The first thing -- the only thing, as Vince Lombardi would say -- the puzzled anthropologist needs to note about the Super Bowl, now mercifully behind us, is the Roman numeral. Sunday was XIX. Born in a fit of NFL portentousness, the numeral is nicely revealing of an event (and a sport, as this polemic is intended to demonstrate) Roman in more ways than one. A cross between a Roman circus and a Roman orgy, the Super Bowl is America's closest brush with Colosseum life -- a fine name, by the way, for a football magazine.
Rome had gladiators bash each other up until one died. Football does not go quite so far. A concussion or a crushed knee is enough to earn a player a moment's lie- down and a ceremonious carting off to the cheers of the assembled. The American spectacle, it must be admitted, includes a ball. But the football is something of a distraction. The heart of the game, as the connoisseur knows and the isolated camera reveals, is "line play" in all its glorious mano-a-mano intimacy.
As for orgies, well, delicacy prevents me. . . . I remind you only of Joe Namath's demure claim that sex the night before improved his game. There may be a certain logic to that, but it remains unclear why Super Bowl patrons, bounding off their corporate jets, feel they need the same preparation to improve their spectating.
Don't misunderstand. It is not that football is decadent. To say that in the age of Twisted Sister and low-cal dog food would be unfair. The problem with football is that it is imperial. Where did it pick up all that absurd Augustan ritual -- the oversized flag, the color guard, thepresidential coin toss -- urged on by platoons of highly energetic vestal virgins? We used to make do with a recorded rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, a nicely alliterative tune, not too solemn, perfect for slight foreshortening with joyful cries of "play ball." Now without a fly-by by the Blue Angels and invocations by ministers of all denominations, one can hardly get the game off the ground.
Like all empires, football is no respecter of place. The Super Bowl can be staged anywhere, and is. The site is annually auctioned off to the highest-bidding city. It would be played in Cracow, if the Cracow Bowl had enough sky boxes.
Football has even less respect for time. In fine imperial fashion, it decrees its own calendar, with its own Year One. To make matters worse, football tried to abolish the seasons. Bad enough helmets knocking about through fall and winter; the USFL had the audacity to invade spring and summer. It might have taken a constitutional amendment to restore the natural ordhad not the invisible hand, acting through the agency of the market (low TV ratings), intervened. God bless Adam Smith. Beginning next year, the USFL will be consigned, like Proserpine in the Underworld, to fall and winter. Spring will be left to the happier sound of ball meeting bat.
That sound -- what the president calls the American sound -- makes the final, fatal case against football. If baseball exists, why football?
Baseball is so modestly republican. The World Series is a continuation of the season by other means. Played in real towns, it is awarded, democratically, to the city with the most wins, not the best caterers. And the players are built to human, yeoman scale. Footballers wear uniforms designed to make them mammoth and interchangeable, like products of an oversized assembly line. Baseball outfits are meant to betray the real body underneath. In baseball's perfectly American balance of anarchy and order, uniforms are worn. But republican flannels, for God's sake, not the pads and helmets of a Nixonian Swiss guard.
In all fairness, though, I dissent from the most common charge against football: that its ritualized violence is a seedbed of militarism. If anything, football is a fine form of sublimation. It can hardly be said that the last 15 years, the years of football's ascendancy, have been a high point of American militarism. We did beat Grenada with its squad of Cuban construction workers (in overtime). But when we ran up the score against the Kaiser, Tojo and Hitler, the ruling pastime was the sleepy summer game.
No, football has enough sins. Besides being imperial, it is prosaic. Its action is too complex, too simultaneous for anything other than analysis. Baseball, with its pauses and anticipations, its delicate sequentialism, lends itself to abstraction -- and poetry. Roger Angell, baseball's poet laureate, can make baseball sing. Can anyone make music from football?
About the only thing troublesome about baseball is its alarming popularity among intellectuals, usually a leading indicator of impending foolishness. When George Will and Yale's Bart Giamatti agree on anything, in this case reverence of baseball, and when Robert Redford concurs (can you imagine "The Natural" about a linebacker?), I worry. No matter. For baseball -- against football -- one must take risks.
The last out of the World Series, writes Jonathan Yardley, marks the start of a "long, bleak . . . outer darkness" of winter, and, I would add, football. There is one good thing to be said for the Super Bowl. When it's over, it means that dawn is only six weeks away.