Gladiatorial contests were the “sport” of choice of the Roman Empire for more than 650 years. Losing gladiators were regularly wounded or killed, outcomes in which the audience often had the final say (thumbs up or down or a closed fist with two fingers extended). Such decisions were reportedly accompanied by screams of “let him go!” or “slay him!” These days, it’s hard to imagine such crowds in arenas absorbing those imperial bread-and-circus events carried out by Roman captives, slaves, or often desperate free men and ex-soldiers (or sometimes even women), some of whom became stars of their moment. As Evan Andrews has written at History.com, “Their portraits graced the walls of many public places; children played with gladiator action figures made of clay; and the most successful fighters even endorsed products just like the top athletes of today.”
All of this should, of course, sound at least faintly familiar. It’s now common knowledge that, in America’s “blood sport” of choice, the players, generally men of color, essentially beat each other into states just short of death over the years, or so the latest information on brain damage and football would indicate. This isn’t a subject that’s still awaiting definitive research (though such research continues) or in any way in doubt. And yet professional football, which, according to Gallup, superseded the slower, quieter, so much less violent baseball as the “national pastime” in 1972 (just as the Vietnam War was grinding to an end) and in this century left baseball in the dust, ignored the issue of brain injury for years.
It’s reasonable, in fact, to think of football as America’s version of the Roman imperial pastime, even if our arenas aren’t just stadiums but living rooms, dining rooms, bars, and these days more or less anywhere you happen to be with your personal version of a screen. Recently, in the manner of a modern emperor offering bread and circuses to the masses, Donald Trump placed professional football (especially its violence) at the very center of our overheated, over-tweeted politics.
In reality, everyone should be disgusted by a game which batters not just the limbs of its players but their brains in monstrous ways and by a president who calls for yet more of it. I certainly am, but let me just add that I’ve been a football fan since my father took me, at age six in 1950, to see the Brooklyn team in the soon-to-expire American Football League. This year, my team, the New York Giants, are 1-5 and launched on a season even more dismal than that of baseball’s New York Mets last summer. So I’m almost ready to stop watching but — to fully fess up — gross as I find the brain-damage aspect of the game, I still find myself watching which, I believe, makes me a bona fide imperial spectator doing everything but shouting “slay him!” at the screen. To make amends, let me offer you TomDispatch’s regular jock culture correspondent, Robert Lipsyte, so that he can do what I haven’t yet brought myself to do and offer a thumbs down to Donald Trump’s game of games.