Commentary

Super Bowl and fame: It's Greek to me

Updated: January 31, 2011, 1:14 PM ET
By Tom Payne | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Every year public interest in the Super Bowl grows, the parade of current and former famous athletes lengthens, the debate about who will perform at halftime intensifies, the NFL's biggest stage expands. Unprecedented? ESPN.com asked Classics scholar and author Tom Payne to provide perspective.

A nation riveted. Stars competing for even more wealth on the biggest stage. A stadium packed with people ready to heap glory or scorn on the players based on their achievements or failings.

After the nonstop media coverage of the past week, you're probably thinking Super Bowl. But that's only the latest, albeit greatest, high-profile extravaganza in which fame and fortune are at stake. Going back more than 2,000 years ago, first the Greeks and then the Romans regularly gathered in large crowds replete with tradition to cheer and jeer their own stars, just as some 100,000 or so fans will do in Dallas.

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Theo Wargo/Getty ImagesSuper Bowl halftime shows feature already famous entertainers such as Paul McCartney, but that doesn't mean they don't get a bump of attention from the appearance.

The game Sunday at Cowboys Stadium is but the pinnacle of millennia of spectacles. And it has everything. No festival from any age or place has done such a thorough job of celebrating so much all at once. There's football, of course, and we'll come to that, but what else?

• Democracy: From appeals for disaster relief to the postgame congratulatory call, presidents can't stop themselves from ceremonial participation.

• Culture: The biggest stars on the planet deliver the halftime show, which has only improved since Janet Jackson's overexposure in Super Bowl XXXVIII. (I doubt, after all, anyone wanted to see Paul McCartney's nipple the following year.)

• Military might: Gen. David Petraeus flipped the coin prior to Super Bowl XLII, and a fighter jet flyover is again scheduled for the national anthem.

• Money: Where to begin with the ostentatious display of wealth? The cost of advertising? Ticket prices, including $200 to stand outside the stadium watching a television? The expenditure on food? The hard-won, gargantuan wages of the players?

• Virile youth: The fastest, strongest young men in America take the field.

Most of all, this game epitomizes a culture of fame. Virtually every football fan, player, U.S. politician and entertainer would love to participate and catch the public's eye on this day, but only a select few get the chance.

The ancient Greeks set the precedent. Admittedly, a mini-season of tragic plays in the fifth century BC didn't attracted 153 million viewers, but we know that it mattered. The Athenians crammed as many as 20,000 viewers into their outdoor theatre, an assembly unmatched in those days by anything other than warfare, the scholar Simon Goldhill likes to point out. Instead of the countless hours of football pregame shows, there was the parade and sacrifice to the god of wine, Dionysus -- a sign that the Athenian populace was about to binge. (Think beer, chicken wings and pizza).

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Louise PayneTom Payne's interest in the history of fame grew out of teaching English and Classics. He has come to the view that our own age's celebrity worship is restrained in comparison with our violent past.

Comic plays sometimes roasted political leaders, and analogies between local leaders and the heroes of tragedies were easy to draw. The Athenians could be as gauche as anyone when celebrating their money: They brought it on stage in huge pots to show how much their subject states had paid in tribute. They celebrated youth and the military at once, by showing off the children whose fathers had died for the country. And culture? The performances featured singing and dancing.

These were competitive events, with prizes for the best writer and the best actor. Like mythmaking depiction of the agonies and ecstasies of early Super Bowls by NFL Films, these shows themselves were about great heroes and winners, such as Oedipus, Agamemnon and Heracles himself, who often lose everything by the end of the story.

Does this come close to the Super Bowl? It's a definite precursor, but even the ancient Olympics, which ran from 776 BC onward, didn't operate on the same scale. The Super Bowl's ability to make and crown stars has few rivals, and a lot of this has to do with the nature of football itself.

In the case of this particular Super Bowl, the contest becomes a clash of ownership cultures, too: the Rooney family Pittsburgh plutocrats versus the democratic grass-roots shareholders of Green Bay.

Fans of the Steelers and the Packers will focus on the quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers respectively. These are the generals -- the men who hold the strategic codes, who hang behind the offensive lines like kings in a chess game, and who stay on till the end. There is a Greek-style kudos -- acclaim, glory, fame -- to these celebrities who duel without actually meeting on the field.

As fame accumulates around the QBs, so does an interest in their lives off the field. This isn't the place to dwell on Roethlisberger's past, well-documented incidents, but the Super Bowl is the acme (another Greek term, for those keeping score) of a game known for the wildness of its players. Never mind the ferocity of the game; a quick glance at the sports headlines of the past year and the fans' comments on those stories reveal the fascination with DUIs, drugs, sex and firearms.

Things were no different in the age of gladiators. Gladiators, after all, were slaves, prisoners of war, or best of all, criminals, who would go at each other as if at war, damaging themselves permanently, even risking death, for glory. It helped the Roman audience of the 3rd century BC onward to know that these were desperadoes, people who'd already slipped out of a regulated society. It reassured folks in the stadium (the Coliseum completed in 80 AD could seat 50,000) including the Caesars themselves, that these men would dare anything for an appreciative audience. And the emperors also could get involved in a fight under strictly controlled circumstances.

I don't want to overstate the perils of football. There are no swords involved, after all. But Ronald Reagan was convincing when he said, "[Football] is the last thing left in civilization where men can literally fling themselves bodily at one another in combat and not be at war." For seasons on end, players face the risks of concussion, broken bones, spinal injuries and possible long-term health effects such as dementia. These modern stars are offering -- sacrificing -- a lot for their admirers.

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Picador In "Fame," Tom Payne examines the parallels between modern celebrities such as Britney Spears and their ancient counterparts.

Does this make football one of those sports, such as boxing, bullfighting or NASCAR, in which an aspect of the audience's satisfaction comes from the dangers involved? Is the urge that made our ancestors watch swordsmen in the arena scrap without rules finding some other outlet?

To answer that moment, we need to go back to a key phase in the game's history, and the birth of the forward pass. As Craig Lambert and John T. Bethell report in Harvard Magazine, "Football, a century ago, was an unruly, dangerous, and wildly exciting spectacle." They add that in 1905, there were 18 fatalities and 159 serious injuries arising from football games. There were also political discussions of a ban, and pressure to improve safety.

There's an open acknowledgement here that the risk made the game what it was. With the forward pass came a new kind of game -- one with men spread over the field, rather than clustered in scrums -- and ultimately, a new kind of star, the quarterback.

Competing for the public eye, Christina Aguilera will sing "The Star Spangled Banner" on Sunday. The Black-Eyed Peas will perform the halftime show. A duel between Aguilera and Fergie?

Here, it's a clash of skill and stardom. It's the same in the game: The players will be assessed for their prowess as well as their power. We'll watch out for their passing and style as much as their pushing.

Like the QBs, the singers won't be on the field at the same time. Still, my money's on Fergie.

When it's over, some of our entertainers will be more famous for their performance, some, perhaps, vilified. They cycle through celebrity at a rapid speed: We build them up, only so they can be knocked down by someone bigger or fitter or more entertaining.

The intensity of this rise and fall, from hero to zero, has a sacrificial, tragic arc, as did the stories that enthralled the Athenians.

The Super Bowl wasn't always this refined, and the ceremonies have taken a while to become this elaborate. There's no routine drawing of blood, as in ancient Rome; no public slaying of beasts as in ancient Athens. But the pomp, noise, consumption and reckless fun of it is a way of celebrating all that bonds its audience: a nation, a game, and some fierce impulses that never left us.

Tom Payne is the author of "Fame: What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity" (Picador), available at bookstores nationwide or at your favorite online bookseller. He has just published a verse translation of Ovid's "The Art of Love" (Vintage UK). He teaches in England and blogs at popcropolis.com.