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GE’s Gladiator — Panem et Circenses?

Is the proposed “Extreme Football League” final proof that the United States is turning into ancient Rome?

May 11, 2000

Is the proposed "Extreme Football League" final proof that the United States is turning into ancient Rome?

Last week, the movie Gladiator was released in the United States and became in instant box office hit. With an uncanny sense of timing, NBC and the WWF — by the way, that is the World Wrestling Federation and not the World Wildlife Fund — announced just a few days before that they had teamed up to create a new and rawer version of American-style football. Cameras and microphones are to be installed all over the place, including on players and in locker rooms. Players are encouraged to show emotions, taunt their opponents and generally put on a bloody good show.

All the talk about the “extreme” new football league has an eerie ring to it. This, of course, is precisely where the new movie comes in. In ancient Rome, gladiators were a bit like the football (not soccer) stars in the United States. Successful contestants had their portraits placed on gems and vases — and the poets of the day composed songs about their heroic fights. Most gladiators, however, were in fact social outcasts. The majority was coerced into becoming a fighter.

Rome’s Emperors knew how to make proper political use of the people’s enjoyment of the games. It is no coincidence that various new Roman Emperors had to come up with something new to gain the support of the crowds. One key method was sponsoring “bread and games” — panem et circenses — for the masses.Yet, even the bloodiest games could become boring over time. This forced organizers to come up with ever more bizarre attractions. Emperor Domitian, for example, introduced match-ups between women dwarfs in the arena at around AD 90.

The XFL appears to be a modern-day version of women fighting dwarfs. Loose socks, loose talk and other attempts to break taboos associated with the rather tame NFL are a device to lure a new audience and new sponsors and thus get a chunk of the profitable football business.

Filling the football void in Spring is simply a “business adventure,” as NBC/WWF terminology will have us believe. Six days after the Super Bowl, when the interest in football supposedly is still high, the XFL will start its own season. The total sports approach resembles very much the power structure in ancient Rome. Give the people their games and popcorn — and you can rake in the money.

And a final word of wisdom, which may have been on NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s mind when he wondered whether the XFL will be football or whether it will be as scripted as the WWF’s “fights” are. An ancient philosopher also had his doubts about what he had seen in the Colosseum.

Under the Emperor Nero, the entertainment in the arena had become especially cruel. His advisor, the philosopher Seneca, who later committed suicide out of protest against Nero’s rule, wrote to a pal in disgust about the fights: “Do not, my Lucilius, attend the games!” Maybe we’ll all heed his advice.