Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Quote of the Day (Russell Baker, On America’s ‘Opiate of the Masses’)

“In America, it is sport that is the opiate of the masses.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and memoirist Russell Baker (1925-2019), “The Muscular Opiate,” The New York Times,  Oct. 3, 1967

Russell Baker is playing, of course, off Karl Marx's infamous line that religion is the opiate of the masses. But in our age, the Super Bowl has taken on the trappings of a secular religion, even being played on a Sunday, inspiring an unusual amount of reverence for a game that, after all, involves 300-plus-pound mastodons in shoulder pads colliding at ferocious speeds. 

Baker wrote those lines in the autumn of 1967, when the Green Bay Packers were two months away from their second and last Super Bowl under coach Vince Lombardi. The game was already assuming inflated dimensions (why do you think it was called “Super”?), but nothing like the orgy of wretched excess it has become in recent years. 

Growing up, I was never the type of young man uninterested in athletic pursuits that Baker labeled “asportual.” Having checked in on the big game on Sunday, albeit intermittently, I can’t even be said to be one now.

But I am certainly nothing like the teen who could have reeled off the starters of his favorite gridiron teams of the Seventies, the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers. I am all too conscious that a sport that George F. Will defined American as “violence punctuated by committee meetings” has produced a startlingly high number of concussion-related victims. 

Those Roman numerals associated with the Super Bowl—a designation, to my knowledge, not associated with any other sports trophy—may point to more than laughable, over-the-top pretense. 

As corruption and greed took over the Roman Empire, rulers placated their restless subjects with what the ancient satirist Juvenal termed “bread and circuses”—i.e., free food and entertainment. I fear that the American experiment with liberty may have encountered a similar obstacle.

No comments: