The UW home football seasons opens this Saturday, and 60,000 fans are expected at Husky Stadium to see the Huskies host the Eastern Washington Eagles.
Now imagine all those fans packed into the Montlake coliseum and screaming – not for touchdowns – but for the murder of Roman slaves.
Not so fun anymore.
The parallels between sports and gladiators are not lost on the students of University of Washington Professor Sarah Stroup.
This is Stroup’s fifth year teaching a course called War Games in the university’s Classics department. It’s about sporting events from ancient to modern times.
Stroup says she’s troubled by the similarities between college football and Roman gladiators.
Stroup: Gladiators were slaves, so they were owned. They gave up citizenships that allowed them to be treated differently. I worry that we verge on that with our college football players.
Radke: They’re also our heroes, right?
Stroup: We are not, as a culture, terribly nice to our heroes, are we?
Radke: We love the violent hit, too.
We tolerate – even ask for – the sorts of violence that would horrify us in Red Square or on the Quad. It’s part of the sport, it’s part of what makes it so exciting, it’s part of what we love, but there’s an ethical danger in failing to recognize that these are human beings.
Radke: How did the Romans feel about cheering on the murder of slaves?
Stroup: The Romans had a violence problem that reminds us of our violence problem.
The phenomenon of gladiatorial events started as something quite small. … This developed into a nightmarish frenzy in the early years of the Roman Empire, and I think they came to be embarrassed of this addiction to violence.
That makes me quite nervous because Americans tolerate a great deal of spectacular violence. We don’t examine that or where it’s headed.
Radke: You have Husky players in your class. How do they react to this analogy?
Stroup: I was worried about offending students. I found that the students who are football players are aware of this. They are aware of the dangers of what they do – the short term risks and the long term risks.
They weren’t offended. They already think of themselves as gladiators in a sense. Hopefully this class gets them to think more deeply.
Radke: Obviously they’re not slaves and choose to play this game. How do they feel about any similarities?
Stroup: A lot of them write about it. One of their main concerns, more than the gladiatorial analogy, is the dumb jock stereotype, which hooks into the gladiator being a disposable character.
You’re right, they’re playing by choice, but it’s also a trade. It’s a way that these students are getting an education. So it’s a choice, but we don’t all have the same choices in life.
Radke: Are you a Husky fan?
Stroup: I am a Husky fan. Especially now.
Radke: What’s it like for you to be yelling in the Husky coliseum?
Stroup: I like the spectacle but I am so aware of the dangers. I have grown so close to the students that I teach; my real concern is that they don’t get hurt.