Have you ever wondered what it is about sports that so excites our young progeny? Or, at least, many of them? I recall that, for some of us, one of the highlights of reaching middle school was the opportunity to participate in school-sponsored team sports for the first time. Unless, of course, one had already been indoctrinated into this realm of activity via little league baseball, or those strange, tiny-person football groups where parents sternly direct their toddlers to just get out there and block and tackle! (There is no way any one of these youngsters would do this of his own volition unless he had a disturbing personality disorder.)
It is my scientific gut feeling that the reason for this is two-fold–at least for the boys. First, there is good, old-fashioned peer pressure. The need to be “one of the guys.” Second, in our hearts we just know that girls are really impressed with the physical prowess of the guys who play sports. (I don’t know if this is true. It never occurred to me to actually ask a girl. If I had, for all I know, I might have saved myself a lot of trouble.)
In our earlier days, say 10,000 years ago, being strong and healthy was paramount to survival. And having the guile and agility to hunt and kill food, or, of equal importance, to avoid finding oneself on the wrong end of the food chain, meant a longer life. Some of our ancestors with these attributes might have even made it to a doddering, old thirty years of age or so and, in any event, survived long enough to pass their genes down to us moderns. This might explain our seemingly inherent urge to simply be physically active and to compete with one another. Although we no longer have to outrun any sabre toothed tigers, the exercise feels good and it’s always fun to play.
We, as a species, also really enjoy wars–or at least the beginning of wars. Man, that is so exciting! And wars give us a chance to use our various and easily mastered warfare talents (killing, raping, pillaging, and plundering, for example) to pummel (did I mention pummeling?) the daylights out of our chosen adversaries and claim the prizes (that would be the plundering). By the way, in my experience I have often found that those who are most averse to, willy-nilly, igniting a revolution say, or initiating hostilities with one’s neighbors, are those who have been there and done that. They recall that it seemed like a good idea at the time. But they also found that it is a lot easier to start a war (assuming one is not compelled to participate in it) than to end one. And, of course, just walking away when the novelty wears thin doesn’t mean it’s over. In fact, it ain’t over ’til somebody rolls over or is otherwise bludgeoned into submission.
So, being smart, we listen to our elders and read our history books and conclude that it might be best to temper our enthusiasm for the exhilaration of an occasional bloodbath and find other ways to vent our pent-up testosterone.
Usher in the gladiators.
Gladiators were first introduced to Roman society in about the first century, BCE. The Romans had pretty much taken over everything in the world by then, and thus, there were fewer and fewer opportunities to enjoy a little hand-to-hand combat. So, with no other way to turn, they decided to erect the Flavian Amphitheatre, or, as it is more commonly know, the Coliseum, where Romans, bored with their everyday, hum-drum lives, could catch some action.
Of course it was necessary to find someone to provide this action. Further, since such action almost always involved certain, grisly death for at least one of the participants, volunteers were relatively rare. Not only that, they had to be constantly replaced! So, the Romans proceeded to conscript slaves, condemned criminals and unrepentant Christians (these were all a dime-a-dozen back in those days) among others who were coerced into providing some entertainment for the masses (probably on Sunday afternoons) by brutally killing one another with crude weapons, or ravaging and killing large, exotic animals, or being ravaged and killed by large, exotic animals. The enjoyment of observing these activities was diminished only by the ridiculous cost of a warm, Roman beer at the Coliseum. (Yes! They had beer in ancient Rome, but, ice boxes were hard to come by!)
A lot of water has passed over the aqueducts since the height of the Roman Empire. The empire eventually fell apart, of course, which reintroduced abundant opportunity for the newly sovereign remnants to once again visit carnage upon one another. So the Coliseum was no longer needed and left to fall to ruin.
But eventually scores were settled and new boundaries established until we finally made it all the way to the 19th century. Phew.
Usher in the football players.
In the 1800s, resurrecting the concept of a Coliseum-like venue was a given. We found, however, that the activities to be conducted in our arenas in this new era would have to be toned down a bit. That is, since the mambsey-pambsey’s in our midst frowned on chopping, hacking, and whacking people and animals to death with dull swords and maces, we would have to come up with something just a little tamer. So we invented Rugby.
But, by the early 20th century, even that was too much for the faint of heart among us. (Original rule book for Rugby? One page, two rules: Rule no. 1: pick up the ball and run with it. Rule no. 2: don’t let the other team pick up the ball and run with it.) So we finally found a compromise with good old American football. (NFL football rule book? 297 pages: looks like it was written by the IRS.)
As humankind passed through the 20th century, we were still inclined to have a bit of a set-to amongst ourselves from time to time, but, by and large, it eventually came to pass that the western world would rather watch a good fight than actually get into one.
The modern football stadium of the 21st century is majestic, certainly beyond the imagination of any ancient Roman gladiator fan. The beer still costs too much, but the size and grandeur of these edifices is unparalleled. And we no longer have to drag contestants into the ring by the scruffs of their necks, since a five-million-dollar-a-year salary encourages some of us (who should know better) to take a crack at whacking and smacking one another solely for the amusement of the rest of us. And thus we also sate our inborn desire for competition and mayhem, albeit vicariously.
So, there you go. Football players are now the modern equivalent of the gladiators. And, just like the ancient Romans, we can go to the stands, get drunk, scream and yell and give the ol’ thumbs up or down for our local team. And be glad that we don’t have to actually participate in the hostilities in order to have a little fun. So far.
Coliseum image compliments of Jean-Pol Grandmont.