By 2050, the National Football League (NFL) will be like the Barnum and Bailey Circus of today. Bankrupt, closed, irrelevant, morally passe.
In the early 20th century, the circus was all the rage. After a century of the product’s consumption by a culture increasingly sensitive to the abuse of the weak and helpless—in this case, circus animals—the “Greatest Show on Earth” has been relegated to an empty sideshow. It is simply too brutish for sophisticated moderns who wince at the crack of a whip on an elephant’s rump.
Football will soon follow. Its massive billion dollar stadiums and marketing machines seem immortal for now. But these titanic play pens will soon crumble under the same cultural force that killed the circus: our culture’s growing concern for victims.
I am not judging football’s coming demise as a good or bad thing. I see it as simply a symptom of larger social forces that we should understand.
The parallels of football and Roman gladiatorial games have been noted before. In the Colosseum, the Roman emperor would have a grand procession into the arena to the standing ovation of the assembled masses. Today, our U.S. Defense Department-sponsored games begin with the procession of the American flag and anthem. It is often accompanied by dramatic aerial flyovers by jet fighters and fireworks, symbolizing the transcendent might and grandeur of America’s military conquerings. So too, the Roman games often reenacted the empire’s greatest battles.
Today’s latest controversy involves whether football players should stand united in honor of the flag. The sacredness of the flag rests in its long-standing ability to unify even enemies as the opposing teams simulate. Like any symbol, the flag serves as a vessel for people to place powerful emotions: memories of grandpa’s military service, apple pie, cookouts, neighborly support for one another are all wrapped in its colors.
Above all, the one thing the flag represents the most is the unifying power of sacrifice. We are united as one collective family in our reverence for the flag and anthem. The flag is sacred because it represents, as its loudest defenders proclaim, the blood shed by soldiers fighting for our freedoms.
Interestingly, gladiatorial games were first started as sacrificial offerings accompanying funerals. It was thought that the blood spilled by slaves and captives honored the death of state leaders with the transcendent unity of the crowd. With every pitiful animal howl and human cry, citizens felt swept up as one body in collective satisfaction and relief from mundane rivalries and resentments.
Today, governments like to take the suffering and courage of our sons and daughters who enlist and turn it into a marketing ploy for why we all need government coercion controlling our lives—who we hire, what we pay them, permission to cut hair, how big our sodas can be, how much we cook our milk, which drugs we can use to alter our minds, and so on. Governments also like to transmute our goosebumps we feel when the anthem plays into maintaining a trillion dollar annual foreign policy paid by debt created out of thin air and backed by the OPEC oil cartel’s energy markets.
At sporting events, our government captures the nostalgia we feel for neighborhood friendship and family pastimes, associates it with the anthem and flag, and then converts it into passive, numb surrender to perpetual warfare. Even while the nation divides over whether players should kneel or stand for the flag, our government continues to arm expand its military footprint overseas and drop more bombs, all in our name.
But the state, in collusion with powerful corporate allies, uses spectacles like football to distract and pacify the people. Instead of the violent slaughtering of Roman games, our Christianized culture sends players into simulated, padded warfare. We pick teams to unite our personal lives under and forget about the state’s socio- and economic abuses just outside our doorsteps. Studies even suggest that violent crime drops during major televised sporting events.
But now, Trump and his liberal mirror rivals have pierced the veil by injecting the NFL with the profanity of politics: the realm where real factions use real violence of the state to punish their rivals through regulations, mandates, and taxes. When Trump said “fire them” about the protesting players, invoking the specter of both the penal and paternal side of government, forcing people to take sides and not over the gridiron but at either side of the water cooler and dinner table, it did the game no favors.
Eventually, it took a church monk named Telemachus challenging the violent sacrifice of the Roman gladiatorial games to end their carnage. He climbed into the arena and protested until he was summarily slaughtered. His self-sacrifice for the defense of victims led to the public’s loss of appetite for the violence.The last known Roman gladiatorial event was in 404 AD, less than two decades after Telemachus’s death.
Today, myriad scandals serve as a persistent Telemachus threatening to bring the NFL down. Mothers and fathers all around the country are pulling their sons out of football due to the increased revelations of concussions and resulting brain damage caused by the sport. Whereas Roman citizens demanded their fighters stripped of armor to maximize carnage, increased paddings will end up making players look like Michelin men with bobble head-sized helmets.
In Rome, no one cared how gladiators treated their lovers. Today, growing public disgust with widespread reports of spousal abuse is souring the NFL’s mystique.
In college, the NCAA’s state-protected profiteering off of unpaid players’ physical sacrifice is increasingly criticized as well.
Meanwhile, diehard fans once thrilled by simulated violence are losing interest with ever constrained penalty rules and concussion concerns. The suspension of disbelief required to enjoy the game is waning: talks of brain damage, flags no longer able to unify people around soldiers’ sacrificial deaths, spousal abuse, and racial undertones are all exposing football as just a silly game to appease desires for tribalism and aggression—and make fat cat owners fatter. Not worth all the drama.
We should be proud that we do not send hungry lions into arenas with naked prisoners anymore. We have made progress because of Christianity’s leavening of the collective’s history-long abuse against the misfit person. Yet absent such gladiatorial games, our culture must confront our sacrifices of the innocent and nonviolent to appease our love for aggression as the means of keeping peace.
David Gornoski is your neighbor—as well as an entrepreneur, speaker and writer. He recently launched a project called A Neighbor’s Choice, which seeks to introduce Jesus’ culture of nonviolence to both Christians and the broader public. A Florida promoter of local agriculture, he also writes for WND.com, FEE.org, AffluentInvestor.com, and AltarandThrone.com.