The Deeper Meaning of the Super Bowl

Duel Threat Quarterback Russell Wilson Celebrates Victory

On Football as an Expression of the American Martial Spirit

For millions of Americans football rises to the level of a civic religion. And once a year we turn our attention to the Super Bowl, a grand spectacle paying homage to the God’s of the game; the champions of the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference that emerge at the end of a season of bloody carnage on the gridiron. The Super Bowl is a national bacchanal marked by gluttony, drunkenness, and myriad other debaucheries worthy of an ancient Dionysian ritual.  Hence the thoughtful observer might reasonably ask: What’s it all about, this game of football?

“He knows not cricket who only cricket knows,” says the brilliant Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James, in the opening passage of his Erudite and insightful book Beyond a Boundary, a treatise on the Sport of Cricket that one historian of Victorian England Dr. Keith A.P. Sandiford, told this writer “changed the way we look at Victorian society.”   This, he explained, is because “before James’ broadly learned text nobody recognized the importance of sport as the embodiment of deeply held societal values.” The brilliance of C. L. R. James’ analysis is that he demonstrated how the game of Cricket embodied the values of the British upper class during the Victorian era, when Britannia ruled the world.

One could equally claim “he knows not football who only football knows.”  Guided by a Master Narrative of American civilization that is fashioned in the popular mind by hype artists and mythmakers more than the peer reviewed scholarship of professional historians, Americans like to think we are a peace-loving country.  Yet, alas, our history and present circumstances suggest otherwise.

The United States was born in a bloody war; the vast and fertile land Anglo-Saxon settler/colonists fought their British cousins for was stolen from the indigenous people by force of arms; then the settlers enacted genocidal policies to reduce the “Indian” population; they enslaved African Americans for 250 years employing some of the most savage depraved practices in history. They introduced the unprecedented destructiveness of modern warfare during the Civil War; provoked a war with Spain and seized her colonies at the end of the 19th century; and militarily intervened overtly or covertly in other countries over a hundred times in the 20th century.  Perhaps this is what we might expect from a country whose national mascot is a bird of prey, the Bald Eagle, and the national Anthem is a war song written by a slaveholder Francis Scott Key, in celebration of a victorious American battle in a war to defend the slave trade!

Hence, like Cricket in Victorian England, football embodies some fundamental American values that harken back to the formation of the nation.  And like Cricket, football began as a patrician sport played by upper class white males in the Ivy League; commencing with the Princeton v Rutgers game in 1869 – two years after the Marquis de Queensbury introduced the formal rules of boxing, transforming artless bare-knuckle brawls between pugnacious bullies into the martial art of pugilism, which at it’s best becomes what A. J.  Liebling calls a “Sweet Science.”

Driven by anxieties over the fear that upper-class white men were becoming “feminized” from “over civilization,” advocates of “the strenuous life,” such as Teddy Roosevelt, began to embrace the sport of pugilism as a proper manly pursuit.  The prestigious New York Athletic Club, playground of the rich and famous, hired a former professional bare-knuckle fighter and trainer Mike Donovan – nick named,” The Professor,” due to his knowledge of the sport – to teach men of the privileged class the fine points of pugilism. Hence boxing also became popular among the young men who played football in the Ivy League; men who would later become leaders among those who pass the laws, control commerce, define cultural standards and determine the proper manners and morals for the nation.

Yet it was the game of football that most faithfully reflected the Zeitgeist of a nation embarking on the road to empire.  It was the ideal sport for the age of “Muscular Christianity,” Social Darwinism, Anglo-Saxon ethnic/gender euphoria, the pseudo-science of Eugenics, and white male supremacy.  Football, from which black men were formally barred, became even more important as a demonstration of superior white male prowess after Jack Johnson won the World Heavy-Weight Championship. 

The gravity of this event for white supremacists was poignantly expressed in the hysteria of novelist Jack London’s call for a “Great White Hope” to take back the World Heavy-Weight Boxing Championship from the cocky, ebony black, Jack Johnson.  A fascinating man of elegance, in and outside the ring, who greatly influenced the “arrogant” public persona of Muhammad Ali. London viewed Johnson’s ascendancy to the Heavy-Weight throne as an unmitigated catastrophe!

Jack Johnson

Challenging the Myth of White Male Prowess
Breaking Taboos

A Menace to Society?

London’s views were widely held by white men everywhere.  The danger, as they saw it, lay in the fact that Heavy-Weight Champions were universally viewed as the most potent men on earth, and the trash talkin Johnson – who became a sex symbol to white women when that was the ultimate taboo – openly mocked and challenged the claim of white male superiority, and by implication the system of white supremacy that supported it.

No one personified the spirit of this golden age of white supremacy like Teddy Roosevelt – who served as US President from 1901 to 1909 – who was at various times a lawman, cowboy, cavalry officer, statesman, and intellectual.  A rich white Anglo-Saxon hetero-sexual male, born and bred among the Manhattan elite, Teddy was a real tough guy and passionate fan of pugilism who regularly beat the boxing bag in the White House Rose Garden.

Teddy’ public ridicule of white Heavy-Weight Champion Tommy Burns’ shameful dodging of the black challenger forced him into the ring with Johnson, who whipped the white champion with ease on December 26, 1908. Johnson’s victory enraged white Americans, whipping up a wave of violent racist hysteria that resulted in armed attacks on Afro-Americans nationwide by white mobs, resulting in injury and deaths just days before Christmas.  An avowed White Supremacist and Eugenicist, Roosevelt would write an article denouncing Johnson.  Dr. WEB Dubois, arguably America’s deepest social thinker at the time, observed that Johnson’s only crime “is his unforgivable blackness.”

Teddy would make clear his belief that football is essential to the character development of white American males – the exclusion of black men made it a quintessentially American game – when a group of reformers developed a movement to legally ban football as a barbarous practice unworthy of a civilized society in the 20th century.  Alas, despite the eloquent apologia of its many fans and defenders, football is a brutal blood sport that conjure up some of the dangerous spectacles in the Roman Circus Maximus. Although football players are not expected to fight to the death like Roman Gladiators, it is a distinction without a difference when we consider the consequences of playing football. Recent research shows a majority of professional football players suffer brain damage, and some die from injuries they received from playing the game.

Without the scientifically engineered equipment players now enjoy, football at the turn of the 20th century was a bloody barbarous business that resembled organized mayhem.  This period is richly detailed by David Kay Miller in his pathbreaking book The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Although Teddy didn’t make the varsity squad at Harvard because he was nearsighted, he remained one of the sport’s biggest boosters. He saw playing the game as excellent preparation for military combat and even attributed the success of the Cavalrymen he commanded during the Spanish/American War – popularly known as “Rough Riders” – to the fact that they were former football players.

Teddy Roosevelt: Cavalry Officer

At Santiago de Cuba

In a 1903 speech Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”  However, the events of 1904 put Teddy, and all football fans on the defensive.  A measure of the carnage could be seen in a Chicago Tribune report of 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries among amateur football players in Prep schools.

As the casualty and injury rate continued to rise in 1905, amid public protests and editorial comment openly comparing football players to Roman Gladiators Roosevelt, now President of the USA now president of the USA for four years and basking in the prestige of having negotiated an end to the war between Russia and Japan – sending shockwaves throughout the white world when Japan kicked Russia’s ass –  decided to take a hands-on approach to making football safer.

A knowledgeable student of the game, Teddy could see that most of the injuries came from the power running strategy, with plays like the “Flying Wedge,” where groups of men repeatedly collided with each other at full speed.  His solution was to get the coaches to incorporate the forward pass in their offense, which was then illegal. Although some thought the decision blasphemous and would ruin the game, it reduced injuries, saved football from extinction, and gave us the modern game.

Today professional football is dominated by the forward pass, and with the speed, style and grace Afro-American athletes bring to the “skills” positions football has become the greatest show on turf.  In view of its history – and the state of perpetual warfare we find ourselves in today – it is no accident that the terminology used to describe the game is filled with military metaphors. The long pass is “the bomb.” The quarterbacks that throw them are called “field generals with “cannon arms.”  Accurate passes are called “bullets.”  The world class speed of wide receivers is called “after burners” like in fighter jets.  Line play is called “battling in the trenches.” And the paramount objective of the game is to advance and hold the opponent’s territory.

The desire to dominate opponents by sheer brute force is inculcated in players at an early age; it is the result of systematic indoctrination with the idea they are “warriors.”  When I played high school football in football cray Florida, before every game we would form a circle, pile on hands and repeat after the coach in a rising crescendo: “We want them…Before our feet!  They shall not rise!!!”  Yet, notwithstanding the fact that football remains a dangerous game, a metaphor for war and a license to commit legal assault – often resulting in life altering injury to the players, it is wildly popular.

Indeed, football is so popular that according to Richard Deitch of Sports Illustrated, NBC will average more than 5 million dollars for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl!  And it has truly become the all-American sport; transcending race, class and ethnicity. The once lily-white teams from the foundational cites of Philadelphia and Boston, that will clash in the Super Bowl, now look more like the national teams of Nigeria and Ghana.  For the millions of spectators watching in hovels and high-rise penthouses, it’s just a game…but then: He knows not football who only football knows.




Playthell, G Benjamin,
February 6, 2018


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: