Circus Sports

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.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 at 5:17 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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14 Responses to “Circus Sports”

  1. Steve Bretch said:

    I like the “garden porn” analogy. It’s those catalogs. The false pictures make you want those plants. So you spend and spend. But once they grow and bloor, they look nothing like the color enhansed one in a million blooms you see in the catalog. But after all these years, I still fall for the sham. And the money back guarentee! Buy the bulb or plant in fall, wait all winter and most of the spring. Then if it does not come up of comes up and dies, then one is suposed to have retained the receipt and somme how get his money back or a replacement. Have you actually ever tried this? It really is a sham. Those catalogs and not Internet pictures.

    • George said:

      Dear Steve,

      Thanks for posting. We try to select pictures that show the best features of the subject. A bit like a high school yearbook. Frankly, I have never liked the “porn” analogy. “To a bee it’s Playboy?” Will that be next? (At least it is funny.) Like filthy jokes, such vices appeal to our baser instincts and provoke involuntary, spasmic responses. Am I wrong? I wish garden writers would drop the use of the analogy.

      Do you think the photos exceed the real colors in the garden? I might disagree a bit. Also, we are not “shamming” you. Flowers are very difficult to photograph accurately, particularly the blues. Enjoy your garden, good luck and thank you again for posting.

  2. Becky Steuber said:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your history of the orgins of professional football!!
    Though I was born in Lexington Ky, my Father fell out with his Thorobred horse farm family and
    bought an island (Snead Island) near Bradenton,
    where I grew up, because of poor schools I was sent to Greensburg Pa to boarding school, but could return home when my work was done; so I spent little time at school. The first person my Father let live on our island had a wife who was a trapeze performer so I became very aware of all the Ringling folk, our TV repairman was the tall man. We knew all of the “shot out of canons family and though circus life was truly nomadic and hard; these europeans were mostly a truly heroic group of family oriented people, very similar to the clans of the appalachian hill dwellers in KY in environs such as Hyden, Hazard and Yerkes. The risks they took, testing the limits of human endurance, and strength as well as daring are things I marvel at still. In South Florida in those years there was also a healthy component of Romany peoples who often traveled
    by trailing the circus. Many of the nefarious things attributed to circus folk were actually perpetrated by the gypsy culture.

    I enjoy football, but during those years The Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds wintered in Bradenton, and the whole community had the opportunity to see sportsman play their hearts out for no money, with no equipment to speak of.
    and I find that is still my favorite, and to me
    they were the true gladiators.

    • George said:

      Dear Becky,

      What a fascinating post! I’m speechless. Please post again to your heart’s content. By the way, my dad had a small place in Palma Sola, not far from Bradenton. Once, when I was helping him shuffle messy stuff around, I stayed in a hotel in downtown Bradenton. This was the mid 70s. I read Humboldt’s Gift in this crummy hotel room. One remembers reading books in exotic places. Thanks very much for posting, and please do so again.

  3. Sue Wallace said:

    My dad was only 6 ft. tall, but he was an All-American quarterback for Wisconsin in 1927. I never understood the joy he took from this game, which seemed dull, loud, pointless and raucus entertainment to me. However, he became a great gardener, and the much-admired superintendent of large California school district, where he left a much better mark on many young people than he did in his college days.
    Enjoy your manly steaks!

    • George said:

      Dear Sue,

      Wow! What a guy! Most women dislike football, I think. The exceptions might include cheerleaders and young women who dated players. It is a very fast game, and I agree with you that it is far too rough these days. The prime rib was delicious, but I’m not sure about the “manly” part. (Adam’s rib? Are you “ribbing” me?) Ted’s does a nice job and I like Ted Turner, who started up the chain. Their creamed spinach is also tasty. These are rare—or I should say medium rare—vices. But I do share some of the fatty bits with the dogs, especially in the dead of winter. Thanks for posting.

  4. William Gould said:

    I dislike football tremendously.

    • George said:

      Dear Bill,

      Hope you like baseball. Better yet, hope you like our plants. Thank you for posting.

  5. Susan said:

    For another perspective on football and sports from s noted scientist, read “Game:The Prehistoric Origin of Sports” by Carl
    Sagan.

    • George said:

      Dear Susan,

      Didn’t know Sagan focused on so many “stars”. Thanks for the helpful post.

  6. joseph st germain said:

    Facial hair means your not a true gentleman? I’ve had a mustache for over 30 years, love to garden, both flowers, and vegetables. I guess Abe Lincoln was a circus freak as well. My guess is your not manly enough to grow any decent facial hair, but that’s just a guess on my part.Have a great day!

    • George said:

      Dear Joe,

      Sorry to offend you. I was trying to write in context and failed. I meant to focus on NFL star quarterbacks. If one is going to be in the spotlight, one best be perfectly groomed in my view. Court, the White House, the Jumbotron. As for Lincoln, he was clean shaven as a young man. Ironically, he grew his beard to soften his tremendous jaw and chin. Finley’s Oakland A’s—remember the moustache club they had going on? Doesn’t stand up well in retrospect. I’m simply a fan of a clean shave for public or official functions. Anyone who knows me will attest that I indulge often in facial hair. But when it is customer, lawyer or banker visits, I cut to the razor, so to speak. Thanks for posting and, again, my sincere apology.

  7. Bob Fajardo said:

    Very good article and I enjoyed reading it. There are lots of unknowns out there in the field poundng one another into pulps, putting “punishing hits” or superstars and other unknowns for an average NFL career of about three years. They then disappear, but the physical damage they’ve done to themselves and other long-term players will show up sooner or later.

    Even in college, players are fond of saying ‘it’s a war’ but it isn’t. It’s a game.

    When I was young, I remember the Bears winning their division and carrying George Halas off the field on their shoulders. In the locker room, they chanted, “Hooray for George, hooray Halas, hooray for George, he’s a horse’s ass.”

    Maybe he was.

    • George said:

      Dear Bob,

      First, are you the late Barbara Fajardo’s husband? She was a bit of a friend and, to me, one of the best psychologists of her time. Brilliant work on childhood, to say the least.

      In any case, thank you for the post. I agree. We should return to “playing” the sport. But the media and gambling have changed all that. I believe Halas was a genius. But then I am a big Bears fan. And the use of “horse’s ass” is actually a term of endearment in a reverse psychology way. The military uses it a lot. His players loved and respected him. A childhood friend of mine’s mother was his secretary.

      Thanks again.

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