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Every Knee Shall Bow: Against The Cult Of Sport In America

LEAR …whoreson dog! you slave! you cur!
OSWALD I am none of these, my lord; I beseech your pardon
LEAR [striking him] Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal?
OSWALD I’ll not be struck, my lord.
KENT Nor tripped neither, you base football player!
-King Lear; Act I, Scene iv

Sport and spectacle define a society in the midst of decay. Absent the glories of war and the satisfaction of creation, the spiritually deteriorated man finds substitutes for true accomplishment in sport. At their height, civilizations waste little time on sport and spectacle—but as they debase themselves, the spectacle moves closer and closer to the defining centre of commons. On one hand, the recent kerfuffle surrounding the behavior of our own gladiatorial class rejecting the emblems of unity and fellowship in the Empire bespeak the great chasm between those who live the games and those who behold them, and the mutual contempt each class holds for the other. First with individual protests, now with protests of solidarity, the great mass of PoC players declare “No, I am Spartacus!” at game after game, as public approval of their performance fades. Approval fades, but interest does not—and cannot, for it is a powerful ritual that is sustained by the culture of the dying Empire.

There is a broad array of alternative and mainstream media that have crafted different narratives and approaches to the National Football League, but they are tied together by two things. First, they all focus on the racial element of the protest phenomenon: whether decrying it as hypocritical race-baiting or emphasizing its import to either the White or Black races in the United States, all the commenters take the players at face value and claim that race is the central element of this protest. Second, even in their historic explanations, none venture back further than the 18th century, and therefore all miss the broader point.

Plutarch quotes Themistocles declaring, “I never learned to tune a harp, or play upon a lute; but I know how to raise a small and inconsiderable city to glory and greatness”. We have no Themistocles, and the motto of the West is today precisely the opposite: men who contribute nothing to the advance of the πολις, but can run quite fast and have sufficient hand-eye coordination to catch a ball thrown from a significant distance. Only a proletarian race can survive on such things—it distorts the human sense of greatness and significance, and dulls the senses to the transcendent and sublime.

Sport, the Games, and Athletics

We are obliged to draw a distinction here between two kinds of activity—one which sustains and one which distracts. The Romans called the latter by a variety of names; spectacule, the spectacles, or ludus, the games (whence “ludicrous” – relating to the games or stage), were the most common. For the former, they had a different term, borrowed from the Greek ἄθλος (“task, undertaking”)—ars athletica. Spectacule was for the arena, the amphitheatre, for the entertainment of audiences and distraction of the masses. Ars athletica was derived from the Greek Olympiad—a highly restrictive, exclusive activity in which only freemen of the Greek πολεις could compete, held before the abode of the gods in Olympia. Athletics were noble, celebrating the man and upholding the religious duty to the civitas: further, tying the word back to its root, it was an accomplishment. Games, or sport, were plebeian and vulgar—entertaining, certainly, but not uplifting or engaging. The gladiator achieved nothing, aspired to nothing, and could never be accused of cheating or underhandedness because those were the rules of the circus and amphitheatre. The athlete achieved or failed, aspired to perfection, and avoided dishonesty because it cheapened his crown and his manhood.

The Early Church likewise distinguished the two. Tracts by St. Augustine and John Chrysostom join tirades from the pages of Tertullian against the Games. Athletics, though, are spoken of by S. Paul as worldly echoes of divine things: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air”. The mastery of the body, and the display of this mastery for uplifting and inspiration, is wholly absent from the Games, where not beauty, but brutishness, is the rule.

Contrast S. Paul’s approving tone of ars athletica with Tertullian in his De Spectaculis:

What concord can the Holy Spirit have with spectacles? There is no public spectacle without violence to the spirit. For where there is pleasure, there is eagerness, which gives pleasure its flavour. Where there is eagerness, there is rivalry which gives its flavour to eagerness. Yes, and where there is rivalry, there also are madness, bile, anger, pain, and all the things that follow from them, and like them are incompatible with moral discipline. For even if a man enjoys the spectacles in modest and upright fashion, agreeably to his dignity, his age, and his natural character, still he cannot with a mind quite unstirred, or without some unspoken agitation of spirit.

Or, again, St. Augustine writing in Confessions of his friend Alypius, who attempted to resist the allure of the games even when his friends dragged him to the amphitheatre:

For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on You. For, directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness; nor did he turn away, but fixed his eye, drinking in madness unconsciously, and was delighted with the guilty contest, and drunken with the bloody pastime.

The critique is consistent—savageness, agitation, drunkenness—all words which are directly opposed to the virtues of athletics, namely discipline, temperance, and moderation. The reader will immediately notice that these are not uniquely Christian virtues, either—Marcus Aurelius, the great Stoic Emperor, was highly suspicious of the games, and went as far as to hear and sign documents at the circus rather than watching the races, and among his major reforms were explicit caps on expense during gladiatorial shows. He had two influences in this, one positive and one negative. The first was the man he regarded as the Great Roman, Seneca the Younger, who wrote of the games to his friend Lucilius:

Nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings… The outcome of every fight is death, and the means are fire and sword. This sort of thing goes on while the arena is empty. You may retort: "But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!" And what of it? Granted that, as a murderer, he deserved this punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? … The young character, which cannot hold fast to righteousness, must be rescued from the mob; it is too easy to side with the majority. Even Socrates, Cato, and Laelius might have been shaken in their moral strength by a crowd that was unlike them; so true it is that none of us, no matter how much he cultivates his abilities, can withstand the shock of faults that approach, as it were, with so great a retinue.

Contrast this with the Emperor’s tutor in rhetoric, Fronto, who wrote to the young Stoic that “the Roman people is held together by two things: wheat doles and public shows”. Aurelius was in later life contemptuous of Fronto, considering him to be the “false successor” of the great Seneca (the true successor, Aurelius believed, was Quintus Junius Rusticus). Thus, while the common myth of Marcus Aurelius banning the games and his wicked son Commodus restoring them is clearly an exaggeration, it is really a sort of euhemerism of character.

For Stoics and Christians alike, the Games represented the very symbol of intemperance, incontinence, and bestial loss of humanity before the unfettered mob baying for the blood of strangers. They existed for the unwashed masses, whose obsession with them was so profound that there were talks of rioting when expenditure caps were placed on the games to prevent the economic implosion of the Empire. Fifteen hundred years later, Edward Gibbon would call Marcus Aurelius one of the “five good emperors” for his fiscal acumen, but in his own day, his popularity hinged on his support for the spectacule. The reader will summon immediate parallels before his mind’s eye—but for our readers from the Southern states, perhaps this will be reminiscent of the NCAA convincing Southerners to support taking down Confederate flags around their hometowns under threat that the local college team won’t be allowed to compete in basketball tournaments. So intemperate is the spirit of the mob of fans that they would cast their own heritage into the sea rather than surrender their beloved Games.

No wonder, then, that in 1365, Edward III of England saw fit to issue the following decree: “We ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood, and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cockfighting, or other such idle games”. In 1424, James I of Scotland issued a similar decree: "It is statut & the King forbiddis that na man play at the fut ball under payne of iiij d [4 pence]”. Both attempts failed—but they evidenced a surviving disgust with idle sporting entertainment, even as the deterioration of the public was at hand (part of Edward’s motivation is that young men were not learning any archery because of their participation in sport—so they could not serve in his army, defend their homes, or hunt for their survival).

The contrast, of course, is the enduring attitude towards athletics, the formative, uplifting form of exercise and athletics in contrast to the dissipating and immoderate sporting games. The athlete, in the true sense, is never present for the spectator, neither is he ever a spectator himself—he exists in another realm altogether, above and apart from the spectacles. The athlete competes for other athletes—to build up through competition, to master the body together and subdue weakness in the flesh. The coming of Christianity elevates this to part of a higher self-mastery: just as the arena fighter and spectators wade in a sea of drunkenness, the athlete is defined by his sobriety. The passions awakened in the midst of the diabolical miasma of blood, violence, and masturbatory displays of self-celebration (both in the ancient circus and modern in-zone) are calmed and mastered in the ancient boxing ring, on the track, and in the modern gym. Is it not telling that casual athletics were most often done at the baths, a place of purification and ritual?

Tempora Mutantur et Athletica Deteriorantur

The presence of athletics long antedates the presence of sport in any civilization. The Greeks who settled around Etruria brought with them their culture of personal κλέος – that is, glory or reputation – and with it the personal striving that accompanied athletics. Only later would the Latins, under Greco-Etruscan rulers, introduce gladiatorial combat as part of their funerary rites for those of great renown—and these would co-exist with athletics in the Greek sense until the second or third century BC, by which time athleta had begun to refer to anyone who participated in the games—even, occasionally, gladiators. A similar trajectory follows the practice of athletics in the West. The beating heart of chivalric life in the 10th-13th century was the Hastilude, especially the joust, where athletic feats were performed by select nobles before other nobility—by the time of Henry VIII, even Kings would involve themselves (though usually incognito) in the tournaments to prove their mettle against skilled opponents. (Our parallel with the Roman ars athletica is not original, either—Paulus Hector Mair would write of the practice in the 16th century in a work De Arte Athletica).

The Hastilude is marked by the clear good faith of participants—they are mock battles between opponents on good terms with each other, each seeking to assert his skill and train himself for battle. In this sense, they were similar to the Olympiad in that they trained athletes for the masculine undertaking of war. The emergence of mob sport in the 11th and 12th centuries begins the history of conflict between ludus and ars athlethica in the Faustian West. Just as the gladiatorial games had been rooted in religious ritual, so too football itself (the eldest brother of the family of sports that now dominate the landscape) came to be associated with feast and festival. Shrovetide Football, as this early form of street-ball was called, came to be the favorite pastime of commoners during the time before Lent, especially in France and England—where likewise the first laws to control the sport came into effect. The attitude of the Kings of Europe was that this activity, far from being athletic in nature, was merely indulgence in mob violence for entertainment—and nobles were as corrupted by observing the sport as ordinary peasants were by playing it.

Nevertheless, the aristocratic ars athletica continued to decline until the martial arts of the West were rarely practiced, and nobles adopted sports like rugby football and eventually soccer as their preferred means of athletic training. By the late 19th century, even the collegiate fencing clubs were beginning to wane, and a rebellion against the rise of the spectacule in the form of various forms of football led to the Lebensreformbewegung in Germany, and similar back-to-nature health movements. These movements dovetailed into existing attempts to revive the Olympiad (themselves rooted in the Jacobin elements of the French Revolution seeking the brotherhood of man through a national Olympic games), resulting in the rise of a progressive-minded athletic movement that dominated primarily among the bourgeoisie and aristocracy (itself giving rise both through the National Socialist fixation with athletics and the contemporary leftist fascination with Eastern forms like yoga). Nothing, however, has so far restored the original spirit of the West’s own ancient ars athletica.

Instead, the term “athlete” has itself been degraded further, as competitive sport came to be the principal form of athletic training in the Atlantic world. The popularization of association football in the 1880s especially set the stage for team sports to outpace athletics of individual achievement in popularity and lucrativeness. American Football, a hybrid born of the adoption of Union Rugby rules by Rutgers and Harvard University’s football teams, outpaced all other forms on this continent in popularity. The National Football League, formed in 1920, was (ironically) largely the result of a desire to get skyrocketing salaries and mid-season transfers under control. The entire basis of play to that point, however, had been to draw spectators. The first paid game took place in Pennsylvania, and the origin was a graduate of Gettysburg College coaching the Latrobe Athletic Association’s team.

Permit, dear reader, a brief digression for context on this point. The good people of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, have long been known for their financial acumen and mastery of those skills every capitalist regards as indispensable to his vocation—for it was on July 5, 1863, that the tourism industry around Gettysburg was born, when the people of Gettysburg scattered out among the field of bloated, stinking corpses to retrieve what souvenirs they could, including hundreds of Minié balls, belt-buckles, buttons, sabres, and other miscellaneous items that were not clearly attached to an identifiable body. Their collections would later form the core of the National Battlefield Museum (among other museums) in the town, now the second most visited battlefield of the War (the first, Kennesaw Mountain, in Georgia, only surpasses Gettysburg because local philistines use it as a dog park). A Scots utopian-socialist-turned-capitalist-photographer, Alexander Gardner, would add to this profiteering when he infamously picked through the bodies of the fallen at Devil’s Den for an attractive corpse that he then proceeded to haul around the battlefield, photographing as though he were different soldiers in different positions with different firearms. His daguerreotypes sold for dollars on the pence, and he later bought most of famous photographer Mathew Brady’s staff out from under him. It is telling that professional football should have been born in such a context—since it has been defined by precisely this base profiteering, in addition to those more ancient flaws of ludus and spectacule that did not provide competitors with remuneration.

Public Ritual and Personal Fortune

A quintessential achievement and defining invention of the Faustian Soul, Spengler wrote, was double-entry bookkeeping. It is the equivalent of the Classical invention of the coin. The coin, though, was of absolute value—profit was possible, but not capital in a Western sense.

Double-entry bookkeeping is a pure Analysis of the space of values, referred to a co-ordinate system, of which the origin is the “Firm”... Our economy-world is ordered by force and mass. A field of money-tensions lies in space and assigns to every object, irrespective of its specific kind, a positive or negative effect-value, which is represented by a book-entry... But the symbol of the functional money thus imagined… is not the actual book-entry, nor yet the share-voucher, cheque, or note, but the act by which the function is fulfilled in writing.

Unlike the ancient slave-traders and gladiator-trainers (some of whom were former gladiators themselves), then, who not only did not need to pay their “athletes”, but would themselves be paid by the state upon delivery of victims, Western team owners and league operators measure wealth in the abstract. It is the potential of the valued commodity, in this case the competitive skill of a given player, which drives profit in Western sport, not physical bodies, and therefore value in the Faustian arena is a function of players, coaches, the crowd, as well as the history and experience of each. It might be argued that it is baseball, with its open obsession with statistics, that is a better example, but gridiron football is nevertheless deeply ensconced in profit-driven cultural malaise.

As Tertullian observed, at “every public spectacle… madness of its own right rules”; this madness is commodified in America, which necessitates that it must be sustained and encouraged. The existence of “sports fans” is a form of madness—a sports fanatic. America has long been a nation of fanatical zeal—the popular mythology of America as a nation founded by men and women fleeing religious persecution is only a small part of a tapestry of religious and pseudo-religious fanaticism that has defined the American corner of Western civilization. The beauty of fanaticism is, of course, that is displays that which is otherwise immaterial and abstract, namely belief. Thus, the common thread in American fanaticism is the willingness to act; on a more banal and quotidian level, it manifests as the measure of normalcy in American society through popular rite and ritual. Numerous European observers have noted the American fixation with common social participation, from Tocqueville (his note on equality intones strongly here) to Weber—the latter, in particular, makes much of the confluence of religious and secular values in his essay “Churches” and “Sects” in North America:

Membership of a church community ‘of good repute’ (according to American criteria) guarantees the good standing of the individual, not only socially, but also, and especially, in terms of business… an older gentlemen who was a commercial traveller for Undertakers’ Hardware, with whom I spent some time in Oklahoma [said]… “everyone can believe what he likes, but if I discover that a client doesn’t go to church, then I wouldn’t trust him to pay me fifty cents. Why pay me, if he doesn’t believe in anything?”

Weber composed his essay in 1906, shortly after his return from the United States, at a time before the catastrophe of the Great War would introduce genuine Nihilism to a Europe already struggling with those spiritual maladies owing to material successes of the Industrial Age, and before American optimism would receive its first real setback with the Great Crash of 1929. Nevertheless, the rootedness in normalcy defined by belief has remained perhaps the one true constant in American culture. It does not actually matter what a man believes—as it might in a healthier society which requires a degree of religious orthodoxy—rather, what matters is that a man participates in social ritual. In 1906, this social ritual was tied to church membership, which in America meant a certain liberality of theology and only a vague sense of the deity, but a rigid devotion to church society and all its outward trappings.

In the wake of the World Wars, Europe generally saw a waning of belief—and Americans witness the rise of a sort of fetishization of Europe. Soldiers returning from Europe sought after what they had found overseas—on college campuses, this manifested in the adoption of European thought, which, after the latter half of the 1940s finally exhausted themselves, was fraught with a strange mixture of nihilistic atheism and utopian socialism. American faith, already largely hollow, became an easy target for the youths of the 1960s and 1970s, who infused the culture with a sort of casual, lazy-minded scepticism that had been brewing among the intelligentsia since around the turn of the century. However, the American need for ritual belonging did not dissipate—and so new measures arose.

In Great Britain, there has been a great deal of discussion since 2010 of the new “Middle Class” nature of association football, which formerly was the domain of the British working class. In America, gridiron football has been a Middle-Class sport for well over three decades, as the American Middle Class clawed its way out of the womb with college diplomas paid for by disappearing factory jobs. They clung, however, to the plebeian entertainment of their parents on the football field and baseball diamond; now, of course, with greater money to invest in the sports than ever before. New rites of social normalcy emerged—the gathering to watch a college football or little league game, playing football after church on Sunday, and, eventually, Monday Night Football. A man who was formerly valued for his membership in the First Baptist Church on 23rd Street, an attendee of the Graham Crusades now introduces himself as a graduate of Penn State and devoted follower of the Philadelphia Eagles. The transformation has been slow—rituals still overlap in the American South, where Megachurches host their own Superbowl parties, but by and large God must decrease but Dallas must increase.

Likewise, Monday Night Football and Sunday football games grew out of a natural reaction to the increased affluence and decreasing religiosity among spectators of the Games. The Church born in the catacombs, keeping the Paschal celebration in house churches gave way to the Man-cave and Superbowl parties. Such ritual spaces needed their iconography—which in turn added value to the teams which generated the most interest and sales. Salaries rose, and with them, the sense of self-value and importance among the players rose. New industries emerged—one external, embodied in fan “gear” and season tickets, now the primary form of ticket sales—and one internal made up of white-collar, lily-skinned professionals peddling the abstract value of an increasingly melanin-rich pool of “athletes” who were otherwise unemployable.

Servile Wars

The slaves under Spartacus did very little actual harm to Rome—all of their raids ended in the gathering of military supplies as they made their way for Sicily—but their rebellion damaged the credibility of the Senatorial regime, and cost the wealthiest members of Roman society tremendously in coin and reputation. Appian even says that nearly until the rise of Crassus, “the Romans did not consider this a war yet, but a raid, something like an attack of robbery”. The role played, however, by Spartacus in shattering the credibility of a government already weakened by the civil war of Marius and Sulla, cannot be understated. Spartacus did little to impact the survival of the spectacule as a social institution: the Roman people were, to Marcus Aurelius’ chagrin, sustained on panem et circenses, at least until the whole structure fell before the terrible sense of lived meaning brought by Christianity.

America’s crisis of identity will inevitably take the shape of a racial crisis for at least a portion—perhaps even a sizeable portion—of the population. Indeed, it is a racial crisis: a sense of race, in the Spenglerian sense of tribal spirit and duty, has definitively been lost among Western men. It is true that no Sulla or Marius or Crassus—and certainly no Pompey or Caesar—has presented himself to accomplish the final covering of Occidental skies with the clouds of Civilizational Winter, but that cultural conflict has begun to manifest in the arena is without a doubt a “sign of the times”. The NFL will likely fail, and require reorganization (desperate attempts to save it notwithstanding), but the spectacle it represents cannot be obliterated until a superior institution of rites and rituals replaces it (for there is no inferior institution to replace it). Even in the midst of what should have been the biggest media circus of the year, news cameras and blue checkmarks returned dutifully to the subject of professional football. The need for blood drives the audience’s resentment of rebellious gladiators just as it does their love of obedient gladiators, both now and in the days of Spartacus and Crassus.

Of course, some of the American crowds, at least, are being made aware of the contempt in which they are held by their heroes of the arena, and this is dangerous to the organizers of the NFL, but it is not dangerous to the spectacle itself: rather, it is the love of the Games that drives the contempt and resentment. Only Christ and the Church could abate the bloodthirst of the Roman Games; only an institutional alternative to the modern spectacle can possibly divert the incipient fellaheen of our own civilization from their Games. The Church may yet have this power since Truth always possesses this power, but Truth is not an actor—it manifests only insofar as efforts are made to manifest it. The Divine at the heart of the Church manifested not as God in spirit on Earth, but as God-man, for this reason, it is still possible for Christian men to offer the alternative institution to the Faustian arena—though it is perhaps not likely that Faustian men can achieve this. Law will not do this, of course, just as the Augustan attempts to restore Roman virtue could not be achieved legally. Rather, a shift in society and the emergence of a new, youthful civilization with the vibrant moral norms of a young people is the only future: a new appreciation of the ars athletica apart from the existing paradigm, just as S. Paul offered (albeit in a seminal form). The Faustian ars athletica, the tournament, emerged from the training of Roman soldiers—and what would be more natural in the West, defined as it was by St. Augustine, who compared Baptism with the branding mark of the Roman legionnaires? The real question in response to the disenchantment with the NFL as an organization is whether we are Stoics or Christians—are we part of the fading civilization pining for the Faustian Spring, or are we caretakers of the new civilization preparing the way for a new Spring? The answer will not be obvious.

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