Saturday, October 15, 2011

Anthropological Notes on a Sport

In my anthropological studies while I lived in The Great Elsewhere (America Other than New Orleans), I found a curious ceremony in progress.  It occurred on a field that was lit with overhead lights and had banked seats on either side that were soon filled with people.  Clearly some kind of tribal ritual was being enacted.  Two large groups of youth from different tribes, the members of each group being fitted out in oversized padding and brightly coloured uniforms, ran out on this field to the shouts of the crowd on their sides.  One tribe wore green shirts and brown trousers, while the other wore dark blue uniforms with white numbers.  Each group was led in this running entrance by groups of young females wearing abbreviated costumes of similar colours.  I took these to be the Vestal Virgins of the tribe, but require more information regarding their prior virgin status and disposition.  These same female individuals then proceeded to do yell, do flips (to display their shiny underwear to advantage), and made encouraging noises for the crowd to yell fervently as well.  The crowd, apparently in a skeptical vein, did little to accommodate them.  Possibly it had something to do with past failures of their youth and apprehension regarding the future.  [If the tribe has too many losses, do these Vestals get buried alive?]

The affair in question begun with the toss of a coin.  I think that this is a metaphor regarding the chances of life and how we must "seize the day" in response to pure uncertainty.  One side, happy with this outcome, cheered lustily.  I suppose they were anticipating bountiful crops or many grandchildren to augment their tribes.  The other tribe murmured slightly, as if to ward off possible bad luck by this loss.  Their response to this ill omen was a stoicism worthy of Marcus Aurelius.

 The main ritual seemed to proceed in a series of steps.  One participant would hand  or "center" a oblong leather ball through his legs to the quarter-back, possibly in mimicry of the birthing process, while the other team would attempt to disrupt the process.  The same "center" participant wore a towel dangling from his waist on the front, an obvious parallel to something else [!] -- could it be menstration?   Following this "birthing," the various players seemed to run in a random fashion until the person carrying the ball was apprehended.  Sometimes the ball was thrown: I think it has to do with the quarter-back losing his nerve and denying responsibility any further.  At any rate, very few times were these balls caught by another player.  Maybe the shape of these "balls" was a problem.  In this game one team would on occasion kick the ball to the other team, who would then have an opportunity to mimic the birthing process while their opposites would try to disrupt it.

Scoring was based on moving the ball to one end of the field or kicking it through goal posts.  This type of scoring by kicking is highly desired, with the cheerleaders prostrating themselves in supplication while the attempt is made.

I have a tentative interpretation of the older men wearing the striped shirts: they represent the Three Fates plus Hercules.  Two of them normally stand on the side with a long chain connecting two poles, but periodically come out to determine the fate of the mortal by measuring how far the ball has traveled.  One of these striped worthies made gestures of supplication to the gods, who apparently live in the Mount Olympus of the Press Box.  They blow whistles for some reason; possibly to dispel evil spirits.

 Members of the observing crowd wore ribbons with the "school colors," the blue-and-white or green-and-white motif.  Some favored young females wore corsages, possibly indicative of betrothed status.

The behaviour of the crowd provided singular contrasts.  About eighty gaily-garbed teens played martial songs on musical instruments, while girls in brief sequined costumes twirled batons.  Another small group, both boys and girls, tried to stimulate interest in the happenings by doing tricks, yelling, and in general jumping around manically.  Additionally, there was one youth (I surmise) who wore an animal totem costume of the tribe: this one of a Tiger.  (The totem of the other tribe was symbolized by someone wearing a bear suit.)  There were large masses of younger youth not in costumes who seemed to walk randomly around, with little apparent interest in the game.  Instead, they were actively courting similarly-aged young people of the opposite sex in non-subtle ways.  Older women sat together and talked about matters unrelated to the game. Young children seemed to be bent on an orgy of eating of caloric, forbidden foods as wieners, pink spun candy, and pork rinds.  Only a small body of elderly men watched the game with diligence.  I conclude that they constituted an elderly priesthood and were involved in seeing to it that the proper rituals were formed.

Judging from the crowd's attitude and behavior, I tentatively conclude that this particular ritual is becoming less central to the lives of the people, other than the youthful participants and the elderly priesthood.

On the other hand, some vestiges of tribal importance still lingered.  During a break called "Halftime" sentimental music was played and a formally-dressed young lady was crowned with a tiara by an older man. The musicians formed patterns on the field and played music.  The young woman was elected to her position, and was supposed to represent the aspirations of her tribe regarding beauty, intelligence, and virtue.  I cannot surmise the symbolism of the older man.  The musicians were also on the field, playing music.  They were accompanied by a group of larger females who carried and positioned flags in unison.

In the scheme of things, "football" is complex: part substitute for tribal warfare, part fertility rite, part music festival, part reunion of far-flung tribal members.  What is most peculiar about it is the irony regarding its name.  Unlike football as played in Europe in which the feet are used exclusively, the ball is kicked in this game only rarely: and only from a stationary position.

 
At the end of the game the winning team got to keep the ball.  It is premature for me to speculate on what they would do with it afterwards.

I came away from the spectacle strangely exhilarated.  It may be one of those things which is better savored with a sense of wonder, not extensive knowledge.

6 comments:

Bilbo said...

Very well done! If you haven't heard it before, you might enjoy Andy Griffith's classic story, "What It Was, Was Football." There's a YouTube version here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKSo7QO7ceo. I like your version better, though.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Angel, this tongue-in-cheek description of high school football is a hoot! I like the faux English touch to it.

eViL pOp TaRt said...

Thank you, Bilbo and Elvis!

[LSU is playing Tennessee today.]

Anonymous said...

I wondered also what do they do with pieces of the goal post after it is torn down.

Anonymous said...

Very nice.

Grenouille Fille said...

Why does American football have so little use of the foot in relation to the balle?