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Jack Smith

Socioeconomic theory tries to spike beer, third and long and the matador defense

September 11, 1986|JACK SMITH

In reminding me that football season is upon us, John E. Veblen of Sierra Madre quotes the sociologist-economist Thorstein Veblen:

"Football has the same relation to culture as bullfighting has to agriculture."

John Veblen doesn't say whether he's related to the great thinker, but a blood relationship may explain why he's able to quote him.

I had a class in Veblen in junior college. All I remember is that he introduced the phrase "conspicuous consumption." Evidently he thought it defined the American way of life.

Conspicuous consumption, I believe, is the ostentatious acquisition of expensive goods and services as a demonstration of status and wealth. It is everyone's right--a part of the American dream.

Veblen died in 1929, just before the Great Depression fell. In my college years conspicuous consumption was a way of life engaged in only by the rich, who were few. For most of us, consumption was more often a respiratory disease than an economic reality.

I may not have the mental capacity to contradict Veblen, but I probably know as much about football as he did, and more about contemporary professional football as seen on TV.

Also, I am bold enough to argue that there is no true parallel between football and culture, on the one hand, and bullfighting and agriculture on the other.

If he had said "football has the same relation to culture as bullfighting has to culture," he might have had a point.

Everyone knows that bullfighting is deeply ingrained in Latin culture. It is symbolic, at the least, of man's contest with death. In the ring, the matador usually wins. But not always. There is always a grave risk. It is, in the end, a test of man's honor against the implacable foe.

As Ernest Hemingway wrote in "Death in the Afternoon":

"Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter's honor. . . .

"A growing ecstasy of ordered, formal, passionate, increasing disregard for death. . . . It is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal and a piece of scarlet serge draped over a stick. . . . " Surely Hemingway was talking about culture.

As for bullfighting's relation to agriculture , I doubt that it has any such pretentions. The ranches devoted to the raising of bulls for the ring may be an important part of the Spanish and Latin American economies, but they are cultural, not agricultural.

Veblen would have been correct if he'd said that "football has the same relation to agriculture as bullfighting has to agriculture."

Which is none. I don't believe the ball is even made of pigskin anymore.

For an American to say, however, that football has no relation to culture is uninformed and shortsighted.

As Michael Novak wrote in "The Joy of Sport," "He who has not drunk deep of the virtues of football has missed one of the closest brushes with transcendence that humans are allowed."

In Veblen's day, football players couldn't afford conspicuous consumption. Red Grange, the great Illinois All-American, probably played for the Chicago Bears for a few thousand dollars a year; maybe a few hundred, for all I know.

Today, a running back with Grange's speed, flash and college record would get at least $1 million a year. With that kind of dough you can not only get into conspicuous consumption, but also into culture.

Herschel Walker, the tailback who just signed a five-year, $5-million contract with the Dallas Cowboys, can not only buy himself a Rolls-Royce but also decorate his den with Picassos, if he likes. He could hire the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to play on his patio.

How could Veblen say that football is not culture when Super Bowl Sunday has replaced Easter Sunday as our main religious holiday in America?

What are 80 million Americans doing on the day that the two conference champions play for the National Football League title on a Sunday in January? Attending Mass?

Most of them are at home watching the game on TV and guzzling either Miller's Lite or Budweiser Light--depending on which commercial they like best.

How can Veblen say that football plays no part in American culture when it gives every able-bodied boy a chance to be a millionaire and to consume conspicuously?

Naturally, since every team is limited to only 45 players, there won't be a realistic chance for every boy to make it.

But football gives him something to shoot for. Meanwhile the game produces a pantheon of gods for him to worship. Of course not all football stars are praiseworthy role models. There are the drug users and those who don't give 115%, which George Allen always demanded.

But every faith has its fallen gods; their descent merely makes the others shine brighter.

If you want a role model, how about Jim Plunkett, the old Stanford star? He has been kicked around the NFL. He's been down and out. Yet he has come back to lead the Raiders to two Super Bowl victories, and he is still hanging in there.

If Jim Plunkett isn't a culture figure, then Mohammad Ali wasn't.

If you want to see art, watch a quarterback throw a 70-yard touchdown pass while two monolithic ends are pounding down on him.

One reason I'm writing this, of course, is to spite Thorstein Veblen. I think I got a D in that class.

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