01/23/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2014

Football and Ancient Greek Tragedy

In many ways, football functions similarly to ancient Greek tragedy. Such a claim may sound fanciful at first, but upon closer reflection, it helps explain the wild popularity and wider societal significance of football today.

Consider the following:

It is a meme that women were not allowed to participate in the public affairs of ancient Athens; and they were further banned from performing as actresses. But they were never excluded as spectators from the great festivals in which tragedies were staged. The audience was comprised by all the citizens of the polis (which is one reason why women protagonists and family affairs feature so prominently in those plays (think of Antigone, Medea, Electra, etc).

Football is of course played exclusively by men. At the same time, it is an activity that captures the attention of the larger part of American society (and women are about 45 per cent of NFL fans). This is why of the top ten telecasts of 2013 with the highest ratings, nine were football-related (the sole exception was the Academy awards ceremony); and the Super Bowl is the number one TV event of the year, the one show that is watched by the most men and women (in fact, almost twice as many women tune in to find out who will hoist the Lombardi Trophy than the Oscar statuettes).

It thus becomes clear that both ancient Greek tragedy and modern day football were open to all and enjoyed popularity regardless of sex. But the connections run much deeper.

Ancient tragedies were produced as part of religious/civic festivals. They aimed at something more significant than mere entertainment or a pleasant respite from the drudgery and routine of daily life. 2500 years ago, the entire citizenship of Athens (with the exception of slaves, something which must not be ignored or sugar coated), could watch brilliant plays that often raised issues about the proper role of family, religion or nature versus convention. In doing so, the Athenians managed to air opposing views and fight out arguments in a controlled environment, the essential reminder being that all citizens were united as part of the same polis.

Football can never address such weighty matters, but part of its function is not dissimilar to that of ancient tragedy, even if it is not immediately apparent. Sure, it is a riveting sport to watch, but it also represents a national secular religion of sorts. Significantly, every game begins with the singing of the national anthem, a palpable reminder that despite rivalries and disagreements (be they athletic or political), at the end of the day everyone is part of the same country, the national bond superseding and trumping everything else. For this alone, football's contribution to the unity of an otherwise divided contemporary America is immense. Furthermore, football (especially at the college level), provides a source of pride, socialization and interest for entire communities; and of course, football is a fundamentally democratizing force. While watching or discussing it, everyone is essentially equal.

By far though, the most significant connection between football and ancient tragedy is revealed when we contemplate Aristotle's justly celebrated definition of tragedy. According to the Greek philosopher, it is "an enactment of a deed that is important and complete, and of [a certain] magnitude, by means of language enriched [with ornaments], each used separately in the different parts [of the play]; it is enacted not [merely] recited, and through pity and fear it effects relief (catharsis) to such and similar emotions."

The similarities with contemporary football are rather striking: Football is indubitably a game that is important, just witness the passions that it elicits and the billions of dollars of revenues that it produces. It certainly is an enactment of what could perhaps be described as controlled violence of a chess-like game with real human beings; And it is complete: every game is 60 minutes long. Just like a tragedy, by the end we know precisely what has transpired. Language is also central to football. To quote from End Zone, Don DeLillo's touchdown of a great novel, it "is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name."

Crucially, just like tragedy, football allows for the catharsis of emotions. Almost every football game can be an emotional roller coaster that may bring forth feelings of joy, anger, disappointment, elation or dejection -- but always from a place of relative safety and comfort, be it in our living room or a stadium. Pity and fear are indispensable parts of such an emotional experience. For example (and there are many), we certainly pity losing teams (I am a NY Jets fan, I ought to know); and we fear for the players' health, who while in their professional and physical prime often suffer career ending injuries.

So there you have it: Contemporary football functions as a version of Ancient Greek tragedy. This is because both address and excite all citizens, operate as reminders of civic unity and allow for the possibility of a safe emotional catharsis.

Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Visiting Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.