The (Very) Long View On The State Of Football

Jan 1, 2014
Originally published on January 1, 2014 11:42 am

Football is often called a "gladiator game." This past semester, several football players took a class at the University of Washington that explores the idea. It turns out that both the professor and her football-playing students found that it's not just a glib analogy.

Apart from the extreme fact that the Roman slaves actually killed each other in their games, there are certain fascinating parallels.

Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on this issue.

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There is more to New Year's Day than resolutions and hangovers. It's Bowl Day. College football fans can choose from six different Bowl games today. Commentator Frank Deford has a long view, a very long view on the state of college football.

FRANK DEFORD: It's become common for football observers, including this one, to call the All-American sport a gladiator game. This has come to the particular attention of Sarah Stroup, a Classics professor at the University of Washington, who teaches a popular course entitled War Games: Greek Athletes, Roman Gladiators, the Modern Olympics and College Football. What is especially interesting and poignant is that in this past semester, several football players took her course.

Both the professor and her football-playing students have found that, in fact, calling football a gladiator game is not just a glib analogy. For example, gladiators had coaches and very specialized trainers. They were carefully tended to by team doctors to keep them battle-ready. After all, like college football players, gladiators were valuable resources for the head coaches, who made the money that their amateur athletes did not. As one of Professor Stroup's players candidly told his tutor: I put my body in danger for other people's benefits.

Not surprisingly, gladiators were big guys who would bulk up for battle. It was another of Professor Stroup's players who himself pointed out to her that carrying fat is wise in such endeavors, because it protects your internal organs in combat or in scrimmage.

Both gladiators and football players have short careers. An average gladiator could expect to live for only three years before one of his colleagues - yes, they trained together to kill one another - would murder him. And not for nothing do the players themselves say that NFL stands for Not For Long.

What particularly surprised me to learn is that the Romans were ashamed of their love of the blood sport, Each year, Professor Stroup asks her class to name amusements that Americans are themselves secretly ashamed of. Invariably she says three answers are common: pornography, reality shows and tabloid magazines. This year, there was suggested another American shameful delight.

Professor Stroup herself had never seen a football game before she became attached to the players taking her course. She says: They're tough on the field but I know they're scared to death a lot of the time. These boys are already a lot like gladiators. And we tolerate it. We make them a special kind of student, the student-athlete, and tolerate their thuggishness and discount the brains we are knowingly damaging, and then discard them. It is a hell, but one of our own making.

Or as the Bard had one of his wiser Romans say: The fault, Dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.

MONTAGNE: We bring you the comments of Frank Deford every Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.