Friday, September 12, 2008

Football, Democracy, And Cultural Identity

Paul Woodruff, author of First Democracy and of a recent work on Theater titled The Necessity of Theater, spoke Thursday at a public lecture here on campus. He argued that in ancient Greece, theater created good citizens in that it was a shared experience that generated a common, unique identity. He went on to claim that the nearest spectacles in modern society to create this same sense of common identity were (in this order): First, football; second, religion.

Interestingly, Professor Woodruff went on to note that in Athens, wealthy citizens thought attending plays was so central to establishing civic unity and identity that they created a "sort of slush fund" that enabled even the poorest to participate in the theatrical experience.

This makes me wonder what kind of shared identity modern football games create for their spectators. True, there are heroes on the field (like those represented on stage anciently) and the games produce a kind of cathartic moment for a huge audience. Additionally, football games can generate a shared memory that people from different socio-economic backgrounds can discuss.

But the live experience is geared less toward creating a shared identity and more toward maintaining class differences by reinforcing exclusion: the price of tickets; the limited number of seats; the different types of seats (bleachers v. chairs v. luxury boxes); the special pre-game and half-time meals given to the wealthiest contributors or corporate sponsors; the fact that in college stadiums, students are often put in the endzone bleachers while wealthy boosters are given seats on the 50-yard line; etc. Each of these measures creates difference and reminds spectators of their exclusion from certain aspects of the experience. The "common identity" is therefore shared only by members within isolated groups, groups that are fractured from each other, separated by security guards, rails, or the glass on luxury boxes.

Communities would have more success creating a common identity via football if games were free (or if, as was the practice in ancient Greece, a slush fund were created to enable everyone to attend), if all the seats were shaded, and if commercial pressures were eliminated. And since that isn't going to happen, we better head back to church...

1 comment:

Corry Cropper said...

Received an email from a reader who points out that Woodruff is the "Darrel K. Royal Professor in Ethics and American Society in the Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin." A mouthful, true. And who is Darrel K. Royal? He just happens to be the winningest (rootin'-tootin'est) head football coach in the history of U of Texas. Now, if my salary were coming from an endowment from a former college football coach, I too would make a special place for the game in my pantheon of democratic socializing spectacles.

Go Longhorns!