For all its all-American gloss and Christian trappings (praying players), if you scratch the surface of the National Football League you'll find a heathen heart. It was on full display this week as the Seattle Seahawks marched to professional football's Super Bowl with a victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC championship game here Sunday, Jan. 22. (See "End of the Hawks Pox.")
End of the Hawks Pox
Pinch yourself and get on the next plane to Detroit. By Mike Henderson
America's sportswriters compare and contrast Seattle rain with just about everything. By Rick Anderson
NFL playoffs at a glance.
The competition between "warriors" under banners representing the animal spirits of the osprey and the panther was spurred on by the roar of the wigged and woad-painted bravehearts, semi-naked, bellowing and besotted, raising their voices, projecting primal energy, invoking Fortune to bring victory to team and tribe.
The spectacle of football is the Roman Colosseum without the death. It is a civic ritual of absurdity and power.
Pagan Seattle is manifest in gatherings as varied as Gay Pride, the Fremont Fair, and the WTO protests. But sports—and the arena nature of violent football, especially—unleashes a kind of mainstream heathenism that is more broadly acceptable (war paint, scantily clad cheerleaders, feasting, and drinking), if rarely called by its real name. Football fandom and its costumed rites unmask parts of the suburban soul that are usually packed away in the cul-de-sacs of the psyche.
More importantly from a civic perspective, major events like this—the Sonics championship in 1979, the Mariners playoff run in 1995—awaken local pride and a sense of belonging.
For those NPR types who loathe sports, especially football, it can seem like a huge waste of time and resources, not to mention a selfish and repulsive reinforcement of the worst of American society: violence, sexism, consumerism. But sports boosters are right when they suggest that athletic competitions can also be meaningful experiences. They can help communities bond, they can be at the center of shared experience across generations, they can energize the masses, they can change political and social dynamics, which the emperors of Rome well knew.
I have seen evidence of this in another place: Siena, Italy. This medieval city hosts one of the most amazing competitions, a horse race called the Palio. It usually occurs twice a year in the central piazza. It pits Siena's neighborhoods—contrade—against each other. Each contrade sponsors a horse and chooses a rider, and the pecking order of the city is established each time a winner is declared. With its prerace practices and ceremonies (horses are brought into churches and blessed, large outdoor banquets are held) and the colorful flags of Siena flying everywhere, it is an amazing spectacle that grew out of organized gang fights in medieval times that served as a kind of civic relief valve for people living within the confines of a walled city.
Most of the contrade are named after animals (dragon, ram, panther, eagle), not unlike football teams. The final race is short and violent, noted for both nasty spills and acceptable and unacceptable forms of cheating. (The jockeys are permitted to whip each other with strips of razor-edged dried rawhide.) The race I witnessed in 1996 saw a contrade—Bruco, or the silkworm—win. They were apparently the Cleveland Indians of Siena, and their leap from bottom to the top of the social pecking order—if only until the next race—unleashed an explosion of passion I will never forget.
This kind of inner-city feuding is more healthy than real bloodshed. American sporting events tend to be imbued with less meaning, in part because our cities are less walled and our loyalties more transient. The social pecking order of Seattle, after all, is not at stake in a Seahawks game. The Palio reminded me of the old Lake Washington hydroplane races, a kind of Seafair with real social consequences.
But even our more watered-down professional sports can profoundly change the way we see ourselves. Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Art Thiel suggests this victory is one of those events that will change the way we regard the future: There was Seattle before the Super Bowl (or Gold Rush, or world's fair, or WTO) and Seattle after.
More tangibly, with this one game, the perception of Paul Allen has changed. He has ceased to be the reclusive, largely faceless local billionaire in Bill Gates' shadow. Watching him raise the "12th-man" flag at Seahawks stadium, fire up the crowd with his rally rag, tear up in victory, and call to mind the love he and his father shared for the Huskies, the image of Seattle's second-richest and arguably most locally influential software mogul transformed before our eyes. He became one of us.
OK, maybe that's just the beer talking. But whether you love or hate Allen or the team, that transformation of perception alone will have profound consequences. On the plus side, I can't imagine that it's not better for all of us to have a fuller picture of the man who is attempting to reshape so much of Seattle through development. On the downside, at least for those of us who are skeptical about providing public subsidies for billionaire sports owners, the Seahawks example will further encourage Sonics owner and Starbucks master Howard Schultz, who wants the city to hand over the keys to KeyArena—nothing more or less than what Paul Allen got.
Which is a reminder of the potency and peril that all competition brings. For better or worse, to the victor goes the spoils.