Off the Record: Are we still watching gladiator shows?

Off the Record

The ancient Romans knew what people wanted — bread and circuses. A Roman circus wasn’t a traveling show filled with animal acts, acrobats and clowns. The Circus was the actual arena or venue that the shows were performed in — horse races, chariot races, athletic competitions and so on. The Roman Colisseum could even be flooded for re-enactments of naval battles.

One of the entertainments the masses enjoyed were gladiatorial contests — fights to the death between armed combatants. The first gladiators were slaves, prisoners of war or criminals who were forced to fight, but later on men willingly became gladiators for the money, for the adulation, or because they just liked killing people, I guess.

The first gladiator contests were held in 264 AD, and they lasted until 399 AD when the Emperor Honorius decreed they be banned, but it took another five years before the last known contest was held.

We’ve come a long way since the gladiator shows of 1600 years ago. Or have we? Today’s movies, thanks to special effects and computer generated images, allow us to watch bloody, gory mayhem of all kinds. We know it’s not real, but it sure looks real. There is a whole genre of horror-slasher movies like “Friday the 13th,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” that entertain people by shocking and scaring the willies out of them.

There are still some vestiges of the old gladiator games in the form of professional sports. Boxing, professional wrestling, mixed martial arts and Ultimate Fighting attract fans who enjoy watching big, beefy men beating each other up.

But the most popular of the games is professional football. It is a sport that, over the years, has become more and more dangerous as football players have become bigger, stronger and faster.

Back in the 1950s and ’60s, professional football players weren’t much bigger than the fans that watched them. The biggest were 250-260 pounds.

I saw Gale Sayers, the great Chicago Bears running back, on an interview show once, and he said something that amazed me. Asked if he’d do anything different in his career, he said he’d lift weights. When he played, teams discouraged players from lifting weights, thinking it would make them bulky and slow. Man, did they have it wrong.

Today, offensive and defensive linemen are considered small at 300 pounds. The mass and the speed of players today makes it a much more dangerous game.

Today, the NFL is paying much more attention to player safety, especially when it comes to concussions. The kind of smashing hits that used to be celebrated people on the highlight reels now draw penalties and fines. Players who “get their bell rung” in the parlance of the past are now taken out of the game and tested for concussions, and can’t return to the field until doctors say they are recovered.

Football is a great, entertaining game, but it is dangerous, to the point where parents are now seriously considering whether their children should play it or not. The violence is part of the appeal, and like the ancient Romans, we find it entertaining.

People still pay hundreds of dollars for a ticket to a game, and we still spend millions, even a billion on the arenas where the game is played.

At least, the players realize the risks they are taking when they play, and those risks don’t involve duels to the death.


Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.


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