Bread and Circuses

I wrote this piece for our neighborhood newsletter. I use some punchy language because I want to stir the pot. And you never know, I might change my mind tomorrow.  Let me know what you think.



I love football. I love the grit and determination required to play the game. I love the passion and the dedication from the fans of the game. In one form or another, I played football from sixth grade all the way through high school, college, and graduate school. While at the University of Texas, I attended every home game, many away games, and was at the Rose Bowl, cheering on my Longhorns to their national championship for the 2005 season. I love football.

In spite of my love for the game (or maybe because I love the game so dearly) I no longer watch football. The level of violence in the game – from high school to professional – has reached video game proportions. Despite the rising awareness of the dangers of sustaining multiple concussions, the game goes on. My heart shudders with every bone crunching tackle and brain rattling block, and I simply have to look away.

Once I did step away, I saw football from a different perspective. Thoughts of my ancient history classes at UT came to mind, and I saw football for what it truly is: the natural descendant of the Roman gladiatorial games. Young men are groomed to do violence to one another. Adoring fans gather into stadiums to cheer on their favorite teams.

The real point, though, of the Roman gladiatorial games was to distract the public. The leading Romans knew that if they provided “bread and circuses” (cheap food and flashy contests) to the public, then no one would notice the corruption and slow erosion of the Roman state. The purpose of the Coliseum and the games were to distract the public.

Tertullian, one of the church fathers, picked up on the this point and vehemently exhorted Christians to stay away from the Roman contests. The games, Tertullian argues, divide humanity because of our various allegiances to sides or teams and the rivalries that follow. If society divides itself on the basis of a small thing like a team or a color, how can we expect unity in order to address our biggest challenges of the day?

Like the games of ancient Rome, the modern sports industry distracts us from the issues at hand. Instead of public concern for the children of Harris county who go to bed hungry, we squabble about whose fault it is that the Texans are so bad this year. College students are accumulating unprecedented amounts of debt, yet college football coaches make millions. We want our schools to be safe places for our children, yet we willing encourage our young boys to play a game in which we know concussions are inevitable.

I desperately want to watch the college national championship game and the Super Bowl this year, but I cannot bring myself to it. Where there is discord, I will work for union. Where there is violence, I will work for peace.

2 thoughts on “Bread and Circuses

  1. Don’t even get me started on this…

    But one more objection I have to football and other sports, sort of a corollary to the Tertullian objection to the gladiator games, is if I idolize, idealize, and over-identify with a sports team or figure (or any other celebrity) I may end up never being who I really am, that unique, “warts and all” person created in God’s image to show the world some aspect of God’s personality. That’s not to say I think we shouldn’t have heroes, but I hope my heroes have the attributes of God’s personality I am meant to emulate.

    Linda A

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