Half Past the Month: It Isn’t the Game They Think It Is

September 16, 2014

For the use of the membership only (594 words)

A FORMER U.N. AMBASSADOR is being mentioned as a reform commissioner for the National Football League. Well and good for her. Maybe diplomacy can change the sport along more socio-politically correct lines. She will have to give it a different name, though.

For football, the genuine thing, will go on unchanged. The game, an amazingly true reenactment of phalanx battle, has roots going deep into Western Civilization. Its rules, if there really are any, are hardwired into the male psyche.

Know that there is virtually no distinction between the tactics to be employed this Sunday by down linemen at EverBank Field and those of shield-bearing hoplites on the plains of Thermopylae. Indeed, King Philip of Macedonia called the first trap play, a deceptive stagger step creating a gap in the line through which he obliquely drove his cavalry. A son, Alexander, conquered the world with it.

Here is an excerpt from Wikipedia’s description of Roman improvements to the basic phalanx. See if you can identify the X’s and O’s on the chalk board of some early-day Belichick:

“Phalanxes facing the legion were vulnerable to the more flexible Roman ‘checkerboard’ deployment, which provided each fighting man a good chunk of personal space to engage in close order fighting. This manipular system also allowed entire Roman sub-units to maneuver more widely, freed from the need to always remain tightly packed in rigid formation. The deep three-line deployment of the Romans allowed combat pressure to be steadily applied forward. Most phalanxes favored one huge line several ranks deep. This might do well in the initial stages, but as the battle entangled more and more men, the stacked Roman formation allowed fresh pressure to be imposed over a more extended time. As combat lengthened and the battlefield compressed, the phalanx might thus become exhausted or rendered immobile, while the Romans still had enough left to not only maneuver but to make the final surges forward. Hannibal’s deployment at Zama appears to recognize this — hence the Carthaginian also used a deep three-layer approach, sacrificing his first two lower-quality lines and holding back his combat-hardened veterans of Italy for the final encounter. Hannibal’s arrangement had much to recommend it given his weakness in cavalry and infantry, but he made no provision for one line relieving the other as the Romans did. Each line fought its own lonely battle and the last ultimately perished when the Romans reorganized for a final surge.”

Have the rules changed? Yes, you can no longer stab your opponent in the knee with your short sword. Were there cheerleaders in 364 B.C.? Not exactly, but there were camp followers, and when battles occurred near cities, people would come out to watch at a safe distance — not, of course, in a way that would generate residuals or reliable season-ticket sales. And yes, there were the lawyers, agents and publicists of antiquity who rode down from the hills to rob and shoot the wounded.

Which brings us to the current situation. There is a determined effort by various interests, few selfless, to tame the sport. If allowed, they will destroy the NFL version of the game by degrading the very reason it is popular, i.e., it is a refuge, perhaps the last, of the male spirit.

Women understand the testosterone-soaked history of the thing, its incorporation — nay, exaltation — of the most detestable aspects of the male personality. They have avoided it until now, leaving husbands and significant others sitting alone in momentary peace in front of the television set.

This created something remarkable in an increasingly fragmented and weak media market — a dependable, identifiable and wonderfully valuable customer base. You can be certain that alarms bells went off on Madison Avenue after Monday’s first ESPN game, whose announcers delivered a continuous, incongruous lecture on the wrongness of punching one’s fiancé in the face. The show’s rating, not coincidentally, was down 21 percent from last year.

If you can accept for the purposes of this discussion that rugby and football are interchangeable, the famed Scottish right half Sir William Shankly had good advice for network executives or anyone else who would mess with the game:

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it is more serious than that.”

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