Grappling to make sense of the suicide of football legend Junior Seau, Takeo Spikes, a fourteen-year NFL veteran, spoke of modern football players as gladiators. “We are so prideful in the way people view us as modern-day gladiators, how tough we are, how we can fight through anything and keep it all inside.”
Spikes described being a gladiator as a way to manage the internal and external pain. Football players grind it out for pride, career and money. They know that when they stop, someone else will immediately take their place. They are expendable, just like gladiators.
I was thinking about this image of football players when I recently wandered through the ancient Roman Coliseum. I was struck by how familiar it felt. Inside arches hovered over concourses similar to any modern stadium. You could see where the hawkers sold their wares and food. The cool stone kept out the heat. If the glorious marble facade had remained and gleamed in the Roman sun, it could have been any modern football stadium like Cowboy Stadium.
Outside I would have found ticket scalpers and huge crowds jostling to get in. Inside the ticket sections would segregate by wealth and class except for the section set aside for the Vestal Virgins. The wide oval track swept the arena. The ruins revealed the labyrinth beneath the stadium for special effects and to house the exotic animals used in hunter games.
Every city of the Roman Empire had its own amphitheater and games. The games represented the pulsing heart of the Roman Empire’s self-image as a martial society. The games displayed courage, bravery, physical toughness and martial skill in battles to the death. The spectators carried a powerful voice in whether gladiators would live/die after their battles.
The gladius remained the standard Roman military sword for four hundred years. Their title derived from the symbol of Roman conquest underlined the symbolic seriousness of the games. Gladiators epitomized the martial soul of Rome and fought for life and death, just as every Roman army and soldier had.
A gladiator could fight and lose, but if he fought with skill and courage, the crowd often saved him. In fact the gladiator owners preferred that gladiators live to fight another day and save their investment in their slaves.
Gladiators were slaves. Businessmen owned them. Gladiators attended schools for years before they were allowed to compete and graduated to different levels of competition. People rooted for their schools or colors as much as individual gladiators. In desperate times units of gladiators fought as soldiers.
The sport was built on slaves, outcasts, criminals—a person could be sentenced to the games—or barbarians from the provinces. The underclasses provided the recruitment pool. Gladiators could gain wealth but they started at the bottom and used the violence of the games to escape.
Roman citizens were not allowed to be gladiators. To “volunteer” for the arena, citizens gave up their rights and took on aspects of an indentured servant.
Successful gladiators could be amply rewarded. They were treated as celebrities. Gladiators were feted and recognized on the streets. Artists drew them and created statues of them. Their images appeared on jewelry. Some drawings emphasized their scars and wounds to glorify their toughness. Groupies hung around them.
I remember a line from a novel, “where there is blood, there is money.” The speaker was commenting how blood sports always attracted audiences even when they were illegal. Football hovers on the edge of this. Every recent defense of football begins with “football is a violent and dangerous sport.” Correct.
Most of football’s blood, however, flows from internal injuries, but seldom on field death.
Modern Americans worship football as a metaphor for their martial past and future. Battle imagery saturates media coverage of the games. Many football games begin with flyovers of military aircraft.
The American empire centers its metaphorical identity as solidly in football as the Romans did in gladiators.
Despite this symbolic similarity, football players are not gladiators. Remember, Romans gloried in gladiators’ willingness to kill each other as entertainment. Romans gorged on the violence, bravery and slaughter of the games.
Americans also confuse sport and entertainment with their identity. But football is not mortal combat. It is certainly not even resemble war with its ritualized resets for each play.
Football does have schools and training. It thrives on colors and loyal following. Only the elite of the elite survive to play college or professional football. But players do not really risk death on the field. Most know that they will suffer injuries but can barely envision the later life crippled by accumulated leg, knee and back injuries. Modern football players also have the option of an education to carve out a different life when they leave football. Roman Gladiators seldom lived beyond 35, and the vast majority died in their twenties. They remained slaves at the end of their brief careers. American football players have a different, slower physical fate awaiting them.
We don't want football players to be gladiators for another reason. Modern historians believe the games represented an assertion of Roman superiority over the barbarians, slaves and underclass. After all they slay each to entertain jaded Romans.
The contestants were NOT ROMAN CITIZENS. Desperation and lack of freedom drove most gladiators. The Romans in the stands could feel a clear superiority gladiators who died for them, even if they admired the skill. As the gladiators would salute, "Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant" (we who are about to die salute you).
Gladiators risked life and health to entertain the Roman masses. They risked life and health to prove to the masses that the Romans were superior to them. They risked life and health to enact values that masses no longer possessed but believed their society did.
My friend and mentor Hubert Locke hates football. He believes the young minority males who make up the majority of football players are reduced to being American gladiators. Hubert sees no glory or joy, only the assertion of class superiority and the loss of talent and energy that could be devoted to better aims for those young men. He views football and its glittering circus as a false dream for the poor and dispossessed to find a way out risking their bodies to entertain the masses. Part of what he says is correct.
As Rome declined, the game grew uglier and meaner. The games died out because the society could not afford to support them or the giant arenas. Then, of course, the barbarians conquered Rome.