The Super Bowl is a high point of American culture. Some snobs view football as barbaric and uncultured. But this year, the halftime show will include the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic and students from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.
This mash-up points to a link between high culture and pop culture, sports and art. The cultural continuum includes the punter and the poet, the quarterback and the string quartet.
Football is performance art. The game has music, costumes, tragedy and ritual set pieces. Like opera, the game includes pageantry, agility and pathos.
The arts are also playful games. We play music. Actors put on plays. Poets play with words. And philosophers play with ideas. Human culture is a process of making meaning through playful activity.
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Some think the fine arts are superior. Poets and painters represent things in word and image. Musicians explore time and tone. Art is about abstract ideas, beauty, finitude and the divine.
Football seems less refined. It is physical activity. But there are geniuses and prodigies on the gridiron. And fans find virtue, grace, beauty and transcendence in the game. For most Americans, the pigskin is more meaningful than Picasso or Puccini.
Football’s place in our culture
Football’s importance to our culture is obvious. Our language is shaped by it. We tackle a problem after huddling up. Monday-morning quarterbacks question people’s play-calling. When it’s fourth-and-long, we know things are serious. And sometimes it’s better to punt.
It may seem odd that a mere game is so tightly woven into our culture. But games are part of every culture. An old proverb says, “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” To be human is to play games and amuse oneself. Culture is the accumulated set of games we play. The Greeks wrestled and raced. In America, we play football.
Our Sunday afternoons have been filled with the rhythm of the season and the game, the drama of fourth down, and the heroics of the fourth quarter. After the Super Bowl, we will find new games to fill our time and our conversations.
We need art and sports. Once we satisfy our animal needs, we fill our lives with games. Literature, politics and sports – all are forms of play. Our pastimes can be deadly and serious. But they are recreations and amusements, nonetheless.
Culture is learned behavior. The rules and formulas of dance, music, poetry and football must be learned in order to appreciate them. No one is born knowing a language or understanding the rules of the onside kick. Love of opera or haiku is not innate. Broncos fans are made, not born.
Some critics worry that the hedonistic spectacle of the Super Bowl is a sign of the decline of our civilization. Super Bowl Sunday certainly makes it difficult to keep the Sabbath day holy. Others compare the NFL to the gladiators of Rome, warning of the demise of culture into “bread and circuses.”
But the gladiators marked a high point of Roman civilization. They fought in the Colosseum, its ruins now venerated as a magnificent triumph of Roman architecture. Thriving civilizations have surplus wealth to spend on sports and games, art and festivity. Once we have enough bread, bring on the circuses.
No game is perfect
There are other reasons to criticize football. It is a brutal game. It causes brain injuries. Players risk necks and knees. But ballet is hard on the toes. And other sports are dangerous – climbing, skiing, for example.
Football is also sexist. News about the Super Bowl as a haven for prostitution is alarming. Gambling, commercialism and alcoholic fans are also concerns. And pacifists will note that football mimics warfare.
But no game is perfect. Chess is warlike and horse racing is hard on the ponies. Our games, sports and arts are our own creation. We can remake them according to our own interests and concerns. And each generation does rewrite the rules of sports, art and culture.
We are lucky to have so many games, sports and arts to choose from. We could live without these amusements. Football is not life. Nor is opera or poetry. But art gives zest to life. And football spices up our Sunday afternoons.