In 1895, the president of Harvard University uttered an unintentional prophecy when he proclaimed “the game of football grows worse and worse as regards foul and violent play and the number and gravity of the injuries which the players suffer.”
Even though Charles W. Eliot’s assertion sounds like it belongs in the current-day debate over sports violence and head injuries, it was 119 football seasons ago when the austere Cambridge scholar became one of the first public figures to speak out against the culture of carnage creeping into American sports.
To be sure, Eliot held some extreme, uncompromising views on organized athletics: He considered college football more barbaric than cockfighting; thought basketball was a moral minefield rife with temptations to cheat, and scorned the curveball in baseball as “a deliberate attempt to deceive.” But Eliot was a century ahead of his time when it came to warning about commercialized violence in sports, a trend he feared would flare out of control, fueled by “the general predisposition to exaggeration in pleasures which characterize Americans.”
As sports morphed into big business, Eliot’s cautions were forgotten. But fast-forward 50 years to the advent of television, when games first began to be shaped into packaged entertainment, and this insidious thread reappears. This time, criticism of the darker side of sports came not from a taciturn academian, but from an acclaimed writer in the midst of a great run of children’s literature.
In 1947—two years after E.B. White penned Stuart Little, but five years before Charlotte’s Web—he wrote a futuristic essay for The New Yorker titled “The Decline of Sport.” Set in an era when “sport gripped the nation in an ever tightening grip,” the piece eerily foreshadows modern societal fixations like our addiction to multitasking and the inability to relax despite our relentless pursuit of leisure.
In the “third decade of the supersonic age,” the five-day workweek gets sliced to three to accommodate the population’s obsession with athletic entertainment. “Not only did sport proliferate,” White wrote, “but the demands it made on the spectator became greater. Nobody was content to take in one event at a time, and thanks to the magic of television and radio nobody had to.”
Some of White’s far-flung fictional predictions are humorous, like sports scores etched in the atmosphere by skywriting aircraft. But he was on target in forecasting how technology would both expand (“giant video sets, just behind the goal posts”) and shrink (“equipping all players with tiny ear sets”) to fill a communications void no one knew existed.
“The effect of this vast cyclorama of sport,” White explained, “was to divide the spectator’s attention, oversubtilize his appreciation, and deaden his passion.”
White predicted too much of a good thing would push Americans past the breaking point, and he speculated that precise moment would occur in a 1975 championship football game. Before a record crowd of 954,000, a fan “so saturated with sport and the disappointment of sport that he had clearly become deranged,” guns down a tight end after a dropped pass, setting off a chain reaction of disaster. “From that day on,” White eulogized, “sport waned.”
No such thing ever happened in 1975, but a passage of the literary torch in sports futurism did occur that same year, from White to a writer who would take the key concepts of “The Decline of Sport” to a more sinister level. Like White, Gary K. Wolf would become better known for contributions to children’s entertainment. As the creator of Roger Rabbit, he eventually partnered with Walt Disney Pictures for a blockbuster animation film. But before warmth and fuzziness came Wolf’s obscure, ominous, ultra-violent, sci-fi football novel Killerbowl.
Set in 2010, Killerbowl depicts a lethargic, glassy-eyed nation addicted to the shamelessly glorified mayhem of professional sports. In the Street Football League, 100-yard playing fields have been abandoned in favor of open urban warfare. Clad in full-body combat armor, chemically enhanced players equipped with knives, clubs, javelins, and high-powered rifles defend goal lines at opposite ends of entire cities, on the hunt for both touchdowns and opponents.
I first discovered Wolf’s debut novel in junior high school in the early 1980s, and was mesmerized by the over-the-top violence in a way that only a 14-year-old can become enamored by sensationalized marauding. But recently—more than three decades after my initial reading—I picked up a secondhand copy of the out-of-print book. This time, Wolf’s disturbing sociological nuances fascinated me more than the vicious imagery.
Wolf foresaw us in the second decade of the 21st century as a “nation of depraved, voyeuristic ghouls,” deeply addicted to other people’s realities. In Killerbowl, both the Big Brother-ish government and the all-powerful television network foster violence-as-entertainment, citing something called the “vicarious risk factor,” which argues that once people become overly dependent on virtual reality, they can no longer achieve exhilaration on their own.
In order for the populace to lead balanced and productive lives, manipulative forces must provide scripted risk. “Brutality,” reasons a Killerbowl psychologist, “is not only beneficial, but well-nigh a prerequisite to heightened human functioning.”
Wolf’s fictitious sports landscape unfolds with disquieting similarities to the way things really did turn out today: When football violence spirals out of control in Killerbowl, elected officials rush to legislate safety, exactly like their congressional contemporaries are doing now. Wolf predicted that pharmaceutical companies would evolve into major sports sponsors (except in Killerbowl, performance-enhancing drugs are brazenly displayed as locker-room product placements). An increased blurring between the private and public lives of athletes was also something Wolf envisioned, and his portrayal of swaggering, rock-star athletes is scarily close to the in-your-face hero worship that permeates pro sports today.
Even though their cautionary tales span a century, Eliot, White, and Wolf all warned that avarice and violence would eventually derail sports.
Despite his disdain for athletics, Eliot was the most optimistic, believing it was only a matter of time before well-educated young scholars came to their senses. “As a rule the undergraduate players in collegiate games have no interest in, or desire, for the flare and glare,” he said in 1909. “It may, therefore, be hoped that these offensive features of American intercollegiate sports will in a few years have disappeared.”
Opposingly, White believed it would take cathartic calamity to trigger meaningful change. In his essay, it was only after the shooting of the player that Americans stopped putting so much emphasis on sports, rediscovering simple pleasures like nature and socialization.
Wolf had the most cynical prognosis, but perhaps the one that most closely matches reality: He argued that once mayhem and brutality become entrenched as crucial components to the enjoyment of athletics, reversal will be next to impossible.
At the conclusion of The Decline of Sport, White leaves us with the image of a young boy alone amid smoldering wreckage, trying to capture skywriting smoke in a milk bottle as a whimsical relic of the way things were.
Wolf’s novel ends with souvenir-seekers too, but by the 21st century, the well-conditioned masses are no longer interested in preserving posterity.
When the final gun goes off in Killerbowl, a frenzied throng descends in a chaotic swarm, scrounging the streets for scraps of in-game murder memorabilia; brawling on the sidelines over keepsake shell casings.