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Bread and Circuses: On the Inequality of Sports

Michael Harrington in The Other America (1962) wrote “Beauty can be a mask for ugliness,” referring to rural poverty in Appalachia where the beauty of the landscape hid the poverty. According to Harrington, “America has the best-dressed poverty in the world,” allowing poor whites to go unnoticed and giving the illusion of equality

Most Americans rarely notice the ugliness –and are reluctant to peek behind the landscape. Nor are they bothered by the facts, too preoccupied to notice social gaps.

The camouflaging of the ugliness is not an American invention and does not happen by accident.  “Panem et circenses” (“Bread and circuses”) have been used by the oligarchy since Roman times; it is “a superficial means of appeasement” that diverts and distracts attention from the ugliness.

Attention is regularly diverted from wars of aggression by “wagging the dog.” It is used to win the votes of the poor and distract them from the ugliness of a billionaire like Donald Trumps who casts himself as “Joe Six-Pack” who like working class Americans is fed up with the “elites.”

Powerless, the masses become part of a Roman mob. Meanwhile, Bread and Circuses hide detestable corruption. Bread and circuses dull compassion. Imperial expansion and domestic policing are justified. Violent military interventions are clothed by humanitarian terms, such as “compassion.”

As the illusions of “one man one vote” and equality before the law are eroded, the ‘bread and circuses” are becoming more necessary. Sports are part of “panem et circenses”. Even when so few plebians are admitted to the coliseum; the masses watch the games on TV under the illusion that they are equal. But even this delusion is being threatened by exorbitant cable costs.

Soccer is the latest rage. Latinas/os are rabid fans. However, the irony is that most Latinas/os are weeded out by an exclusive club system that costs $3000 a year per child. Want good coaching? A college scholarship? You go through the club system; just like tennis soccer is become a rich person’s sport. The poor are left to rule rundown public parks (that some want to privatize).

Last year, Francisco Goldman wrote an article about the delusions of the World Cup titled “Fooling Mexican Fans.”  He wrote that Mexico was on “the verge of monumental decisions” and that upon awakening the fans would “realize that the country’s energy reserves have been cheaply sold off or whatever else, don’t bother protesting because this is a chronicle foretold.” Goldman cited SinEmbargo that pointed out that Mexican politicos were debating and passing laws “that could open Pemex, the nationalized oil company, to foreign investment, the Mexican Congress scheduled legislative sessions from June 10 to 23, dates precisely coinciding with you know what. Final passage might be pushed back, but it originally looked like it was supposed to happen on Monday, when Mexico plays Croatia to decide which country advances to the elimination rounds.”

According to Goldman, in 1998 the Mexican Congress passed a $67 billion rescue of Mexican banks on December 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the start of the Christmas holiday season.

Goldman underscored that there is “nothing wrong with talking about soccer teams as long as the discussion did not encourage a national amnesia” or hide how greedy Mexican capitalists use the opiate of the World Cup.

Contradictions abound. Latinos root for the American team, although none are part of the national teams. Teresa Noyola, a Mexican American All American soccer player from Stanford University, was advised to go back and play for Mexico, the reason given she was too short.

The “panem et circenses” reared its ugly head during the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Tensions built as Mexico defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in the quarter-finals. The refereeing was atrocious. Mexico won after a controversial foul call beyond the 120th minute.

The Mexican and Panamanian teams met in Gold Cup semi-final match in Houston.  A rough and heated encounter was climaxed by a shoving match where joined. No doubt horrific refereeing that was, as one commentator put it, “una vergüenza,” contributed to the mayhem.

After this point, it really did not matter who won the finals. The encounter had done irreparable harm to Latin American unity.

Who was to blame? Certainly not the players. Nationalism drove them to want to win. The fans, well they were like the Roman mob, pointing thumbs down.

Looking behind the landscape, I could not directly blame the mother countries’ corruption; all of them are equally corrupt. As for the U.S., it is the puppet master, benefiting from the lack of unity in the Americas.

It came down to the organizers wanting Mexico to win because it is a larger market. Mexico is a nation of 120 million with another 35 million in the U.S. The scenario is similar to the National Basketball Association wanting the Lakers in the finals. People do not matter, paying customers and viewers do.

The Bread and Circuses get out of hand such as in 1969 when a war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras. The war broke out during a best of three World Cup qualifiers.

The first game held in Tegucigalpa ended in a 1-0 win for Honduras – where fights broke out. From that point, everything went south. In San Salvador, the Honduran team endured a sleepless night before the game — rotten eggs, dead rats and stinking rags all tossed through the broken windows of their hotel.  The determining match was in Mexico.

On June 27, Honduras broke off diplomatic relations with El Salvador that won 3-2. By July 14, El Salvador invaded Honduras.

Approximately 1,000 to 2,000 people lost their lives and 100,000 more became refugees. On the surface, the cause was the soccer game, but tensions ran much deeper. Immigration, broken agreements, and a Honduran agrarian reform law that took land away from some of the Salvadorans all played a part.

The tension of 1-0 overtime Honduran win contributed to Salvadorans feeling cheated and their national honor threatened. Before the second game, three Salvadorans were killed in downtown San Salvador. The Salvadoran government blamed the acts of violence on “communist and subversive elements.”

The rhetoric during the Gold Cup was also out of control. It hurt relations between Latinos who are struggling to coexist. I have heard Latin American friends complain about having so many Mexicans on Spanish language television. With tongue in cheek, I suggest that each Latin American group should have its own television station, with its own telenovelas, news and commentators. We could then have 21 stations as mediocre as Univision and Televisa that would show their own telenovelas and sponsor their own Srta. Colita contests.

Personally, I feel like Antonio Díaz Soto Gama who in 1914 caused “El incidente de la bandera” at la Convención Revolucionaria in Aguas Calientes when he protested the Plan of Ayala. As he mounted the stage, he crumbled flag and threw it to the floor and roared “This flag symbolized the triumph of clerical [church] reaction” in 1821. In other words, the flag is part of the “panem et circenses” that masks the ugliness that todos estamos jodidos (we’re all screwed).

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RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.

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