Cultural Value of the Super Bowl

Fresno Bee, February 5, 2016

  • The Big Game is an artistic production
  • Culture and the arts are playful games
  • Football isn’t perfect, but it’s fun

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.

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.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article58662308.html#storylink=cpy

Animal Play, Religion, and Poverty

All children deserve time to play

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-19

Most mammals play. We even play with members of different species — as we do with our pets. This is an odd development in a world in which species are supposed to struggle for existence against one another.

Animals at play are not struggling to survive. Rather, they are engaged in imaginative and empathetic activity. Some nonhuman animals even appear to have a basic idea of “fair play.”

At least that is what Robert Bellah claims. Bellah, one of the most important scholars of religion in the U.S., gave a lecture last week at Fresno State on his new book, “Religion in Human Evolution.” The book explains the evolutionary roots of ethics, religion and philosophy.

Bellah argues that play is an important source of these higher goods. Play occurs in a “relaxed field,” when we are not focused on mere existence. Religious rituals, for example, are examples of rule-governed play. Philosophy, art and science develop as we play with ideas. These activities are meaningful on their own, without reference to the struggle to survive. And they provide solace and satisfaction, as a break from the labor of living.

One could argue that a fully human life is one in which there are ample opportunities for enjoying playful and empathetic activity, outside of the concerns of work and survival. All work and no play makes us dull animals — as the saying might go. Bellah suggests that this is true of many species. Animals thrive when they are free to explore, relax and socialize.

The importance of leisure and play is found in our dreams of a perfect world. Our utopian ideals and religious paradises describe a world without labor, struggle or conflict. Christians dream of lions lying down with lambs. And Plato imagined a peaceful world in which we would play at pastimes — “sacrificing, singing and dancing.”

It makes sense that intelligent animals would imagine an ideal world in which the struggle for existence was overcome. We lament the hard work of life. We aspire to freedom from want. We even imagine that after the toils of life, we may be rewarded by resting in peace without the need to labor.

Surplus resources and physical security make it possible for us to play, reflect, explore and create. Bellah explains that even in nonhuman species, play behavior is made possible by protective parents who provide for basic needs. Nurturing parents allow the young to experiment and romp without fear of predators or hunger. This sort of nurturance allows the animal to take a break from feeding and fighting in order to frolic.

During his visit to Fresno, Bellah returned several times to the issue of poverty and injustice. The sad fact is that there are many human beings who are not free to play — people who have little time or energy for singing, dancing, science, art, religion or philosophy. This is unfair, especially when others enjoy substantial luxury.

The idea of social justice, as found in the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, develops from this basic idea of fairness. Philosophers and prophets have long criticized injustice and inequality. Bellah suggests that fairness itself may have roots in animal evolution. He claims that some animals seem to show a sense of “fair play.” Dogs will take turns, for example, chasing each other.

Bellah connects play with childhood. But he notes that in some parts of the world the play of childhood remains a privilege of the wealthy, unavailable for poor children. Across the globe, millions of children go hungry, while Americans spend more than $50 billion per year on pet food and animal care.

Bellah writes that one way of describing unfairness is to say that “while some work, others play.” We might add that there is something unfair about a world in which dogs are well-fed, while children starve.

We flatter ourselves in thinking we are more highly evolved than the other animals. But a species that fails to provide for its own children is not clearly superior. Bellah’s evolutionary account of religion reminds us that there is still a long way to go to make sure that all human children have the opportunity to live as well as our dogs do.