Is Football Like Cockfighting?


I want to thank everyone who contributed to this introductory thread on my quest to understand the ritual of American football. I'll be pulling together a bibliography of sources which I hope to consult while pulling together this piece. I started with Clifford Geertz's "Notes On The Balinese Cockfight." This is the sort of thing that normal educated people read in undergrad. But again, I would not have been ready for this at 18. I am delighted to take it in at 36, an age where my tastes are a little broader, and my excitement flames high.

At any rate, I wanted to talk some about this quote from Geertz' piece in which he tries to explain how the cockfight works in the Balinese mind:

"Poetry makes nothing happen," Auden says in his elegy of Yeats, "it survives in the valley of its saying...a way of happening, a mouth." The cockfight too, in this colloquial sense, makes nothing happen. Men go on allegorically humiliating one another and being allegorically humiliated by one another, day after day, glorying quietly in the experience if they have triumphed, crushed only slightly more openly by it if they have not. But no one's status really changes. You cannot ascend the status ladder by winning cockfights; you cannot, as an individual, really ascend it at all. Nor can you descend it that way. All you can do is enjoy and savor or suffer and withstand, the concocted sensation of drastic and momentary movement along an aesthetic semblance of that ladder, a kind of behind-the-mirror status jump which has the look of mobility without its actuality.

I think this quote captures my earliest movements away from pro football fandom. In the mid-'90s, I was a Cowboys fan living in Washington D.C. When the Cowboys played the Redskins I read the sports section every day of the preceding week. If the Cowboys won that week (like here) I then read the sports section the entire following week, too. If they lost (like here) I didn't read the entire paper for the following week. 

I was going through the process of allegorical humiliating, or experiencing allegorical humiliation. And with it came all the attendant emotions of great joy and utter depression. And yet nothing about my actual status had changed. I would go an entire week in a bad mood, over events I had no control of. As I got older, I put more distance there because there were just too many events over which I did have control, which were equally capable of doing the same. 

So why would anyone participate? Geertz again:

What [the cockfight] does is what, for other peoples with other temperaments and other conventions, Lear and Crime and Punishment do; it catches up these themes--death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance--and, ordering them into an encompassing structure, presents them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature. It puts a construction on them, makes them, to those historically positioned to appreciate the construction, meaningful--visible, tangible, graspable--"real" in an ideational sense. An image, fiction, a model, a metaphor, the cockfight is a means of expression; its function is neither to assuage social passions nor to heighten them....but, in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds and money, to display them.

This is it. It's something I was trying to get at when I referred to a pro football game as a work of art. Football is (was) life for me. It took everything about life--all its pains, joys, its struggles, its violence--and made it "visible, tangible, graspable." I want to re-read Malcolm Gladwell's piece on football and dogfighting. I remember thinking he didn't quite close the circle with the comparison. But reading Geertz, I think he might have been on to something.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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