Football According to Foucault

Kirkus Review wondered if I had written the first football memoir to allude repeatedly to French post-structuralist historian-of-ideas Michel Foucault. Fair enough. I shan’t apologize for my graduate education.

Michel Foucault wrote specifically about the penal regime in Discipline and Punish, and [as I enter the prison unit] I recognize the “discursive traces” of its purpose to enact domination and brutality on the prisoner’s body under the rubric of a moral and legal order. —Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience, p. 282. (Click here to order a copy in paperback or Kindle format.)

But let’s put the spirit of Foucault to work. Let’s have him apply his prodigious analytical skills to football. In particular, let’s ask him to explain why some football players have to celebrate so excessively that there is now a penalty in football for excessive celebration. What’s up with that, Michel?

Foucault would probably grin, rubbing his bald pate. He’s got this.

michel-foucault
Michel Foucault, 1926-1984.

The player wears a uniform with a number on its surface, and his value is quantified by statistics. His reality is completely external to himself–he needs the approbation and validation of thousands to feel as if his action has reality, let alone value. He represents the movement of culture through history from internal or intrinsic value to externally transacted value.

For all its academic intent, the fruit of Foucault’s study is used extensively in the great “de-centering” and de-stablizing work of modern culture, whether anyone recognizes it or not, as it undermines traditional values, including religion. Religious people try to live their lives according to eternal and unchanging truths. The individual struggles through life freighted with the responsibility of free choice and trying to make decisions and take actions in accordance with God’s will as expressed in sacred scripture and religious teaching. In the late capitalism of contemporary culture, by contrast, an individual has extrinsically-defined value, mainly according to his or her consumer transactions. How much money does he make and spend? How many friends does he have on Facebook? How many people follow him on Twitter? In Foucauldian terms, how is he made known, discursively constructed, and given value? How many “likes” and “retweets” did he get for that touchdown dance?

Religious athletes celebrate success, too, but it tends to be a bit more spontaneous and joyous, often with some gesture to God above. It’s probably the same celebration whether a crowd is present or not. And of course, no matter how religious any of us try to be, we’re likely to fail and give in to the temptation and act excessively. But we should know better.

So, thanks, Michel, for helping us sort out a fundamental conflict in contemporary life using the simple and common frame of reference that football provides. You might not be interested, though, in what is most important to the traditionally-religious person: to honor the gift of free choice that God gave us, which through its right exercise we can achieve the dignity and divinity with which God invested us. To do that, though, we have to resist the temptation to allow ourselves to be discursively constructed and given value by others. As many athletes and coaches over the years, including daily-communicant Vince Lombardi, have said, the challenge is to act like we’ve been there before, and if we have studied and understood our tradition, we have been there before.

Thanks be to God for men of faith. As often as I can, I join Dan, Jay, Oscar, and Thad on Wednesday mornings for breakfast and Bible study. This blog post arose out of one of those breakfast meetings.

47767911_High Resolution Front Cover_6181606 (2)Farewell to Football? An American Fan’s Examination of Conscience.

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