Sports, Bread, and Circuses

The Romans had a simple theory, the idea was that the millions of people in the empire wouldn’t look around them and get mad at their decaying standard of living as long as they had “bread and circuses.”  There are definitely parallels to be made today.  The Native North Americans claim that lacrosse was a sport that was invented to replace war between tribes.  The idea was that while the sport was still plenty violent, there were much fewer deaths than the alternative.

So where does this leave us today?  I’m a huge fan of professional football, boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) as well as a casual follower of other violent sports such as hockey, rugby, wrestling etc.  Are sports a way for us to “gently” release the instincts that still thrive within us due to centuries of battling each other and outside forces for survival?  Do they bring out the animalistic side or us, or do they serve to build character, teamwork, perseverance and all the other traits we traditionally associate with athletics.  I know one thing, the only difference between football and MMA is that one is socially acceptable, and the other is only acceptable on the fringes of society (indeed it is often held up as a paragon of our social devolution).  I have “played” both extensively, and can say with a fair degree of certainty that the chances of serious injury are more prevalent in football than in MMA.  Regardless of what is more violent, is there not a certain raw savagery that is the foundation to many sports, yet we just refuse to admit it?

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If we accept that there is a dark side to sport which we don’t like to talk about (chew on these stats: the average NFL players dies 9 years sooner than the average American, more than 1 in 5 NFL players have been charged with a serious crime), then what does that say about us as fans?  Should we really look down upon those ancient Roman crowds that used to gather to watch gladiators go toe-to-toe?  When we cheer for a knockout, or for a sack that leave a QB seeing stars, how far removed are we from those halcyon days of violence and gore?  An honest look in the mirror for myself a long time ago revealed that I like physical aggression within controlled circumstances.  I have no idea why, but I know that it is there.  I like to participate to a limited extent, and I like to watch modern day gladiators test their training and mettle against each other.

So if we as a culture have embraced the violence of Roman forefathers, what else have we taken from them example?  We plainly have the circus part down, so what about the bread?  The bread in Roman times came from the outstanding growing soil of the Nile River valley and it was handed out on the streets of Rome.  As more and more of our population lives off of some kind of government assistance, one might argue that we are simply more efficient at handing out the bread.  Do we send a professional army all over the world (often to guard our economic interests), while we sit back and enjoy the bread circuses?  This is where the comparison begins to get very uncomfortable…

Go Jets Go

As someone living in Manitoba, Canada, I was lukewarm to the recent headlines that we were to welcome an NHL hockey team back into the mix.  I’m not a big fan of tax dollars being used to support a professional sports entity, I just don’t believe that tax dollars should be used for something the free market should dictate on its own.  I had serious doubt as to the long-term viability of the team, after all I had already seen one version of the jets team leave for “greener pastures” (not sure how green the Arizona desert is, but maybe greener than our windswept plains?).  Of course, the doubts that I had verbalized got shoved back in my face as the normally frugal Manitoba populace devoured 13,000 season tickets in the first 17 minutes!  The price on these tickets ranged from $2,000-$6,5000.  Who says Canadians are concerned about debt paydown!  While I’m glad the team is doing well, both on and off the ice, I also have to wonder if there are people out there shaking their heads as history repeats itself.  At least “Emperor Harper” is politically astute enough to get his picture taken sitting with the regular citizens, not up in a luxury box as in the “good old days” of 100 A.D. or so.

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Interesting analogy! I never have understood the extreme interest in watching sports – especially what with fighting all the crowds to get there and get home and the high ticket prices. Playing them is another matter though!

12 years ago

Liiving in Manchester not far from Old Trafford, there is massive money in sport so I’m not surprised that such sensible folk as Canadians shell out millions of dollars.

Yes it is fodder for the folk to keep them amused, much as the reality TV shows are. But if you enjoy it, why not? After all it is a process of turning time that would otherwise be wasted into someone’s money….

12 years ago

lol what a surprise to see a blog i subscribed to actually post something from my city :)

12 years ago

“I have “played” both extensively, and can say with a fair degree of certainty that the chances of serious injury are more prevalent in football than in MMA.” – I can see that. A lot of football injuries are from multiple players impacting a single player at the same time, blind side hits, and violent impacts with the ground. It seems that all of those factors are limited in MMA (and people expect to get hit at any second to boot!).

A very apt analogy. Football has always been violent, or at least had violent aspects, but in recent years it seems that a “win at all cost” mentality has taken it to very dangerous levels.

12 years ago

I really enjoyed this post. The violence in football has been further magnified with the whole bounty news from the New Orleans Saints. With the pep talk that coach was giving, he truly did sound like a general leading his troops into war. He was basically instructing them on how to injure specific opponents. It is interesting how many sports still keep their roots of how sports were played back in ancient times. A lot of sports really mimick the strategies of war. It is a much better alternative than actual war though. If you’ve ever been at a live… Read more »

12 years ago
Reply to  Teacher Man

I guess I need to listen to the actual audio from the Williams speech. The transcript made it sound pretty brutal. Some of the wording was pretty funny though. ‘kill the head’ lol.

The people who think fighting should be out of hockey just don’t understand the sport. When there are so many opportunities for cheapshots that could seriously injure players, the fighting actually minimizes injuries. Players are a lot less likely to attempt to injure when they know they’ll have to pay the price for it.

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