I just finished reading a really intriguing set of articles in this week’s New Yorker. I wish they had a micropayment system where I could pay for articles that I enjoyed a la how Radiohead releases their albums, but that’s a different topic altogether. I’m going to write some thoughts, more along the lines of immediate reactions, and then maybe follow up if I can find some time after doing some thinking and discussing. The first article is by Malcolm Gladwell, and can be found here

Ignore for a fact that the article draws links against dogfighting because of the prominence that dogfighting has gained in the last few years, and instead think about when humans pitted humans in battles to the death against each other for entertainment. I ask you to ignore it because I’d rather focus on the notion of long-term human suffering in the name of entertainment as opposed to animal cruelty. I think the major pieces that come to my mind are the Gladiators of the Roman Empire, and the jousters of the Middle Ages.

(I’ll admit that I know very little about either in any form of depth, and so please let me know if I’ve made an assumption, and you know it to be wrong.)

I think a crucial difference between then and now lies in how we view fellow persons. There isn’t a need to prepare soldiers as there was in the Middle Ages. If I’m not mistaken, which of course I can be, the tournaments of the time acted as a way for those who competed to show off their prowess in the ability to wage war. Winning wars is no longer an indicator of the success of a man. The merits of that can be debated in another forum, but to me it also makes the value of physical prowess much less.

On a similar note, the spoils of war are also no longer something which is an integral part of society. Slaves, wealth, and property were all benefits given to the winning army in the age of the Roman Empire. Slaves, and again I could be quoting popular fiction instead of historical fact here, were often in the center of the Coliseum tasked with being the kill or be killed entertainment du jour. Thankfully, in my opinion, we’ve found that elevating even our enemies in victory to a higher level of understanding has replaced the notion that success should be measured by spoils won and stolen.

Given that these forms of entertainment have become outdated either because they are no longer necessary in preparing for war, or because we’ve advanced in our moral treatment, what is it about football that keeps us engaged. It has so many of the attributes of the Coliseum and the Tournaments of the Middle Ages. The battlefield analogies, the insane athleticism, the unbelievable wealth associated with it all. And it turns out that we’re still cheering for a sport that at the end of the day leaves the players in a broken state, unable to even take care of their families despite the millions they have earned.

It actually turns me off to the sport in my mind, and yet, as I sit here and watch Monday Night Football, I’m completely engaged in it all. Why can’t I see that in my entertainment, that these men are killing themselves? Why is that okay? I don’t really know, but I’m fascinated by it all.

What do you think?