This is Throwbacks, a weekly-ish newsletter by me, Michael Weinreb, about sports history, culture and politics. Welcome to all new readers/subscribers, and if you like what you’re reading, please subscribe and share, however you feel comfortable sharing. (It’s still free to subscribe: Just click “None” on the “subscribe now” page.) The best way you can help out is by spreading the word as much as possible. That said, I have set up payment tiers, if you wish to give something—I’ve made them as cheap as Substack will let me make them, which is $5 a month or $30 a year.
Many years ago, while lounging in a hotel room in Prague under the influence of a surfeit of absinthe, I turned on the television and came across a sport that I had never seen before. That led me to write this strange column for ESPN’s late and lamented Page 2, which I cannot guarantee I did not also write while under the influence.
The sport I was watching, I later learned, was called team handball. It has since developed a cult following among a certain sect of weirdos on social media; but in the moment, it took me entirely outside of myself, and it made me wonder just how in the hell a sport becomes a sport in the first place. This may have been the absinthe talking, but it also raised legitimate questions about how and why the sports we love become the sports we love in the first place.
I think about this from time to time when I am watching football, or baseball, or basketball. I think about how the rules of every one of these sports are entirely made up, and yet they were crafted almost unconsciously to represent some aspect of the American experience: Football as a violent embodiment of this country’s manifest destiny, baseball as a metaphor for our laborious and complex bureaucracy, basketball as a proxy for our improvisational creativity. Sports represent some larger idea about who we are, and yet very few sports movies explore this idea, and even fewer explore what happens when these ideas come to reflect the ugliness of society itself, and even fewer translate those ideas into science fiction. But I suppose there is at least one.
I don’t know if Rollerball, the 1975 science-fiction sports thriller starring James Caan, could be considered a “good” movie. But it is an unquestionably weird movie, with a cult following akin to all those quirky 1970s dystopian visions like Logan’s Run and Soylent Green, manifestations of a nation wallowing in its own shortcomings and self-flagellation in the post-Watergate era. Directed by Norman Jewison, based on a short story and script by a creative writing professor named William Harrison, I doubt this movie could have been made if Jewison hadn’t been in the midst of hot streak during the 1970s, having just directed the smash-hit musicals Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar.
The story goes that Harrison wrote his short story after witnessing a fight during a college basketball game. In the film, the sport of Rollerball—a cartoonishly violent fake sport involving motorcycles, roller skates, and football helmets, with meticulously demarcated rules that I do not fully understand—serves as a way to placate the masses in a dystopian society in 2018, in which a corporation led by oligarchs rule the world. The lead oligarch, in fact, is played by John Houseman, and if you’re going to submit yourself to authoritarianism, you might as well submit to someone with John Houseman’s voice. The game of Rollerball, Houseman’s character admits, was “created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort,” and this is the thematic thread of the film: In a world that’s been deprived of individualism in order to benefit the greater good—a world in which everything else is spit-shined and polished and where all the women happen to resemble supermodels—the game of Rollerball serves as an outlet for society’s violent urges.
All science-fiction can be roughly divided into two types of nightmares. In the first the world has gone through a nuclear holocaust and civilization has reverted to a neo-Stone Age. In the second, of which "Rollerball" is an elaborate and very silly example, all of mankind's problems have been solved but at the terrible price of individual freedom.
Maybe it’s because we’ve just spent the past year engaged in an often disingenuous debate about the meaning of “individual freedom” during a pandemic, but all the ideas that ground Rollerball in its all-too-serious sense of self seem more muddled than ever before. As Rollerball progresses, the rules of the game are broken down in an attempt to break down James Caan’s character, and to punish his insistence on his own individualism. And I’m sure there are people for whom this idea would resonate, at least a few of whom reside in places like rural Oregon.
But the truth is that these people only favor these ideas when it suits them. They are selective individualists who were willing to vote for a president who revolutionized the notion of “incompetent authoritarianism.” Very often, individualism in sports is frowned upon by the same people who have spent the past several years fixated on the collapse of their own individual freedoms. They are the ones who criticize Colin Kaepernick for asserting his individualism, the ones who would prefer if it LeBron James and other prominent black athletes would merely shut up and dribble. Their hypocrisy is completely invisible to them, but sports tend to expose it, because sports are often viewed by certain people as things that should exist outside of society itself, as if in a vacuum—which I guess is how Rollerball is meant to exist in Jewison’s fictional society.
And I suppose this is the part of Rollerball that still resonates: That as much as we would like to believe that sports exist above the ugliness of our cultural divide, they do not. They are just things we made up to entertain ourselves and to placate ourselves, and they reflect both the beauty and the ugliness of who we are.
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