Dateline: January 31, 2109
By Jack Moscou
Reprinted May 1, 2019: The super bowl is long gone but the exploitation of athletes, particularly in football, remains.
The soon to be played Super Bowl LIII, an event that has become almost a national holiday, is as good a time as any to take a look at the role of sports in America and the link to the gladiators of the ancient Roman Empire.
I will skip over boxing and mixed martial arts where the connection to gladiators is obvious and go directly to the major professional sports of football, baseball, basketball, tennis, and golf – with a side excursion to the Olympics.
Let me begin with a few brief thoughts about the role of the gladiator during the Roman Empire that I looked up in Wikipedia.
The gladiator games were designed to entertain the masses and lasted for nearly a thousand years, reaching their peak between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD until finally declining during the early 5th century. Gladiators were typically slaves or convicted criminals.
Skilled gladiators were allowed to have families, and could become very wealthy and even win their freedom.
Not all gladiatorial contests ended in death but it was clearly risky as examination of bones from the Ephesus period indicate the average age at death of the gladiator was 25, slightly more than half the lifespan of the typical Roman with many dying from multiple blows to the head from blunt objects. However, as evidenced by the perfectly healed bone fractures they were in excellent health and received expert medical care
Gladiators were trained at specialized schools to fit into specific gladiator categories based on: what their armor was like, what weapons they used, whether they were horseback gladiators, gladiators in chariots, gladiators who fought in pairs, or gladiators named for their origin, like the Thracians.
Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, by the end of the Republic about half of the gladiators were volunteers.
While the match between football and the gladiator games is not one hundred per cent, it is pretty damn close in every way. Given that 75% of football players are black it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that racism is the reason so many of the players are black.
I start with the caveat that in a racist and sexist society such as ours no subject can be discussed as if those two issues were not the proverbial elephant in the room.
However, unfortunately for those wanting to jump to sound-bite conclusions, racism is not the key to understanding the preponderance of blacks in a sport that so clearly mimics the gladiator games. All that is needed is to remind ourselves that seventy-five years ago football was an all-white sport with blacks literally banned from entry. Similarly, hockey, which mimics the gladiator games just about as much as football is virtually all white.
The link is not race but economic. It is widely understood that poor whites, with limited employment opportunities were (back in the days) the primary source of player recruitment for football, baseball, and basketball with blacks barred from entry. With the advent of the civil rights movement and affirmative action, poor blacks, and now poor Latin Americans, have been afforded the “opportunity” to sacrifice their bodies for our enjoyment.
And like ancient Rome, some become wealthy (most do not), and like ancient Rome, not all come from the ranks of the poor or black. There are more than enough “volunteers” from the white middle and indeed upper class to blur the economic underpinning dictating that most of the athletes will come from the ranks of the poor.
Since the above analysis sounds suspiciously “Marxist” I hasten to add that boxing, mixed martial arts and any number of sports requiring the athlete to sacrifice his (and now her) body are prevalent in socialist countries, socialist democratic countries, as well as countries still mired in semi-feudal conditions. In short, it isn’t just American-style capitalism that links today’s modern sports to ancient Rome. It’s a universal occurrence and much more complicated than saying capitalism – which explains a lot – explains everything.
Let me take a “quick” (this post is neither a PhD dissertation nor an encyclopedic overview of the subject) look at the similarities between other major professional sports to the gladiators of the Roman Empire.
Baseball and Basketball
While these sports are nowhere near as brutal as football, a significant number of players suffer injuries ranging from merely painful to often serious enough to shut them down for extended periods of time, and more often than not a lifetime of debilitating physical ailments.
Despite severe penalties for “illegal” substance abuse either to play through the pain or enhance their performance, more than a few constantly run the risk of those penalties in order to play at the level needed. Additionally, the medical staff and trainers provide the players with everything from surgical repair to a cornucopia of “legal” drugs, massage therapy, heat and ice treatments, and physical therapy to dull the pain and permit them to play hurt
Baseball pitchers routinely blow out their elbows and need surgery requiring a year or more of recovery. For the position players, injuries to their knees, backs, and hips requiring extended down time is common. And effects lingering well into old age are as much the rule as the exception.
In basketball the injuries requiring surgical repair, extensive shut down short of surgery, life-time damage to knees / backs/ Achilles tendons, wrists, ankles, and virtually every body part are even more common than in baseball.
Tennis and Golf
These essentially non-contact sports also wreak havoc on the backs, hips, knees, elbows of most of the players at one time and another – and again, with effects lingering for the rest of their lives
Even in “amateur” sporting events, reaching the Olympics in gymnastics, field and track, swimming, and figure skating requires the same dedication and training as preparing to be a professional athlete. Usually the “amateur” has a professional career or some kind of financial pay-off in mind. To that end the years of training they put in to reach the Olympics are no different than professional athletes. The injuries they suffer, specific to their sport, even if they never go on to a professional career, more often than not guarantee a variety of physical ailments throughout life
What all these “sports” have in common is that they exist in a society where “workers” – from factory hands to University Presidents and all occupations in between – in order to put food on the table have to “sell” their labor to those who have the money and power to “buy” it. Okay, that is definitely “Marxist” – but what can I do if it happens to be a fact?
Given the precarious economic insecurity built into these (capitalistic) social arrangements, it should surprise no one that those with athletic ability will sacrifice their bodies hoping to become, like the gladiators of old, the lucky few who will attain enough success and fortune to “buy” their freedom.
I will be watching the game. Actually, I will tune in an hour before the start and listen to the pundits tell me everything I need to know to make me feel like I am an expert.
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Jack Moscou is a co-founder of The Writers Collective. He has an extensive background in management training, strategic planning, and political consulting. His commentary on political events was previously posted in www.bloggingforutopia.com. He is the author of Why Not Utopia: A Political Platform in Search of a Party.