gladiator

A couple of nerds, one of them a wannabe jock, have been making minor headlines in such classy publications as Slate, running the old “let’s ban college football” canard up the flagpole. Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger, supposedly well-known writers (but, thankfully, ones I had never before heard of) “won” a debate against former NFL defensive end Tim Green and Fox’s Jason Whitlock on the subject a few weeks ago, setting off a tremor that was probably felt all the way from Slate to the Huffington Post.

Having read John J. Miller’s fine book, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (see review) just about the time the “debate” took place, I am reminded that anti-sports (along with anti-Catholicism) is still the anti-Semitism of the chattering classes. In fact, sports, whether of the “violent” or “non-violent” types (more on that in a minute) are as hardwired into our natures as any other element of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Like it or not, gladiators are as perfect a representation of God’s Creation as composers, artists, or even priests.

The wording of the debate doesn’t matter much. The arguments have never changed, except to employ newer technological terms. Football repels squeamish types, who also have a particular distaste for rugby, bull fighting, and NASCAR. But in my seven-decade experience with sports of all kinds, I have found that all of them are equally violent. My mother, a double Life Master in Bridge, was among the most bloodthirsty competitors I have ever known. Carmine Basilio, one of the gamest welterweight boxers in the history of the sport, was in person a sweet and gentle man; on the other hand, I would not want to have met up with chess master Bobby Fischer in a dark alley. Sports are war, and war is as much a part of us as prayer.

Sports reflect cultures, and also help to define them. The three most watched American sports — football, basketball, and baseball — are marked by peculiarly American traits: lots of standing around, punctuated by bursts of violent action. The violence that each requires makes it impossible for the action to continue nonstop (a pitcher, for example, simply cannot throw every ball as hard as he can; a running back cannot collide with every opponent he comes across; a basketball player cannot run up and down the court at full speed for very long), so elaborate and arcane rules are necessary to show off the violence to maximum effect and to call attention to the beauty of motion that is inherent in every battle. I once saw David Bing, now mayor of Detroit, jump from the foul line in Manley Field House in Syracuse, New York, spin with the grace of a Bolshoi dancer, and jam the ball into the basket backwards, with two hands. It was a moment no less joyful than one’s first sighting of Michelangelo’s David. Such moments are, of course, very rare; thus the necessity of many pauses in between the bursts of action.

Most people, even avid sports fans, do not know that the three signature American sports were all invented and developed in New England. Football was the earliest, played informally at colleges from about the 1780s. Baseball is mistakenly credited to Abner Doubleday (he was one of many founders) but was a pretty well developed college game by 1850 or so. Basketball came from the mind of James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts — whatever you think of the peoples’ republic now ruling the lives of ancient puritans, the state did indeed give us a rich sporting heritage. It’s no accident that Boston still has the oldest major league baseball stadium, or that its basketball team is called the “Celtics.”

Baseball was the perfect village game. It takes only a ball, something to hit it with, something to catch it with, and quite a bit of open land, not necessarily developed or groomed. I played maybe 2000-3000 games on empty lots, parks, and farmers’ fields around Phelps, New York from 1945-1955. We had a “town team,” as did every village in America during those years. Families would turn out on Sunday afternoons with picnic baskets, and the boys and men who played on those teams were heroes. I was the youngest town team player in our league one year — because the regular third baseman hurt his knee in the first game of the season and coach couldn’t come up with anyone better than a 15-year-old who had just finished his freshman year of high school. I don’t remember playing very well, but I was cool among my peers for a while. Television and interstate highways eventually displaced the town teams, but for a couple of generations they were a force for good and the source of many local legends.

Football was also a good village game, but developed mostly at colleges where there was a source of funding and built-in spectators. Eventually it became the ultimate corporate game, requiring big stadiums and big money. Baseball came out of the town, football from the college. It produced 100,000 seat stadiums by the 1920s, a decade in which more people knew the name of Red Grange than of Lenin, Stalin, or Mussolini. On the day my grandfather Willson died, my Dad told me that he had asked his father in 1925 for fifty cents, the price of admission to the Red Grange barnstorming game in Buffalo. One of Dad’s friends had a Model T, which promptly broke down just outside of Buffalo. By the time they got to the stadium Red Grange was finished playing for the day. Thirty-four years later, my Dad still felt guilty about taking his father’s fifty cents, but such was the power of football. And such was the reason that the inheritors of a gladiatorial game must keep reigning it in.

Basketball seems to be topped off by the movie Hoosiers, but it became by about 1955 an urban game. Willie Mays played stickball on the streets of New York, but his was the last generation that did. Basketball takes little space and little money. The NBA was founded in 1949, and despite the fact that there was almost no racism in its early years, it took about ten before the Negro kids (that was the preferred name then) began to be its major force. The black boys from the south got into college football in their native region about the same time that baseball desegregated, and for a while dominated the major sports, each one in its turn, not yet played out in professional football and basketball.

Gladiators often come from the conquered or the oppressed groups — that is, the gladiators who get paid for what they do. But most athletes are middle class kids who want to have fun. The fun they have sometimes leads to excess, and sometimes even to haughty attitudes towards people who don’t value their muscles or their speed or their willingness to absorb a considerable amount of physical pain. In fact, there often seems to be a natural animosity between people who are excessive athletes and those who are excessive intellects or artists. There needn’t be. I have spent a lifetime balanced on the top of an invisible fence between the world of the nerds and the world of the jocks, loving both sides, trying to interpret them to each other, being utterly unwilling to fall one way or the other.

Men and women who love their games, in fact, are much like those who love their arts. Does it surprise you that Roosevelt Grier, a great defensive tackle, was also extremely proficient at needlepoint? Or that an esteemed physics professor of mine loved nothing better than figure skating and hockey (he was terrible at both) and saw them as a high expression of his discipline? Or that great poets are often as crude as dragon-mouthed gladiators? Imaginative conservatives would be well served to understand how close it is in the human soul to write a good sentence and to get across the goal line.

And don’t expect college football to be banned any time soon.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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