Following football to tyranny

I saw a billboard today which read against a football field-like green AstroTurf background, “I follow football to freedom.” I thought, how sad.

Football as freedom means “freedom” within the confines of a field marked off with boundaries, which you are “out of bounds” if you cross, and in which players who move on their own time may be “off sides.” For a fan, actually following the game, it means “freedom” within the confines of a stadium, cheering on cue, aligning your own goals with the crowd around you; or within the bounds of the small screen often writ large with projection systems. The billboard is an advertisement for the National Football League on ESPN, so it clearly referred to the latter.

Freedom means different things to different people. To libertarians it means a freedom from constraints on action. To fundamentalists it means freedom from ideas that challenge their ideas. And for many fans, it means a respite from the pressures of a cruel world.

But football serves other purposes as well. Like the Boy Scouts, football puts people in uniform, conforming to a particular appearance. It teaches brutality, defining masculinity as physical performance and as toughness, “playing through the pain.” It teaches compliance; players who fail to follow instructions will likely find themselves sidelined. It ranks players by their physical capabilities; weaker players are also less likely to play.

Football thus values physical rather than intellectual performance, obedience rather than invention, and conformity rather than individual expression. It is, in short, perfect training for citizens of an authoritarian regime who are not to challenge authority and not to think for themselves. In later life, it serves as a relief, a harmless distraction from the oppression of a political and economic regime that rules through the fear of constant war and through long hours and numbing poverty.

It is a sign of the confidence of the regime that it would make its oppression so obvious.