Classical Historians and the NFL

Looking back on my childhood, it appears I grew up in the golden age of Redskins fandom.  From 1981-1992 we won 3 Super Bowls, played in another, and had many other playoff runs.  But that whole period seems to be not just a golden era for me and my team but the entire NFL.  During that time (especially if we extend it a bit deeper into Paul Tagliabue’s term as commissioner) the NFL rose from second fiddle to domination of the sports landscape.  But these days I’m nowhere near the rabid fan I used to be, and I’m sure many factors contribute to this.  I know I’m not the only one. Grantland’s Bill Simmons wrote a strange article calling the NFL all kinds of evil and comparing it at one point to slavery.  But then he also expends thousands of words and numerous podcast hours discussing, analyzing, and enjoying the game.^  We seem to occupy an uncertain place.  What exactly do we think the NFL is?  What do we want it to be?  I thought about this from a perspective of Greek and Roman historians and wondered if we might find some parallels.

We can start classical historiography in some ways with Aeschylus.  He wrote no histories, but his plays interpreted the history of Athens and gave them a mental framework for them to view their place in the world.  I have not read many but it appears that they all celebrate the glory that is Athens.  His work has all the admirable confidence/lack of perspective of a 20 year old ready to tackle the world.

By Aeschylus’ death ca. 445 B.C. we have the Father of History, Herodotus, on the scene.  His curiosity leads him to travel far and wide.  He too praises Athens, but it comes within a more muted, almost ecumenical context.  Amongst all the different people Herodotus sees hubris always lurking, even for Athens itself.  By the time Thucydides writes (ca. 410 B.C.?) he openly questions the whole Athenian project.  Xenophon, though a lesser writer than anyone aforementioned, continues that demolition process in his work after the Peloponnesian War (404 B.C.).

Roman historians have similar patterns.  Polybius writes his histories ca. 140(?) B.C. and most everything in his work highlights Rome’s meteoric rise and superiority between 264-146 B.C.  But even he hints at the potentially inevitable cycle of change within civilizations may catch up to Rome at some point.  Livy comes next, and the glory of Rome dominates his work. But for him Rome’s greatness lay in the past, not the future.  Tacitus (ca. 90 A.D.) gives Rome some tough questions in his “Annals” and other works. Then Appian (ca. 130? A.D.) looks back at Rome’s past not as a golden age but as an era prone to violence and greed.  Perhaps some might have called him a “revisionist” historian in his day.  By the time we get to Ammelianus (ca. 375 A.D.) no one buys into Rome anymore.

I think the NFL may reside somewhere in the Polybius/Livy period.  Most commentators have an uneasy sense that a cold wind blows, but others still talk of football as “America’s game, a man’s game,” and so on.  Others might put it in the Tacitus/Appian phase, where perhaps primarily because of concussions we call our whole past into question.  Our confusion over football might mirror  our confusion evidenced in other aspects of our culture.  In many action movies either a) our own government (or some part of it), or b) one of our corporations is the main enemy.  Strategically, Obama perfectly typifies our confusion about our role internationally that persists long after Bush era.

Once we figure out football, will other political and cultural questions will fall into place?  Most likely not, but one can hope.


^In this article Simmons (whom I usually like) displays a common lazy habit of mind we often apply to major powers.  We exaggerate their reach and blame them for everything, assuming that they can fix anything they wish.  We see some other countries having this attitude towards the U.S.  The powerful only have to will it, and it is so.  Some feel that having power magically absolves anyone of human finitude, human folly, and so on.  I call this habit lazy because it prevents us from looking at other causes — it’s too easy, and it often absolves us of personal responsibility.  So Simmons blames Goodell for a gaffe made by one announcer regarding a sponsor.  Simmons naturally assumes that Goodell must not have been clear enough to the announcers in his instructions. Is it possible that he did communicate clearly and someone either forgot or paid no attention?  I don’t like Goodell either but this goes too far.  He can’t be blamed for everything.