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Jack Welch for Roman Emperor?

Does the introduction of the Extreme Football League signal the decline of the American empire?

January 31, 2001

Does the introduction of the Extreme Football League signal the decline of the American empire?

The XFL draws its inspiration largely from the notoriously brutal and obviously scripted “fights” that the World Wrestling Federation regularly beams into American living rooms. The success of the concept however — the WWF is a publicly trade company and enjoys strong TV ratings — suggests that the XFL might be around for a while. Even more so, the financial muscle of NBC, which is part of Jack Welch’s General Electric, lends credibility to the whole venture.

People around the world might think that American football, as it presently exists, is rough enough. But here comes the launching of the XFL — an even more hard-core U.S. football league — that might have implications far beyond its potential impact on U.S. professional sports. The XFL may be the clearest sign yet that the “U.S. empire” has just passed its zenith.

With their over-the-top approach, the founders of the XFL hope to lure a large-enough audience — mostly from the young male demographic group — to wrestle loose a chunk of the lucrative professional football market that the NFL has monopolized for itself.

Traditionally, the football season ends with the Super Bowl in late January. By starting its own season only a week later, the XFL hopes to keep die-hard football fans from turning to other professional sports — such as basketball or ice hockey — before the NFL gets back into the action in September.

But what about the ultimate question: Will this new league continue the long trend where TV programming in the United States gets ever cruder and only attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator in taste?

From a historian’s point of view, the XFL simply appears to be the latest attempt to initiate what the ancient Romans knew as spring games. But the venture also raises some more fundamental questions.

Is this just the next step in the evolution of TV, where the distinction between entertainment and reality increasingly gets blurred?

Or is it something more serious: The final proof that the United States, currently the world’s lone remaining superpower, is fast turning into the Rome of old — a decadent and fading empire?

Those who favor the latter view might point to the fact that last year’s box office hit “Gladiator,” a commercially successful movie, just won the presigious Golden Globe award for best drama. The popularity of this movie is often attributed to its abundance of gory fighting scenes — which could be an indication that the bloodlust of some American moviegoers is approaching that of their entertainment-starved counterparts in the old Rome.

It is this (perceived) yearning for ever more outrageous forms of entertainment that prompted NBC and the WWF to create the XFL. For most people outside the United States, the sport of American football remains a mystery. Short, helmet-clashing plays are constantly interrupted by long delays, as players get untangled from one another — only to regroup and launch yet another grunting onslaught that inevitably will end a few short moments later in a heap of bodies, arms and legs.

But outsiders are not alone with their doubts about the XFL. Even though football remains very popular here, most people within the United States question the need for a rival football league to the well-established NFL.

As opposed to the NFL, which can pass muster as a serious sport, the XFL drops all such pretense and shamelessly panders to the entertainment needs of television audiences.

Cameras and microphones are to be installed all over the place, including on players, on the sidelines and in locker rooms (even though not the showers, we presume).

Some football rules were changed to make the game more fast-paced and physical. Players are encouraged to show emotions, taunt their opponents and generally put on a bloody good show. The concept calls for instant interviews on the sidelines. If a player refuses to humor the reporters, one of the founders of the league has already threatened to “fire the guy on the spot.”

All the talk about the “extreme” new football league has an eerie political-historic ring to it. 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 were slaves who were coerced into becoming gladiators with threats and the promise of fame and — just maybe — regaining their freedom. Things are not quite as stark for the players of the XFL, but most of them are former college players who didn’t make it in the big leagues and see the XFL as their only shot at fame and (modest) wealth.

For Rome’s Emperors, the incentive to hold Games was mostly political in nature. A content people meant quite simply less trouble for them and their cronies. It is no coincidence that successions of Roman Emperors were under great pressure always to come up with something new — only to gain the support and affection 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.

As far as the XFL is concerned, ancient Rome might indeed provide some useful pointers. 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!” We’re likely to heed his advice.

But the question remains: And, maybe more importantly, does this signal a moral decay of the magnitude that ultimately led to the downfall of Rome? Even though this may be an enticing thought for critics of U.S. culture from around the world, it is probably premature.

First of all, it is far from certain whether the XFL will have much of an impact. It might turn out to be a niche event — as are many other programs outside the cultural mainstream. But that would hardly be enough to topple the United States from its dominant position in the world economy.