Pigskins et Circenses
What’s the point of the sports entertainment industry, other than keeping you distracted and poor?
Last weekend, a video of eager Dallas Cowboys fans sprinting into AT&T Stadium was posted to X by Jon Machata, who covers the Cowboys for the Athletic. The scene looked more like one of those Black Friday videos of shoppers trying to box each other out to save a few inflated dollars on a flat-screen TV.
Commenters quickly pointed out that the reason for the frenzy was that AT&T Stadium has a plethora of standing-room-only seats that are on a first-come-first-serve basis—making the behavior all the more “reasonable.”
The Latin phrase “panem et circenses,” or “bread and circuses,” is usually bandied around whenever mobs and entertainment mix; here is no exception. The bread and circuses of Imperial Rome are normally cast by historians and commentators as palliative distractions meant to keep the masses appeased and docile in order to maintain regime popularity: a tool used by the powerful to keep the underclass happy.
Yet it also makes one wonder if “bread and circuses” are an inherent feature of imperial prosperity, rather than an ad hoc solution pushed by Rome’s rulers. Two millennia ago, hardy Romans filled with “republican virtu” were able to defeat the Samnites and the Carthaginians in a series of brutal and existential wars, paving the way for Rome to sweep quickly across the Mediterranean and bring in vast wealth and exotic luxuries to the Eternal City. But, as it happens throughout history, when men become rich, they become bored, and quickly seek to fill their lives with entertainment and base distraction. One need look no further than Petronius’ Satyricon, which is filled with scenes of lavish banquets and debauched orgies that look like they were plucked out of 2023 and not 63.
The U.S. has shared a similar trajectory. Since the end of the Second World War, and even more so since the fall of the Berlin Wall, America has enjoyed levels of prosperity unknown to human history. The same spirit that animated the humble backwoods farmers and militiamen that took the field at Lexington and Concord also catapulted our country to such heights that our chief executive is known as “the leader of the Free World.”
But is that same spirit alive and well in the modern men who spend hundreds of dollars and hours of their time (on a day supposed to be devoted to rest) to gorge themselves on slop and watch grown men play ball games—not to mention the countless other “distractions” of modern life: music, movies, and television? Doubtful. This peculiar and overindulgent obsession with petty distractions, and professional sports in particular, seems rather like the behavior of a people fit to be conquered.
I grew up both playing and watching sports. As a native Clevelander, I was an ardent devotee of our proud history of losing. I remember getting into soccer before it was popular and casting my lot as a fan of Liverpool. I remember setting up our fantasy football draft with my cousin and his friends, complete with football magazines and a giant whiteboard, before the internet streamlined the process.
Yet somewhere between 2015 and 2018, coinciding with the return of LeBron James to Cleveland and the renewed prospects of the Indians—or so they were called back then—finally winning a World Series, I found myself filling my free time with sports media, following the latest drama, closely watching the latest predictions, purchasing memorabilia, all while gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of players and stats only really useful to those playing and coaching the game but entirely useless to me. I wasn’t addicted, but it was something akin to addiction; looking back, I could see how it could have easily consumed me and still consumes many of America’s young men.
A key saving grace was that I didn’t really have the means or inclination to combine sports with alcohol and gambling. Now, with the rise of sportsbooks and online gambling that turn your smartphone into a glorified slot machine, I see a bleak future of countless young men mired in debt trying to get a fix, drunkenly watching their favorite team lose, all while commercials and in-game advertisements condemning “White Supremacy” and celebrating trans athletes are interspersed between drives.
Covid came and got me asking, “What’s the point?” Empty stadiums, politically motivated moralisms, and the renaming of my beloved Indians ultimately killed any interest I had left in professional sports. Newly married at the time and penned in by lockdowns, I found starting a family, spending time with my wife, reading, and praying were ultimately more enjoyable and fulfilling activities than tuning into the weekly sportsball game. With sports out of my life, the words of Qoheleth ring even more true that “all is vanity.”
Modern sports culture, although it has its origins in America’s post-war prosperity, really does serve as a palliative distraction for today’s young men. It doesn’t seem like past generations ever had this much of a fixation on athletic competition, nor the inflated media complex surrounding it. Imagine if the time, treasure, and talent spent on following sports were channeled instead into the pursuit of physical excellence, intellectual enrichment, or sanctity. In an echo of Plato, men might emerge from the “man-cave” and begin asking each other “what are my children being taught,” “where are my tax dollars going,” “what exactly am I eating,” instead of “who won the game last night?”
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The danger that such an awakening would bring was best summarized recently by the online personality Raw Egg Nationalist in the Tucker Carlson Original documentary The End of Men: “The Globalists want you to be fat, sick, depressed, and isolated. The better to control you and to milk you for as much economic value as they can.…Well-ordered, disciplined groups of men, bound by friendship, are dangerous. Precisely because of what they can do. They can upset the status quo just like that. A few hundred men can conquer an empire.”
Let’s hope that a few hundred men are able to look away from one of our modern sirens, turn off the game, exit the man-cave, and topple the empire of “Big Sports.” As for me and my house, with one son and the potential for another (I am not allowed to say yet), sports will still have their place. I see myself tuning-in to an important tennis match every now and then and still playing from time to time. But I will prioritize playing instead of watching sports with my boys. My children will have saints, poets, and conquerors to look up to instead of athletically gifted has-beens, and they will learn to be good for its own sake, not because it makes you a good teammate, or something like that.
At the end of the day, the memory of my dad playing catch with me on an autumn’s eve is so incredibly alive in my mind. Yet, my only vivid memory of the Cavaliers breaking Cleveland’s championship drought in 2016 was a friend asking me afterward, “Who cares?” I’m beginning to think he was right.