Jack Smith

Questioning the wisdom of Thorstein Veblen's football quote sends culture lovers into a defensive formation

September 25, 1986|JACK SMITH

Rarely have I provoked more flak from readers than in questioning the wisdom of an opaque epigram by Thorstein Veblen on football.

In one of his more clouded insights Veblen said: "Football has the same relation to culture as bullfighting has to agriculture."

I merely pointed out, with naive clarity, that football is a product of American culture just as bullfighting is of Spanish culture.

In support of this conviction, I quoted a burnished paragraph from Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon," and an effulgent line from Michael Novak's "The Joy of Sport," in which he memorialized football as "one of the closest brushes with transcendence that humans are allowed."

Several people have quoted one of the numerous definitions of culture from various dictionaries, with the intent, evidently, of persuading me that football is not culture.


Some of us think of culture as being concerned only with the fine arts--music, painting, sculpture, literature, theater, dance.

Culture has humble beginnings. It comes from the Latin cultus , past participle of coltera , meaning simply to till the soil.

One of its several modern meanings, as stated in Webster's Third International, is "the total pattern of human behavior and its products embodied in thought, speech, action, and artifacts, and dependent on man's capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations through the use of tools, language and systems of abstract thought. . . ."

Anyone who knows anything about modern football knows it has been refined from the primitive sport of the 1890s into the complex exercise of today, and that its intricacies and improvements have been transmitted from generation to generation by means of blackboard diagrams as abstruse as any you may find on the blackboard of Prof. Richard Feynman at Caltech.

If anyone could get into the head of Coach John Robinson of the Rams at half time of any Ram game he would find himself in a maze of abstract thought, and probably some profane thought as well.

Mark Nichols of Beverly Hills argues that I do not challenge Veblen's statement but confirm it. He cites the sports section of the newspaper, with its reports of "injuries, operations, scores, contracts, dope addiction, etc."

It would say that Nichols does not challenge my position but confirms it. Surely any sport that generates news so typical of the American scene is a part of our culture.

He also recalls that in 1939 Robert Hutchins abolished football at the University of Chicago, and that thereafter Enrico Fermi and his colleagues found a place under its stadium to produce the first sustained nuclear reaction. It is obvious that if Hutchins had not abolished football at Chicago we might not have our nuclear dilemma today.

The erudite Ed Shoaf of La Canada recalls that Hutchins said of sports: "It is possible for a student to win 12 letters at a university without his learning how to write one."

Alas, too true, but irrelevant.

Howard Cowan of Beverly Hills suggests that I could best serve my argument by comparing the performance of a football player to that of a ballet dancer. Only Wednesday I compared the grace of wide receivers to that of ballet dancers, and added that in football there is suspense and surprise as well as beauty. You don't know how it's going to turn out.

Cowan also pointed out that Veblen, "steeped in economic determinism as he was," would have disapproved of football because the money it produces is not created wealth but merely "a redistribution of the economy's surpluses."

What would poor Veblen have to say about our society today as it changes from direct production into services and entertainment?

Ron Hardcastle suggests that Veblen meant the "fine arts" when he said culture, to which I agree. He adds that he is not a sports fan, but he is touched by the faces of athletes as seen in close-ups on TV.

He remembers Boris Becker's exultation over his first win at Wimbledon; Mary Lou Retton's euphoria over her first "10"; Dorothy Hamill falling. . . .

"This is real life we're dealing with, not Don Johnson playing to the camera. That is why I watch sports, to share that joy, that anguish. . . ."

Emma Lou Diemer of Santa Barbara insists that football "has nothing to do" with culture. She asks, "Doesn't your nameless wife have any say in what you write?"

For the record, my wife does not tell me what to write, any more than I tell her how many pairs of shoes she can have.

Lawrence Berg of San Gabriel is insulted by my observation that "Super Bowl Sunday has replaced Easter Sunday as our main religious holiday. . . . 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?"

I admit that was excessive. As Berg points out, many of those 80 million may have attended Mass before the game. "You would not want to stand at the door of every church next Jan. 24 and put a dime in the collection basket for every person that walks in."

No, I wouldn't; but the NFL could easily afford it from the money it gets for the Super Bowl from television.

"You want to suggest the Super Bowl as a religious experience?" Berg asks. "Ask Mr. Rozelle to switch the Super Bowl to 9 o'clock in the morning and see what happens."

Don't worry. Miller's and Budweiser would not allow it. Nine o'clock in the morning is too early to drink beer.

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