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Friday, January 31, 2014

January 31, 2014: Football Focalizes: The Bigger Question

[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]

On one more big question about football in 2014 America.
I’ve used football to engage with some very big American and human questions this week—racism and rape, historical hypocrisy and mythic success—and I don’t mean in my title to suggest that today’s question is bigger than (or even as big as) any of them. Instead, I mean that this is a bigger question about football itself—or rather sports themselves, although by any almost any measure football is the most popular sport in 2014 America—rather than about those related but certainly more all-encompassing issues. And the question, to put it bluntly and somewhat hyperbolically, is this: has football become what Karl Marx called religion, “the opium of the people,” a pleasant distraction from the huge problems plaguing our society, nation, and world?
As the week’s posts have indicated, football is of course far from free of those social and cultural problems; moreover, as Dave Zirin argues in the piece hyperlinked under “a pleasant distraction,” it’s insulting to sports fans to insinuate that they turn off their brains or broader social engagement as a result of (or even during) their sportswatching. But those conditions and caveats notwithstanding, I think it’s still entirely fair to ask whether something like the NFL doesn’t serve (just as entertainment mediums such as Hollywood films and television can) as an escape from the inequalities, the crises, the looming disasters that define so much of the world around us in the early 21st century. Isn’t that, after all, the core of what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell means by “the shield,” the layer of insulation separating the NFL’s image from the complexities and messiness of the world beyond?
To be clear, such escapes are entirely necessary and beneficial—I’m not sure anybody could spend all day every day thinking about the hardest challenges facing us and our world, and I know it wouldn’t be healthy to try (there’s a reason why President Obama is such a big sports fan). But if and when the escapes get so big and become such central focal points, it is important to take a step back and consider whether they’ve become in at least some ways part of the problem, whether specifically because of the investment they require (see: those ticket prices) or broadly because of the collective focus and energy they swallow up. Football might not be opium, but it’s hard to deny that it can be a circus (as in “bread and circuses”), and that it wouldn’t hurt for us to find ways to step outside of the tent a bit more often than we tend to these days.
January recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think?


  1. In all of those ways you mention here (and I am a big sports fan myself) football is absolutely a distraction from the, let's say, 'less exciting' things happening in society. Think about it this way: if all of the people who dedicate countless hours to watching, listening to, and reading about football took approximately 1/10th of that time and oriented it toward volunteerism or problem-solving on a community level, it would make a gigantic impact. However, it has become Marx's 'religion'.
    Retired Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was on The Colbert Report Tuesday night. Stephen Colbert conducted the interview in his normal, wacky style, trying to throw Gibbs off, asking silly and irreverent questions, etc. Yet, for all of the absurdity and ridiculousness of Colbert, Gibbs managed to come up with easily the craziest quote of the entire interview--"I think it (the Super Bowl) is probably the greatest thing Man can create." Tell me this is not as fervent an adherence to some ideology of an all-powerful entity as any religion. (After Gibbs said this, Colbert responded, "Movable type, the pyramids at Giza, and the Super Bowl." Greatest non-comeback comeback ever?)