against women and children, the more we — like Seneca — turn off altogether.
Football, like boxing, will never go away, just occupy a different role in the American zeitgeist.
Other reasons for football’s demise have been well reported: Our technological advancements leading to the rise of cord-cutting, the mushrooming of electronic sports, and the lure of a second, or third screen (often tied to a fantasy game) are all putting chinks in the modern-day coliseum. A demographic shift, including an increase of soccer-loving fans to the US from around the world, may have broadened sports lovers’ passions beyond the gridiron, too. Increasingly, football fans are arguing that the game is bloated with too much down time. The officiating is clumsy.
For viewers at home, replays and commercials have overwhelmed what game play actually happens. The league lacks a powerful narrative right now, like the Chicago Cubs reversing their 108-year-long hex.
After Christianity killed off gladiatorial combat, Roman fans switched to chariot racing, “which flourished massively as a result,” Heather said. The ascent of the blood-soaked culture of the UFC demonstrates that Americans’ thirst for violence has far from disappeared, but rather migrated to a new Coliseum next door.
The UFC’s worth is estimated at $4 billion or more, with gyms and events popping up worldwide. After a long battle, New York state finally legalized the sport, opening up Madison Square Garden for professional cage fights.
For better or for worse, fans have a new place to celebrate muscles and gore, free from leaden rules and commercial breaks but filled with intense drama and action. Football, like boxing, will never go away, just occupy a different role in the American zeitgeist. The change will be glacial, not instant. And mixed martial arts may just be the chariot-racing alternative of our time.
Mary Pilon is the author of “The Monopolists” and the forthcoming “The Kevin Show.” She worked as a TV producer for NBC Sports at the Rio Olympics


joelhar said...

JB, your comment on the military-like planning of the game of football is almost prescient. In the military, we plan every single aspect of an operation, and then follow guidance for when the real world interferes with our plans.

In football, the hope for the offense is to deceive the defenders into opening a hole, allowing a run, a catch, or something else, but often, the defenders do not allow the offense free reign (which is a good thing for the defense). When blocked from running a certain route, for instance, or if the quarterback is in trouble, it is often expected that the receiver will run back towards the quarterback so he may "dump" the football to the wide receiver. The same for a running back, the offensive line opens up a hole, but often the defense does not cooperate, so the running back must improvise. Same for screen passes. This is the same for the defense, who hopes to plug up all the options for the offense.

The planning of football is obvious for someone familiar with the basics of the game, it is the success of those plans which set apart winners. It is the improvisation by the players when the game gets really interesting. It is the concentration of truly skilled players which sets them above their peers.

The complexity of football sets itself well above soccer, which is easy to enjoy because there are so few variables. The variables in football are almost so vast, it boggles the mind at times. I truly enjoy the complexity of football.

I used to work for both the Pittsburgh Steelers, football, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball. I found myself nodding off at the baseball games, the complexity was almost nil. The complexity of soccer is nuanced in the skill of a team working as a team, coordinated, synchronized, and like calculus in motion. If the passing is precise, it is beautiful to watch. But the entire sport is predicated on the prediction of where team members will be in relation to their peers. If successful they will eventually be in a position to score. Soccer also has a large number of organized plays, like American football, involving passing and setting up shots on goal.

I, too, predict the sunset of football, but only because of the rules, which increasingly protect the players from injury. The same rules are changing soccer, as well, with headers outlawed by age categories in some areas. If our political correctness increases exponentially, it will be too dangerous to cross the room to change the channel, if anyone still does that. The risk of a static electrical burn might cause serious damage...

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