Watching Alabama take on LSU on Saturday night, the viewer could quite easily, and without too great a leap of the imagination, have been watching any of the major Gladiatorial events of the final period of the Roman Empire. With slightly less blood spilled, of course. One focal commonality exists between the two however. Whilst all other related parties profited both then and now, neither the Gladiators of Rome nor the athletes of the NCAA were or are paid for their blood, sweat and tears.
The roar of the enormous crowd. The sweating, heaving, equally entertained and enraged masses. The pulsating energy hovering over the stadium. The vicious encounter on the field of play. The militaristic overtone, laced into the crowd and spilling out around the boundaries, be it full uniform military service personnel or constant reminders of the state’s knee-deep involvement in military exploits. Gambling, snack type food and side-line entertainment above and beyond the action on the field.
We could be describing Alabama taking on LSU on Saturday night, or we could be describing any of the major Gladiatorial events from ancient Rome. Every single one of the above elements are true to both.
Yes, even the gambling. In ancient Rome, a ‘libellous’, a detailed program of the respective Gladiator event, gave the records of fighters for the benefit of gamblers. Much like ESPN giving gambling related information on its website before a big college showdown (despite the fact that, you know, gambling is illegal in most States and all that!).
The similarities between the peak of the Gladiator phenomenon and the peak of College Football are tantalizingly fascinating.
Both entities reached or are reaching their peak at a historical time of political and social upheaval. Rome was in the throes of being dragged to pieces both internally by bickering politicians, and externally by hordes of barbarians. The United States? The internal political strife may be even worse than ancient Rome, however perhaps the external dangers haven’t fully metastasized as yet. Unless of course you take the recent US Military doctrines all being remodeled to prepare for war with China as serious. Then, the barbarians the Roman legions faced are like a pack of rowdy kids wearing Mickey Mouse hats banging on the door.
The similarities between the two entities, separated by thousands of years, are enticing at a superficial level, and almost hilariously fascinating when you dig a little deeper. At every level of the Gladiatorial games we can match them, almost perfectly, to modern NCAA football.
Gladiator games had sponsors, College Football has shady booster groups, who plow money through dark-alley-type avenues into football programs. You could also compare the Gladiator sponsors to modern day advertising, which flushes money into College Football while promoting itself alongside this.
The music that was played at Gladiator fights, which historians suggest rose to a crescendo as combatants brutally killed each other? How about those gaudy College marching bands, and accompanying cheerleaders, that frolic around as if they are mindless idiots after each score. Advertising? Now, FOX sports and their kin blast gaudy, colorful advertisements at us, urging us to believe we are about to witness a seminal point in our lives, the games are purportedly that important. The Romans loved a good billboard advertisement too, and enormous, detailed adverts were placed all over town pre-fight.
The Military? The Roman army was out in force during the Gladiatorial fights, and historians note that off-duty soldiers were given preferred seating, and cheered by the adoring crowd. If you followed major European soccer tournaments in the 1970s and 80s one feature was Eastern European matches invariably played out in front of hordes of Red Army soldiers, roaring on from the stands in their masses. The United States hasn’t quite reached that level of Communist Military adulation and deification, but goodness is it trying!
The Gladiators themselves? For the large part, mere fodder, lives to be snuffed out in a blink for the entertainment of the masses, and the benefit of sponsors. Doesn’t that sound very like College Football, where, for the large part, players risk life and limb without hope of moving on to the next level (The NFL), all for the entertainment of the drunken masses and the benefit of schools coffers, the NCAA and the corporations that promote themselves alongside College Football.
Gladiators were owned by the rich of Rome. They were bought and sold on the open market. NCAA football players are recruited aggressively by colleges, and pretty much ‘owned’ by them until they exit the program. If they step outside the bounds of their new role, they are summarily punished, much like the Gladiators before them.
In Ancient Rome a tiny proportion of Gladiators became so famous that they attained a celebrity status, and often won their freedom. I am sure you can see where we are going to go with that one, right? As we speak, a tiny, minuscule proportion of NCAA football players attain legendary status akin to their Gladiator counterparts, and obtain entry to the next level, the NFL.
Just mere fodder for the corporate entertainment machine that is College Football.
In Ancient Rome, 99% of Gladiators fought to the death for the populace's entertainment and the rich sponsors' financial benefit. In the modern day United States, 99% of NCAA football players toil eagerly for our entertainment and so that Viagra can hock a few more little blue tablets.
Neither the vast majority of dead Gladiators nor the overwhelming majority of modern day NCAA players benefited financially from their efforts. Everyone else did, or does, just not the subjects themselves.
The decline of the Gladiators? This is intrinsically linked to the huge problems Rome had keeping control of its vast colonies, armies and related military expenditure.
Re-read that to yourself again and ask yourself, remind you of anyone you might know?
There is no doubt an inherent nobility and a brave dignity in both the exploits of the common Gladiator and indeed the common NCAA football player. However, much as with Ancient Rome, the massive, tarnished, twisted, money-grabbing and often corrupt framework around them is as ugly now as it was then, back when the Barbarians were at the gates.Follow Cormac on Twitter