Boise St., Live at Fillmore East, 1970

I like some jazz music, but have always regretted not appreciating the so called golden era of jazz from the late 50’s – early 60’s.  The prevalent pattern of 1) Introduce idea/theme, then 2) Long solos from every member of the group, and 3) Resolution with reprise of theme never grabbed me.  I prefer a more melodic approach, and a more band/team oriented approach.  No doubt much exists in the music that I do not understand, but there you go.

My favorite “all-time jazz great” has always been Miles Davis*, but his music sometimes fell into the above mentioned pattern.  Then I heard this:

Wow.  The first time I heard the music, I was so blown away I didn’t notice that the song is still basically, theme/solos/theme. After I noticed, I didn’t care.  The song is so fun, funky, jazzy, so “everything” I no longer thought about structure at all.  It takes us beyond structure and into play, into freedom.**

At about the same time I heard this song I read Michael Weinreb’s thoughtful and entertaining defense of college football, A Season of Saturdays.   In one section of the book he discusses the fact that “free-spirited” play calling tends to work much more effectively in college than in the pros.  You can have a wishbone offense, a spread offense, a pistol offense, and so on.  You can have coaches that take a more laid-back approach to the game with great success, i.e. Steve Spurrier, or “gambling” coaches like Les Miles. But . . . these coaches don’t succeed in the NFL.

When thinking about the possible surprise elation inherent within college football, one has to think of Boise-State vs. Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl a few years ago.  First the 4th and 18 play for to tie the game:

And to win the game, the most old-fashioned of crazy trick plays . . .

I realized the possible connection between Miles Davis and these Boise State plays when I had the same reaction as the announcer of the hook and ladder at the .07 mark as I did to “Directions” at about the 6:05 mark.  Both moments take you out of yourself entirely.  And while certainly pro football can have those moments, I agree with Weinreb (with no empirical backing, just an impression) that they happen more often in college football.  Going from 300 or so Division I programs down to 32 NFL teams narrows the field of talent to such a degree that so much depends on meticulous execution over crazy inspiration. Perhaps these kinds of wild, unexpected moments link together jazz and college football, two quintessential American creations.

The question I asked myself as I read was whether ultimately I agreed with his premise that college football should stick around and continue to have its place in the American consciousness.  Weinreb writes well, and I especially appreciated his soft touch — he doesn’t force his point.  But in the end, disagree.  College football can exist, sure, but needs scaled back drastically.  One caveat is that I fall into a demographic that Weinreb admits will probably not understand his book.  I grew up in an area dominated by professional sports, and I attended a Division III liberal arts college where maybe 500 people showed up for football games on Saturdays.

But still . . .

Wienreb focuses on his strongest argument, how college sports in particular bring us together in unexpected ways, and this gives college football (more than college basketball, I would agree) a kind of transcendence.  I don’t deny this — rather, it’s because I do agree agree with Weinreb on this point that I think we should try and bring college football back to earth.  One of the great aspects of music is that it can serve as a vehicle for transcendence, but music appreciation never (or hardly ever) devolves into tribalism.  Something always goes a little bit wonky when music gets involved with competitiveness, but college football can’t exist without it.  The rivalries can in certain places define one’s whole existence (Auburn-Alabama, Ohio St.-Michigan, etc.).  Such tribalism usually has a detrimental impact on us, giving us real animosity based on purely invented and artificial reality — i.e — there is no real reason for students at Notre Dame to hate USC.***  This transcendent tribalism leads to a kind of worship.  Weinreb attended Penn St., and in one chapter recalls a time when after a dramatic football win on the road, students stormed the stadium, took down a goal post, paraded to Joe Paterno’s house, and deposited it on his front lawn. Weinreb uses this story to support his argument, but I think it supports mine.  This presentation of the “sacrifice” on the “altar” looks a lot like worship of a false god to me.

The partial unreality of college life as a whole gets magnified exponentially in “big-time” college football.   Many of the best players on many of the best teams do not really attend the university.  Their classes, living situations, facilities, their treatment in general on campus gives them a life totally apart from other students.  The logic works like this:

  • We must have football because it creates such wonderful communal moments
  • But these communal moments are predicated on ultimately on winning
  • So — we must attract the best players to win
  • So — we have to create an additional unreal world apart from the actual campus community to attract players — some of whom don’t really belong at the university academically anyway — in order to foster this communal experience.
  • We then give ourselves to this imagined community, which involves imagined hatreds

The academic scandals involving fake classes, fake grades, and so on should not shock us in the least. After all, in some places college football is a god, and gods need appeased.  Plenty of evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, exist to show how athletics tilt and twist universities in weird, unnatural ways.

I’m certainly not against sports in general.  God made our bodies to do wonderful things.  And, as our bodies are a form of revelation, the exuberant moments we experience in athletics are genuine, true pointers to Ultimate Reality.  I also don’t blame people desiring such communal transcendence and their willingness to sacrifice for it.  Again, we were made for such things.

The more we strip everyday life overtly of the sacred, the more we will seek to find it in other, perhaps less obvious ways. But seeking it in college football, as Weinreb admits we do, will in the end not give us answers, but instead, much to answer for.****  We will defend and sacrifice for the tribe to achieve it, making idols of our parochial communities.


*Miles Davis must surely rank as one of the great, if not the greatest bandleader of all time.  Of course he was a legend, but he helped turn countless sidemen into legends, like Ron Carter, John Coltrane, Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett — this astounding list goes on and on.

**Being beyond structure doesn’t mean that one is anti-structure, anymore than being beyond rationality means being anti-reason.  Of course the song has a structure and abides by certain rules of music, but one is not conscious of the pattern — therein lies self-forgetfulness.

***I loved my college experience as have many others, but I think one reason for the appeal of college is its fantasy-like existence.  In some ways our K-12 years have many more roots to “reality,” with family, age diverse community, and so on.

****I.e., the Penn St. scandals

Toynbee, “The Idolization of the Parochial Community”

Unhappily, Polytheism begins to produce new and pernicious social effects when its domain is extended from the realm of Nature-worship to a province of the realm of Man-worship in which the object of worship is parochial collective human power. Local worships of deified parochial communities inevitably drive their respective devotees into war with one another. Whereas Demeter our common Mother Earth is the same goddess in Attica and in Laconia, the Athene Polias of Athens and the Athana Chalcioecus of Sparta, who are the respective deifications of these two parochial communities, are bound to be rival goddesses in spite of their bearing the same name. The worship of Nature tends to unite the members of different communities because it is not self-centred; it is the worship of a power in whose presence all human beings have the identical experience of being made aware of their own human weakness. On the other hand the worship of parochial communities tends to set their respective members at variance because this religion is an expression of self-centredness; because self-centredness is the source of all strife; and because the collective ego is a more dangerous object of worship than the individual ego is.

The collective ego is more dangerous because it is more powerful, more demonic, and less patently unworthy of devotion. The collective ego combines the puny individual power of each of its devotees into the collective power of Leviathan. This collective power is at the mercy of subconscious passions because it escapes the control of the Intellect and Will that put some restraint on the individual ego. And bad behaviour that would be condemned unhesitatingly by the conscience in an individual culprit is apt to be condoned when it is perpetrated by Leviathan, under the illusion that the first person is absolved from self-centredness by being transposed from the singular number into the plural. This is, however, just the opposite of the truth; for, when an individual projects his self-centredness on to a community, he is able, with less sense of sin, to carry his egotism to greater lengths of enormity. ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’;5 and the callousness of committees testifies still more eloquently than the fury of mobs that, in collective action, the ego is capable of descending to depths to which it does not fall when it is acting on its individual responsibility.

The warfare to which parochial-community-worship leads is apt to rankle, sooner or later, into war to the death; and this self-inflicted doom is insidious, because the ultimately fatal effects of this religion are slow to reveal themselves and do not become unmistakably clear till the mischief has become mortally grave.

In its first phase the warfare between deified parochial states is usually waged in a temperate spirit and is confined within moderate limits. In this first phase the worshippers of each parochial god recognize in some degree that each neighbour parochial god is the legitimate sovereign in his own territory. Each local god will be deemed to have both the right and the power to punish alien human trespassers on his domain who commit a grievous wrong against him by committing it against his people; and this consideration counsels caution and restraint in waging war on foreign soil. It tends to prevent war from becoming total. The bashful invader will refrain, not only from desecrating the enemy’s temples, but from poisoning his wells and from cutting down his fruit trees. The Romans, when they had made up their minds to go to all lengths in warring down an enemy community, used to take the preliminary precautions of inviting the enemy gods to evacuate the doomed city and of tempting them to change sides by offering them, in exchange, honourable places in the Roman pantheon. When a local community has been exterminated or deported in defiance of the local divinity and without regard to his sovereign prerogatives, the outraged parochial god may bring the usurpers of his domain and scorners of his majesty to heel by making the place too hot to hold them except on his terms. The colonists planted by the Assyrian Government on territory that had been cleared of its previous human occupants by the deportation of the Children of Israel soon found, to their cost, that Israel’s undeported god Yahweh had lost none of his local potency; and they had no peace till they took to worshipping this very present local god instead of the gods that they had brought with them from their homelands.

Thus the conduct of war between parochial states is kept within bounds, at the start, by a common belief in the equality of sovereign parochial gods, each within his own domain. But this belief is apt to break down, and, with it, the restraint that is imposed by it. They break down because the self-worship of a parochial community is essentially incompatible with the moderation commended in such maxims as ‘Live and let live’ and ‘Do as you would be done by’. Every form of Man-worship is a religious expression of self-centredness, and is consequently infected with the intellectual mistake and the moral sin of treating a part of the Universe as if it were the whole—of trying to wrest the Universe round into centering on something in it that is not and ought not to be anything more than a subordinate part of it. Since self-centeredness is innate in every living creature, it wins allegiance for any religion that ministers to it. It also inhibits any living creature that fails to break away from it from loving its neighbor as itself, and a total failure to achieve this arduous moral feat has a disastrous effect on social relations.

A further reason why it is difficult to keep the warfare between parochial states at a low psychological temperature is because parochial-community-worship wins devotion not only by ministering disastrously to self-centredness. It wins it also by giving a beneficent stimulus to Man’s nobler activities in the first chapter of the story. In the histories of most civilizations in their first chapters, parochial states have done more to enrich their members’ lives by fostering the arts than they have done to impoverish them by taking a toll of blood and treasure. For example, the rise of the Athenian city-state made life richer for its citizens by creating the Attic drama out of a primitive fertility-ritual before life was made intolerable for them by a series of ever more devastating wars between Athens and her rivals. The earlier Athens that had been ‘the education of Hellas’ won and held the allegiance of Athenian men and women, over whom she had cast her spell, for the benefit of the later Athens that was ‘a tyrant power’; and, though these two arrogant phrases were coined to describe Athens’ effect on the lives of the citizens of other Hellenic city-states, they describe her effect on the lives of her own citizens no less aptly. This is the tragic theme of Thucydides’ history of the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War, and there have been many other performances of the same tragedy that have not found their Thucydides.

The strength of the devotion that parochial-community-worship thus evokes holds its devotees in bondage to it even when it is carrying them to self-destruction; and so the warfare between contending parochial states tends to grow more intense and more devastating in a crescendo movement. Respect for one’s neighbours’ gods and consideration for these alien gods’ human proteges are wasting assets. All parochial-community-worship ends in a worship of Moloch, and this ‘horrid king’ exacts more cruel sacrifices than the Golden Calf. War to the death between parochial states has been the immediate external cause of the breakdowns and disintegrations of almost all, if not all, the civilizations that have committed suicide up to date. The decline and fall of the First Mayan Civilization is perhaps the only doubtful case.

The devotion to the worship of Moloch is apt to persist until it is too late to save the life of the civilization that is being destroyed by it. It does break down at last, but not until a stage of social disintegration has been reached at which the blood-tax exacted by the waging of ever more intensive, ferocious, and devastating warfare has come palpably to outweigh any cultural and spiritual benefits that the contending parochial states may once have conferred on their citizens. . .