“Getting Back to Football” and the Permeability of the Magic Circle

I’m not sure who it was on CBS’s Thursday Night Football pre-game broadcast last week who said it, but it was a phrase I had heard several times in the past: “It’ll be good to get back to football.” I can recall some instances when commentators would say this in the wake of a tragic event for an individual or a community associated with a team, but I had also heard it in the context of the so-called “player conduct” issues like those of the past couple of weeks.

CBS Logo

“Get back to football” tonight on CBS and forget a whole new set of indictments! Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this case, it was referring to the Baltimore Ravens playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wake of the indefinite suspension of now-former-teammate Ray Rice following the public appearance of the elevator video of him punching his girlfriend and knocking her unconscious. The phrase was also used in the title of the summary for the game in the Chicago Tribune.  In either case, what I understand these commentators to be saying is essentially this: Something bad has happened in the world, but it will be good for these players to return to the game that they play because…

And here is where I get hung up on the apparent reasoning… why is playing the game going to be helpful to the players? It usually has something to do with focus and forgetting. The game requires such devoted focus – such seriousness, as Johan Huizinga says in Homo Ludens – that it is impossible to think about what is happening outside of the magic circle of play. Even without having ever played professional sports, I know precisely how that overwhelming investment in playing games happens (or, at least, I know how it feels). It is a powerful experience that is predicated on our individual capacity to be absorbed and the function of the game to separate some part of us from the usual way that we experience the world to adopt a new set of goals and restrictions that govern our actions. In this way, games are an important transformative frame for the possibilities of human action.

However, this doesn’t seem to be the sense that the commentators mean to convey when use this phrase.  Instead, it often takes the form of a panacea for the problems of the players. If this is was the case, then wouldn’t we always want to be playing? Then maybe Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, and Adrian Peterson might not ever be in their current situations. If it is so good for us, why do we ever wait to “get back to football?” Why do we ever leave?  Of course, this reductio ad absurdum is not what they intend.  I don’t even think that they mean to rely on the common understanding of games as an escape from our real lives, although that is there.  Instead, they are making a specific claim about the lives of professional athletes – playing football is what they’re supposed to do.  For the majority of us who don’t know the players, it is all they do unless they give the media some other reason to be interested in them.

The way we think about professional athletes helps to expose some of the flaws of thinking about the separation of the magic circle, as we also began to do in lecture today.  Here, I am reminded of a scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, Jerry Maguire. Jerry (Tom Cruise) is talking to NFL receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) about why he plays the game as part of talking about his next contract. He asks that he thinks back to his youth, back before it was all about who was “showing him the money” – as the famous line from the movie goes – but Maguire quickly questions whether there was ever a time like that.  No matter how much we want the space of play to be purified from the world of necessity that shapes our existence as human beings, it cannot be that way.

We started this semester, in part, by examining the question of amateurism as an ideal that is summoned when sport and the university collide. This appeal to “get back to football” relies on a similar demand on us as human beings – to step into the magic circle of play and purge ourselves of the world outside – but it is an ideal that is impossible to realize.  There is no River NFLethe (Greek mythology nerd alert!) that players must pass through before they play.

Ray Rice

Jeff Weese, “Ray Rice” August 2009 via Flickr

It is certainly possible that the players for the Ravens forgot about what had happened for several moments of the game. It’s even possible that the spectators (always a part of the game themselves) forgot about how hidden problems with domestic violence were given a public face with Ray Rice. But the game ended – as all games do – and we all were left with the world more or less the same as it was. I am, and will continue to be, a huge advocate of the importance of games to our lives. I think they serve as important venues for the celebration of human excellence by promoting communities in which our actions are meaningful and new possibilities are uncovered. However, I find the way we talk about games when we say things like “It’ll be good to get back to football” to do more harm than good for the way that we treat games as a society. If we continue to treat them as spaces apart that allow for us to remove ourselves from the world instead of as a different frame for being in the same world as everyone else, then we continue to trivialize an important part of our human experience.