Posted by Thomas J. Hubschman
This year’s is supposed to be an especially good one: the best defensive team against the best offensive one. I have no favorite. I hardly follow professional football. I grew up watching it on TV, and my brother played for our home town high school team (one of my home towns; we moved a lot) whose colors happened to be the same as the professional baseball team the family rooted and sometimes wept for. The town was located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan Island, but in many ways it might have been in Indiana or some other part of the interior mainland of the country. It was as sports-crazy as any Southern or Midwestern community, politically conservative and, at least in the case of the religion in which I was raised, extremely religious.
My other older brother also played high school football. His best friend died as the result of a ruptured spleen he suffered during a practice scrimmage. That was my first experience of someone being seriously injured in a sports contest, in this case a very up-close experience — I can still remember how deeply shaken my brother was by his friend’s death. Nowadays the media are full of reports and debates about head concussions and their long-term effects, starting with kids in the youngest junior leagues. Back then a fatal injury like was just one of those things, a freak accident.
But it’s not the brutality of football I want to discuss here. All sports are dangerous (the last I heard, baseball players are more frequently injured than any other athletes). Football is just more obviously brutal than other sports, with the obvious exception of professional hockey which looks as barbaric as professional wrestling but unlike professional wrestling is not play-acting. What I have in mind is not the violence of the sport, any sport, but the reasons why we celebrate achievement in sports in the first place.
There’s a direct connection between a nation that places high emphasis on athletic prowess — as well as the qualities that promote it: physical conditioning, team-spirit, victory above everything else — and militarism. They go hand in hand, or maybe the better metaphor would be “in lock-step.” In the early years of the twentieth century college football was in serious decline, so much so that a president of the United States took steps to revive it. He didn’t do so out of a personal love for the sport. He understood that without a rigorous athletic regimen in the schools the quality of the American military force would be diminished. If that president were alive today he would be very happy on that account. Not only does every small town cheer on its local high school teams (sometimes with a prayer before kickoff), but college football, basketball and to some extent baseball are all thriving and have become an industry worth billions of dollars to those schools and to the media networks that air their games.
We like to think militarism is something only bad nations engage in. Our military is for defense. As such, why shouldn’t we want it to be as efficient and strong as possible? That’s a reasonable conclusion to a false premise. Our history is full of military adventures and continues to be so, from the genocidal ones we waged against the original native populations to those we undertook against our neighbors on this continent and in the Caribbean to our most far-flung wars in places like the Philippines and Southeast Asia and now the Middle East. Those were not defensive wars by any stretch of the military imagination. They were imperialist wars — more like slaughters in many cases.
This week our current president gave his annual State of the Union speech. Toward the end — the best time for whipping up patriotic hysteria — he introduced a victim (the preferred word is “hero”) of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, a young man who received serious, enduring and disfiguring injuries as a result of that explosion. The reaction: standing ovation. You might say: standing ovation all across the nation. No one would not show support for a wounded veteran and by inference the cause in which that wound was sustained, would they? On that we should agree, is the implication of this kind of political theater. An enthusiastic applause is pretty much guaranteed from congress members and other government officials very few of whom have enlisted or ever would enlist in the military. Had the president introduced the young soldier as the victim of an unnecessary war and asked his audience to look upon the pitiful result of our militarism in action, congress might have passed a motion for the president’s impeachment the next morning, if not sooner.
Sport, at least the kind of emphasis we place on it, is virtually synonymous with militarism. That’s why the fascists and the Nazis placed so much stress on sports while at the same time downgrading intellectual activity to the point of ridicule. Our received history is otherwise on the following, but I found a passage in Victor Klemperer’s book on the language of the Nazi regime (The Language of the Third Reich) compelling in this regard. He lived through that period in Germany, and he describes the support given by the Hitler regime to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin as absolute to the point of not only praising foreign “Negro” athletes who won medals but for celebrating, even allowing the German people to idolize, their ace German fencer who everyone knew was a Jew under the Nuremberg Laws. Why? Because a fit body in an empty mind was the goal the Nazis, like any totalitarian regime, aimed at. And this occurred at games from which the United States withheld a star runner because that runner was Jewish and our government did not want to offend the Fuehrer!
Sports the way we foster and idealize them in this nation embody and inculcate the qualities we want and need for an elite military. In addition to strengthening bodies and instilling team spirit and unquestioning loyalty, they build character — an amorphous term we prefer to leave that way. At the turn of the twentieth century, George Orwell relates in his essay on his school days, faculty considered the boy in the schoolyard who made others bend to his will, suck up to him, run his errands, as a young man of “character.” Today we would call that boy a bully, not because of the effect he has on other boys but because of the methods he uses: physical force, coercion, etc. His bullying should be channeled into more acceptable activities like politics and corporate management.
The Nazis stressed athletic metaphors throughout their twelve years in power, but never so much as when they were losing the war. Goebbels was frequently on the radio, reminding the German people it didn’t matter who was ahead in the game but who was in the lead at the game’s conclusion, who breasted the tape last, who scored the knockout punch. Happily, we Americans have never had to resort to that kind of self-delusion, have we. Or was our insistence that we lost the war in Vietnam “at home” such an excuse? Have we embargoed and boycotted Cuba because the regime there is communist or out of spite because we “lost” that island in 1959? Did we go to war illegally and immorally in Iraq because we believed Saddam Hussein had nuclear and/or chemical weapons or because we resented his still being in power a decade after we had ignominiously defeated him in the “Mother of All Battles” (isn’t it interesting — it certainly would be to Klemperer — how that expression “mother of” has entered our language almost as just another intensifier?).
So, no, I guess I won’t be watching the Super Bowl this year, because when I see those 300-pound linemen butting heads with a ferocity that would kill a bull I can’t help thinking this game is really just a less lethal version of what the gladiators did to each other in the Coliseum as the crowd yelled and cheered exactly the same as they will do on Sunday. And that exercise of athletic prowess, in both cases, is actually a preparation for the real thing, whatever other purposes it may serve as entertainment. May the best Uebermenschen win.