Western history in sports

Why ‘dilly dilly’ is an appropriate slogan for football

For any armchair anthropologists, the Super Bowl may appear strange. Reclining in his La-Z-Boy, he thinks about the potential concussions and risk of injuries. The camera pans over the crowd. He then confronts grown men with painted chests and a woman praying during a third-down conversion. This spectacle, which may seem alien in the 21st century, is actually not so foreign but rather a modern successor to a long Western tradition of chivalry.

Chivalry is an elusive topic and difficult to write about, as is the case with most social norms and practices. Sydney Painter was a 20th century authority on the topic, and defined it as the ideals and practices of the nobility of medieval times. It was not concerned with the opening of doors or pulling out of chairs for women as the Victorians would have one think, but rather was a social structure which determined the behavior and expectations of knights.

The late Maurice Keen, perhaps the foremost authority on chivalry, wrote that these expectations generally fell under three different categories — the military, the noble and the religious — and all three of these essential facets of chivalry are observable in the modern-day spectacle of football.

The most obvious holdover from chivalry is the military element. For a medieval noble, in addition to his duty to keep justice and maintain his estates, his chief responsibility was to wage war on behalf of his monarch, and, when there was no war to be had, he settled for tournaments and jousts among his peers.

In the 12th century, these tournaments involved dozens of mounted warriors fighting in teams, while by the 14th century, the two-person joust became much more common. These events were opportunities for knights to hone their martial ability and build camaraderie with one another. Stands would be erected for onlookers, and knights would be elaborately dressed in vainglorious armour and accoutrements. These were opportunities for nobles to show their worth through display and prowess.

The same could be said for modern-day football. It is plain enough to see that, on a football team, “whoever does best is worth the most” — the words of Geoffrey de Charny, a 14th century French knight who authored a book on chivalry — by looking at the salaries of the most productive players. What is more, the sport still maintains a subtle but chief focus on tackling as the primary display of ability. No matter how good a punter is at punting, all can sense that he only truly proves himself in the unfortunate event when he is the final player left to take down a returner. It is all about prowess.

The more subtle facets of chivalry are also clearly on display in football. The anomaly of cheerleaders can be seen as a holdover from the courtly love traditions. Flirting, dancing and courting women was an essential facet of chivalry, and, as one finds in the medieval record, personal prowess seemed to always be closely linked with women.

One chronicler even goes so far as to claim that, in the 14th century, Edward III organized an elaborate tournament and founded the Order of the Garter — an English order Queen Elizabeth II is a member of — with the intent of impressing one beautiful woman: the Countess of Salisbury. While the historicity of this story is contested, it clearly demonstrates the proximity of eros to sport in the chivalric tradition.

Also in the noble tradition, a knight’s personal honour could be borne out in ways unrelated to prowess. For example, vibrant displays of heraldic symbols and well-polished armour could set a wealthy knight apart from his comrades. In the same way, uniformed football players will take the field during the Super Bowl with their names on their backs and as much personalized material as allowed.

A new phenomenon which is becoming ever more common are mouthguards whose exterior are painted with what looks like the clenched teeth of an animal. The crowds approve of this behavior, often following their favorite players on social media and buying their jerseys.

Additionally, it should not go unmentioned that Christianity still holds a powerful draw over a good portion of today’s football players. One often sees praying during the pregame, signs of the cross being made after touchdowns and before long field goals, and mentions of God and Jesus during the post game interviews.

Aside from these shows of devotion, it also is a display that a martial man who is capable of great violence is also a deeply spiritual being. In the same way knights patronized poems about Holy Grail quests, went on crusades to Spain, the Baltics, or Outremer, or heard mass before pitched battles against the enemy, it seems that, after a display of prowess and power, the only thing left to do is make a display of restraint and piousness. Devotion and humility were key knightly virtues.

Like football, chivalry was not without its critics. Some have viewed the era of chivalry as a long period of “characteristic medieval juvenility,” where the ethos of chivalry was merely a veneer that excused and encouraged the Hobbesian desires of the male-fighting class. On the other hand, there are also some who view the tradition as a genuine step forward in civilization. A step in which restraint and social pressures began to curb more barbaric human tendencies.

Similar debates are being had in regards to football.  New rules are announced annually by the NFL which forbid certain forms of tackling. Additionally,  ever more attention is being drawn to the possible dangers of concussions and repeated head trauma. Some think they are finally wising up, others not so much. It will be fascinating to see what happens in the next couple decades. Perhaps football will maintain its essence as a sport, or maybe it will become an unrecognizable version of itself with time.

But, with its future unclear, one thing can be confidently predicted about it and most other sports in the Western world. For the foreseeable future, clear elements of medieval chivalry will remain apparent in all of them. For better or worse, love it or hate it, it is woven into our DNA, and if this Sunday’s Super Bowl is like any of the others, it will make for a good show.