Often sports critics and detractors of general pop culture trace the gladiator-like quality of professional sports back to decadent Roman times. But this is only partly true. Let us consider American football, which has sickened me deeply for the past 48 hours, and I do not even watch TV.
The American circus played the greatest role as the root of professional sports, if not of all today’s popular culture. Its seasonality, vulgarity, scandals, gypsy-like society and freak-show popularity are played every hour on perpetual nationwide media.
But the story of football is special. It was played seriously first by colleges. Everyone admired colleges in the 19th century. Most were established by churches, so this respect was justified. It persists in the expression “the first in the family to go to college”. Colleges served as models for local communities, later rivaling local churches and eventually overtaking them in social importance in post Civil War society. One aspired to become a “college man”. As scientific progress leapt forward in the late 19th century, they attracted financial and government support through the states’ land-grant university system. Higher education exploded in popularity. A high school degree was essential, but there was no substitute for a college education. And while math, science and engineering benefitted greatly, the social sciences and other liberal arts, while worthy—certainly to me—prospered less during this era 100 years ago.
The rapid development of colleges and universities was not lost on the carnival and circus communities. Circuses travel from spring to fall. As the bosses were packing up to move down to Florida for their winter break, they glanced over to the crowds swarming local college campuses. As Andy Griffith memorably recorded it, “What it was, was football”. The three-ring executives thought to themselves, these football guys are drawing huge crowds to pay money to sit in the cold up north to watch a brawl or melee of tough guys. Sometimes, one of these fellows is hit so hard he’s carried off the grassy oval on a stretcher! And, at the end of less than 1 ½ hours, they heard such cheers as they had never heard in their hardscrabble careers.
Word got around. Eventually, talented entrepreneurs like Curly Lambeau, George Halas and others got into the game, literally and figuratively, of “professional football”. They sought out talents like Sid Luckman (who invented the “T” formation). They even hired thugs—a long tradition in the circus world, as well as in the city of Chicago. It was something like “professional bear dancing” in their vernacular, but they didn’t care. Circus people knew what folks liked, and folks liked to be entertained hard.
Thus football entered most regions of the human nervous system: music, cheerleaders, carnival midway food, booming player introductions, spotlights and fireworks, and the spinal column of community marketing support. It was a surprise too: a winter circus—made to order for the early days of radio and television.
The circus guys couldn’t believe their luck. Today they must be rolling in their graves at the salaries, income, cash flowing into “professional football”. If betting at the horse races in the 30s and 40s was big, today’s football is monumental. Hundreds of thousands devote large chunks of their adult lives on what is little more than a carnival act.
“Just-popped flavor!” Popcorn in winter? Plus, one could persuade the locals to build a permanent stadium for 16 weekend games. They serve also for mass weddings and gospel revivals. Enter the modern mass media of the 1960s. The circus executives—mostly ex-construction workers— and their investors had their minds blown.
Back to last weekend: there I was in front of a TV at Ted’s Buffalo Grill in Warrington, PA, picking up a prime rib to go. I’d been listening to the Bears game on my car radio and became hungry. As regular readers know, I don’t watch TV, and my car radio is the only one I have that picks up Chicago stations here in Palookaville and its environs. Sometimes I drive on the turnpike for better reception—I’m a fan.
And there was the glowing tube at Ted’s—jerky camera edits, swooping angles as if you were a little bird, shots of the crowds looking like crazed animals. I was impressed by the sophisticated theatrical technology. But its essence is the circus. A wise man said long ago, “Beware of staring at monsters lest you become one”.
We in the horticulture industry share some features. Recently I read a reference to our catalogues as “garden porn”. I felt unpleasant, but I understood the analogy. We share the seasonality, the gypsy-like ups and downs of the internet and direct mail industry. “Do you love me this year?” etc. But we have no trapeze artists (I wish), lions, tigers or dancing elephants. But unlike football, we have no players whose knees and hips have their effective lives shortened 30 to 40%, not to mention the concussions that have begun to approach boxing levels.
Ironically, during the early years of college football, players wore little padding and a sort of leather cap. Also, they played both offense and defense, so most stayed on the field the entire game. They needed to conserve energy. So they played with care—it had not yet become a circus. Hence, few damaging injuries. Today, the players feel invincible within their armor-like equipment and post-injury therapies and medicines. They take greater risks than the players did 100 years ago. Those guys rarely, if ever, got hurt, much less damaged.
Sixty years ago, men of my grandfather’s generation used to watch Chicago Bears films at “smokers”. TV didn’t exist back then. Someone would get hold of a projector and screen, and then a set of recent game films. They’d occasionally scream and yell, just like guys do today in front of their flat screens. It can be 7° outside and the circus is in town! The real, actual circus folks now play the big casinos with their huge indoor theaters—and Vegas has become Disneyland. So, goodbye Baraboo, Wisconsin summer headquarters and the Sarasota/Bradenton winter homes where the circus folk would rebuild stage props, oil the gears of the “Wild Toad”, and raise families. Another vanishing world, like that of speed skating, (please see Black Ice Blues).
This “roustabout” culture persists somewhat in professional sports. Also, there are a few transcedent geniuses. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Joe Montana, for example. Dick Butkus, Richard Dent, Michael Jordan. And today’s Aaron Rodgers, Brian Urlacher, Roy Halladay and Derek Jeter. True, God-given super talents. But the rest? Wonderful athletes playing their hearts out for the peanuts and popcorn. Expensive snacks these days, and the players make stratospheric salaries. But, that’s marketing. We go to glimpse the geniuses. And we pay.
George Halas—the man who created what we now call football—was having a problem meeting payroll back in the ‘30s. It was still the Great Depression Era. He called up Curly Lambeau and asked for a loan. “No problem.” Later, Curly needed a new coach for the Packers. George told him about Vince Lombardi. “He’s very good.” The rest is history. The greatest players in those days got a few thousand a year, while the coaches made what a school teacher would make today.
Like I say, circus people.
I hate to return again to last weekend. But it galls me to see a tremendous quarterback who is as cool as a cucumber, like Aaron Rodgers, wearing a mustache and chin beard. What’s up with that? And Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers wears a jaw beard. Enough with the facial hair! My man, Jay Cutler, who learned of his type one diabetes only a couple of years ago, is clean shaven. Now in his late 20s, he will have challenges keeping up in the brutal world of the NFL. He put in a fantastic season, given his condition, of which few are aware. (And where has Caleb Hainie been hiding?) Cutler shaves meticulously every morning. This is the mark of a gentleman. A civilized man. God bless him. Maybe he’s a gardener. This will comfort him in the off-season. And gardening beats golf.