One week ago tonight, the Auburn Tigers were crowned national champions of college football for the 2010 season. They were deserving champions, having defeated 5 opponents in the final Top 15 in the country, along with South Carolina twice; half their wins were over teams ranked in the final poll – an impressive accomplishment. In addition, many of their wins came in dramatic fashion, as they needed to come from behind in 8 of their 14 games, and 7 games were decided by single digit margins. They had the best player in Cam Newton, and the most feared defender in Nick Fairley. Along with the expected rigors of a full season, this Auburn team was under intense scrutiny due to allegations – some truthful and some fabricated – regarding the recruitment of Newton. In the end Auburn was exonerated, as was Cam Newton. But the intense scrutiny and often tabloid-esque media coverage was mentally and emotionally grinding.
As I wrote at the beginning of the 2009 season, college football is home to the most passionate fans and is the most emotionally charged sport due to the vital importance of every game. It is extremely difficult and exceedingly rare for a team to enjoy a perfect season and win a championship. Due to the BCS and bowl system, college football chooses a champion differently from every other sport in the world. Some call it a “mythical national championship,” since the champion is decided in large part by voters (football writers and coaches), who select the champion based on their analysis of the results on the field; every other sport in the world uses an objective point system or playoff to determine the champion. While this system has its drawbacks and generates an inordinate amount of controversy (Texas Christian was also unbeaten this season – they were voted 2nd to Auburn based on the perception of a weaker schedule), it places great importance on every game throughout the year.
The argument in favor of the current system holds that the entire season is one big playoff. For the most part this is true: a single loss drastically reduces a team’s chances of winning a championship, and at the very least a team’s fate is no longer in its hands with a loss. Two losses are almost impossible to overcome – only one champion lost twice, and they required an incredibly fortuitous set of circumstances to win the championship. Thus all those close games and all those come from behind wins for this Auburn team are all the more dramatic when viewed in the context of a national championship. A single dropped ball or slipped footing or poor decision or a few inches were all that separated a championship from a season that would simply be remembered as very good – and all those close calls occurred multiple times throughout the Fall. As often as Auburn fans experienced the joy of victory throughout the year, opposing teams felt the agony of defeat. Had Auburn lost a single game – especially late in the season when a national championship was in sight – the pain of defeat would have been excruciating.
In the post last Fall I also noted that college football (and football in general) taps into a classic, romantic ethos. More than any other sport, football prizes strength, speed, size, toughness, grit, and intelligence. With all male competitors and the frequency of injuries, it resonates with a warrior mentality – in a sense football teams are like armies squaring off in battle. We respect the players who hit the hardest, who shake off the injuries, who physically out-duel the man on the other side of the line. We admire the fastest, strongest, most passionate, and most intense men on the field. The ultimate source of pride for most schools and cities is invested in the football team – football players are the ultimate physical representatives of a community.
As a fan of ancient Roman history as well as “sword and sandal” gladiator movies and TV shows, I can’t help but notice the similarities between football players today and the gladiator games of ancient Rome. Both contests value toughness, size, and strength. Both require intense emotional investment of the competitors and spectators. Both place great significant on every move during a contest – one wrong move in a football game can result in a loss, while one misstep in the arena could lead to severe injury or death.
Injuries are common and expected in both football and gladiatorial games. And like college football, the fans of the gladiators were extremely passionate – there were rival factions of gladiators, and each had their devoted followers. Even the gear is similar. Compare the scene from football games and Jean Leon Gerome’s Pollice verso – both feature helmets with face masks, shoulder pads, and each competitor greets roaring crowds standing over fallen opponents.
Of course there are key differences as well. While injuries are common in football, great lengths are taken to prevent and minimize major injuries. Gladiator games were blood sports, and while the death rate is overestimated in TV and movies (the mortality rate was about 20% in the arena), significant injury and death were commonplace.
And with few exceptions the Roman gladiators were slaves – they were paid and could purchase their freedom, but they had no choice but to compete. Some ex-soldiers and even some nobles voluntarily competed for money and enjoyment, but most were forced into it, and others were sentenced to it as a form of punishment (the damnati). Of course football players at any level can walk away from the game at any time. And gladiators did not have cheerleaders. There were rare instances of female gladiators, who fought each other and dwarves (under Nero) wearing nothing except light armor and perhaps loin cloths, suggesting titillation was a major goal of their contests.
But what the gladiators of Rome and the modern football players share more than anything is a god-like standing, including fame, adulation, adoration, and sex-symbol status. Football players are wildly popular for the most part – many are easily recognizable publicly admired. The chance to meet football players before or after a game is a treat for many fans – sideline passes are major perks. So it was with the gladiators, who appeared at “festives” the night before they fought in the arena much the same way football players appear at rallies or in pre-game rituals. Fans followed individual gladiators passionately, and prominent gladiators drew large crowds the way famous football players do today. Football players often have many female admirers, and the same was true of gladiators. One gladiator who used a net (a retiarius) was said to have “netted many women by night.” As Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox puts it, “heavy metal and muscle could be incredibly sexy.”
So for this season the Auburn Tigers are indeed gods of the arena. They battled many worthy opponents and survived, exulting in the roar of the crowd the way the gladiators did 2,000 years ago. The players should enjoy the glory while it lasts – as the conquering generals were told during a Roman truimph, they should look behind and remember they are only men. After all, this season is over and the games begin again in 7 months…