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At the Altar of the NFL: Sports as Eucharist

September 20, 2013
TDF Guest Don Ashe

TDF Guest Don Ashe

The NFL has fired up again and I felt myself reacting with pleasurable thoughts and feelings. Watching great passes and catches, running backs out maneuvering or just plain running over opponents, the fumbles, the upsets, the falls. I anticipate watching it all and feeling good throughout the process. In fact , it sounds so good, I think I will enhance the expectable party with equally anticipated fattening foods and imbibery. Bring it on!

I paused and asked, why was this so? I’m happily anticipating sitting in front of a flashing flat, glowing multi-colored screen emitting various sounds that, when projecting a so called football game, typically generate happy feelings in me, so much so, that I will, of my own free will, sit in place for 2 or more hours staring happily at the glowing, noise emitting screen, often smiling and vocally, and often uncontrollably, crying out with joy or anguish in response to the projections entering my eyes and ears. Is this what life’s about? Well, that’s a big question, but one thing I know: I like thinking about watching football games I’ve never seen before. For me, football is a bit special. It’s one slight, tiny smidge of an inch closer to what resonates deep within people a bit more than other sports. At least for now.

Try this. Think of football, along with many other cultural expressions, as a reenactment of humankind’s prehistoric narrative of life’s terrifying moments when survival meant clashing with another tribe who are attacking for food or territory. Successful strategies, split second reactions, and out maneuvers were the difference literally between life and death, not just winning or losing. Of course, the stories remembered, the historical narratives, recall the most successful of humans, the survivors; the nimble, powerful, and quick heavyweights battling it out until one succumbs and the other triumphs.

These experiences were so powerful they were likely indelibly etched upon the memories of all survivors. As hard as one might try to forget it, the memory resiliently returned of the ferociousness and immediacy of horrific, bloody, frightening scenes. Then again, as bad as it sounds, what better for the survival of the tribe and species than to recall over and over the actions that either conquered and/or defended oneself? “Remember that day when Uncle Soandso killed the hyena by . . . ?” Even defeats were remembered as valuable lessons of what to avoid.

Another sobering speculation about prehistoric time is, these battles took place at a time when it was more likely than not to have witnessed one of your immediate family members, including children, being eaten alive by a more powerful animal or pack of animals. Again, the memory of that gory, agonizing spectacle would have scorched on the memory of any survivor a constantly persistent and fear filled memory of what might happen to them any day in the future as long as they survive. Not just the idea of death in the rational sense, but death in the sense of what they already watched in horror and felt as sickeningly conflicted in their reaction between naturally wanting to help the victim and naturally wanting to flee for self survival, a true double bind. Prehistoric guilt.

And it only takes once of going through the experience of witnessing death at work to leave survivors with a permanent sense of never ending vulnerability. Yet this permanent mental scar actually served the blind survival purposes of the species, acting as a beacon of warning to never forget the constant possibility of death’s threat, to be ever vigilant in looking back over one’s shoulder in fear of being the target of the next attack.

So this ability to use one’s brain to remember and analyze key threatening events contributed to the survival and flourishing of these otherwise relatively weak animals, the early homo sapiens. Amazingly, using memory and language, homo sapiens were able to successfully transmit critical survival knowledge to offspring.

While Jungian archetypes may be too much of a stretch empirically to explain this memory transmission between generations, it is reasonable to suggest that early imprinting upon an offspring’s neural pathways of how to survive and remain vigilant against the threat of death took place quite naturally via verbal stories and warning signs all through early formative development. Prehistoric storytelling acted as embryonic seeds of what would much later evolve into the multifaceted wonder of human culture.

Of course, these early oral narratives had more than mere entertainment value. They constantly reinforced what’s ultimately important to remember in order to survive and flourish. In other words, the chances of survival are increased in direct proportion to the ability to remember the constant threat of death. But remembering death’s threat is a delicate business that forces the human to walk a tightrope to maintain psychological equilibrium. Too little remembrance results in vulnerability and death, too much remembrance results in crippling fear and death.

So how did the homo sapiens manage this seemingly elusive balance? Could it be that familiar remembrance rituals reenacting the critical moments and battles eventually evolved over years of interpretation into safe and predictable social events as actual death threats became less frequent? As human beings learned to organize themselves and understand their enemies the actual violent death events became less unavoidable and more a thing of unfortunate timing.

Still, remembrance rituals can never be completely abandoned. This would spell certain death for humans whose very neural brain pathways had evolved to service this purpose. The ritualized remembrances persisted through early simple culture such as drama and religion. In drama these early humans may have taken the basic form of a reenactment story and infused it with interest by changing the names or characters in the story, but always remembering the salient points regarding survival.

Prehistoric religious expressions may have been much like drama, but paired back to the essentials. Abbreviated stories using symbols and appealing to any power larger than oneself. Sacrifice to offer to unseen powers and to bring to remembrance the bloody horror of the eternal death threats. Eucharistic-like images to bring one back to the point of it all: Suffering and pain unceasingly chases us, so do your best to survive each and every moment.

And the rituals not only persisted, but exploded through sport. Games of competition, whether one-on-one or team competitions, both fulfilled the purposes of the needed remembrance reenactments of battles and prowess while affording pleasurable distraction from the crippling truth of the determined inevitability of succumbing to death.

Though sports alone are not the only cultural expressions based on early human struggles with death they certainly are one of the most ubiquitous and diversely attended, not to mention extravagantly funded, rituals that to most humans often appear meaningless when viewed as a mere end to itself. I enjoy basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, golf, and the Olympics. But when you extract it from out of the people and their feelings, it’s nothing more than persons playing with balls.

We the people infuse the games with importance, the need to conquer, self worth, achievement, cleverness, and ability in the face of opposition. The quarterback sizes up the enemies, calls out any modifications to the battle plan, initiates the attack with the snap of the ball. Suddenly, the biggest, strongest, and fastest warriors are desperately and maniacally clawing there way toward the man holding the prized possession, such as, oh who knows, maybe a pigskin, through a titanic crash of deadly forces.

The idea here is to kill the possessor of the prized possession by bringing him to the ground where he can be subdued and incapacitated. In a split second move the possessor may hand off or throw the prized possession to another warrior, redirecting the attackers to him who must now fight to get the possession to a safe place before he can be incapacitated. This requires hand to hand contact, out maneuvering, out running, and out smarting the enemy, all in a matter of a few precious seconds. The exciting and violent clash of these death battles between gladiators repeats again and again, thrilling spectators with the rush of witnessing the test of their best soldier’s power, stamina, and strategy.

It’s a great reminder of the daily battle we must all endure. And it all takes place in both symbolic and nitty gritty fashion before the altar of the NFL. Symbolically reminding us on the one hand that life is threatening and humans must continually fight to survive. On the other hand, pass the chips and watch these dudes go at it.

Yes, there’s something about the ole Gridiron that heats me up at the core.

Don Ashe has been a Becker enthusiast since 1978. He graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1980 and served in ministry for 10 years. He has been teaching philosophy at Azusa Pacific University since 2001. Don lives with his wife of 36 years in Hermosa Beach, CA.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write for the Denial File Don. I think your overall analysis has some appeal, but I am inclined to disagree with parts of it.

    “… Think of football, along with many other cultural expressions, as a reenactment of humankind’s prehistoric narrative of life’s terrifying moments when survival meant clashing with another tribe who are attacking for food or territory.”

    It sounds like you are building an ‘adaptationist’ explanation here, so I am a bit suspicious about where you want to take this. You assume that violent clashes between human groups were quite common in human prehistory. While this view is accepted by those sympathetic to evolutionary psychology (e.g. Pinker, Diamond, Wrangham), it has been severely criticized by others (e.g. Fry, Ferguson, Sahlins). Close scrutiny of archeological data do not point to a particularly violent prehistoric past. Small band gatherer-hunter societies would have had little benefit from engaging in deadly violence and could often ‘vote with their feet’ if conflict seemed inevitable. This changed somewhat during the Neolithic and the advent of civilizations, but even here, intergroup violence was probably not as common as is often believed. The anthropological and ethnographic records detail numerous small band or tribal societies that get along just fine without engaging in intergroup violence. It might therefore be a huge stretch to suggest that such violence played a significant role in our evolved psychology.

    “Another sobering speculation about prehistoric time is, these battles took place at a time when it was more likely than not to have witnessed one of your immediate family members, including children, being eaten alive by a more powerful animal or pack of animals.”

    Again, it seems to me that ‘these battles took place’ not in the Paleolithic, when we were indeed more likely to have been food for larger or more powerful animals, but later on in Mesolithic and especially Neolithic, with the transition to agriculture, sedentary lifestyles, less egalitarian societal structures, and so on. This is where war and intergroup violence appeared to be more common.

    “It is reasonable to suggest that early imprinting upon an offspring’s neural pathways of how to survive and remain vigilant against the threat of death took place quite naturally via verbal stories and warning signs all through early formative development. Prehistoric storytelling acted as embryonic seeds of what would much later evolve into the multifaceted wonder of human culture. … Still, remembrance rituals can never be completely abandoned. This would spell certain death for humans whose very neural brain pathways had evolved to service this purpose.”

    You seem to be suggesting that verbal storytelling, especially those stories involving death and how to avoid it, were somehow an evolved adaptation. If so, I think your speculation is lacking credible evidence. I also think you miss the mark. Humans are not evolutionary programmed to fear death or tell stories to help them avoid it, though culture is certainly involved in these things. My take is best expressed in the essay below, where I also make comments about recent trends to speak about the human mind in terms of evolved adaptations:

    http://modernpsychologist.ca/death-meaninglessness-and-darwinian-heroism/


  2. Your comments are captivating—thank you for writing your thoughts down.



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