On the Super Bowl as Bread and Circus

The first time I stumbled across the phrase “bread and circus,” it was the name of an upscale Massachusetts grocery store owned by Whole Foods. But the phrase kept zinging around in my gray matter as a Latin metonymic (a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another). It’s like that reference to the “crown,” which most of us know refers to the English monarchy. Brits might say, for example, “Balmoral is owned by the crown.”

Occasionally you’ll find bread and circus used to describe the creation of public approval by distraction. You know, Trump’s Twitter zingers. He’s a master, par excellence, of one political strategy: distraction. Political scientists would know that you can offer some immediate shallow requirements as a sop to the populace and keep them from focusing on important matters. Nothing new over the centuries.

Trump is certainly not the only genius at distraction. Ronald Reagan had the Air Force’s $7,622 coffeepot and the Navy’s $435 claw hammer, as well as an ill-fated effort to save money by classifying ketchup as a school lunch vegetable. Bill Clinton had midnight basketball and a high-priced haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist aboard Air Force One.

Bread and Circus?
Now that we’ve gotten through that little game, what does “Bread and Circus” actually refer to? …

The phrase originates in a satire by the Roman poet, Juvenal, dated approximately 100 A.D. In the satire, Juvenal wrote that Romans, who should care for their political birthright and political involvement, had not the slightest interest in such matters of importance. Instead, they were captivated by bread and circus. Back in 140 B.C. to keep the votes of poorer citizens in their hip pocket: they doled out cheap food and entertainment. “Bread and circuses” became the most effective way to rise to power.

Or to put it another way, bread and circus kept the population docile and under control. To a significant degree, sports is often a distraction. I’m no killjoy. I enjoy some of my sports. It’s just that the NFL is so obvious.

The circuses were gory spectacles in which gladiators fought to their death with swords and knives or a trident, dagger and net. Inevitably, the spectacle delighted the poor onlookers, and supplied them with free wheat and bread. It was literally “bread and circus.”

Super bowl?

By now, a lot of the population knows that the Super Bowl and the NFL games are a form of gladiatorial combat. Of course, if you actually went to the stadium to watch, rather than the much less expensive streaming TV, you paid a pretty penny.  The cheapest ticket was $900, but the average ticket sold for $5,415, the highest average price of the last 10 years. This is distracting the well-off, not the poor.

And the combat? Well, if you’ve been reading your newspaper or any of a number of magazines, you know that NFL football kills off its players in a slow painful death–for both them and their families. No quick dagger to the heart.

Emily Kelly, the wife of retired football player, Rob Kelly of the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots, sums it up this way: “He chose the sport, but he did not choose brain damage.”

Though the analogy is not perfect, it’s intriguing. The Super Bowl was just more bread and circus.

Originally Posted on http://danerwin.typepad.com/my_weblog/.

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