Football players: the gladiators of our time

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Jane Morrell
Opinion Editor

“Panem et circenses.”

We have all seen those Gatorade commercials in which a talented — or currently trending — football player is getting ready to walk on the field. He is sweating. His head is in his hands. There are a lot of deep breathing sounds and stock footage of past plays in other games.

It is meant to look epic and proud, and give the audience a sense of awe. It always ends with the player(s) chugging down some Gatorade products.

I grew up in Auburn, so football and the ever-exhausting hype that surrounds the game are nothing new to me. I have to admit that, even though I am not the biggest football fan, these commercials always catch my eye and draw me into this intense game.

However, after watching players guzzle down bottles of Gatorade, an age-old saying always plays like an old record in the back of my mind: “panem et circenses,” or as many know it, “bread and circuses.”

We can credit this saying to the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, who described a strategy that used various pleasures, such as chariot races, theater performances, displays of foreign animals and, most notably, the Roman gladiators, to entertain the populace and to allow emperors to have strong control over society.

It was basically a practice used to distract society from a number of issues like politics, war, etc.
What does this have to do with football? Well, in a sense, aren’t football players like the gladiators of ancient times?

There was a time in history when Roman gladiators were the gods of the entertainment world. Prisoners, traitors, Jews, Christians and so many others would be tossed into the arena, filled with screaming people all cheering for their favorite champion to slay the opponents.

Granted, no football player gets murdered while on the field, but the game still appeals to the basic instinct of our need to see violence. When I hear the impact of helmet meeting helmet — that awful smacking sound — I shudder.

Men from across our nation practice and practice in hope of gaining scholarships to these universities, like Auburn University, that focus so much attention — not all, but a significant amount — on football for a chance to play a game and to learn how to make it into a profession.

Those who gain these opportunities are treated to the best of just about everything — at least that is what I have seen in Auburn.
We have all heard the controversial argument of whether these players take any valuable classes aside from athletics or learn anything to make a useful profession out of besides football.

Cam Newton, after graduating from Auburn — and not to mention, he transferred from Florida — had to go back to Auburn University to finish his degree. Four years of college, and he had to go back? What on earth did he do the entire time?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Newton is a great player, and he seems to be a reasonable gentleman, but I am just amazed to think of what he did during his spare time besides football.

Let us not forget that Newton was picked as the quarterback for the Carolina Panthers — but there are some good players who will never get that opportunity.
To those who love to play football, this is a life-or-death sport. It was literally life or death for the gladiators.

We treat them like celebrities, we pamper them and we throw them out into the arena to battle it out.

I have a description for all who read this, and I want you to think about it:

“Twelve begin the second season. Twelve tribes converge. Twelve plead. Twelve hang on every word. Twelve prime themselves for the struggle. Twelve take the field. Twelve become eight. Eight collide. Eight pay the toll. Eight perform something selfish, relentless, beautiful.

“But eight become four. Four catch their breath. Four clear their heads. Four pick up the pieces. Four recover. Four try to do better, play harder. But four become two. Two will emerge. Two will clash. Two will battle. While two show us the heart the hustle and soul of the game – one will be remembered.”

This was the 2010 Gatorade Super Bowl commercial, but if read in a different context, couldn’t this be a glimpse into the mind of what it was like to be a Roman gladiator?

“Panem et circenses” — let that play in your mind this Saturday.

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