10/08/2013 06:42 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Football and Ancient Athens

The reigning metaphor constantly employed to describe professional football players is that of modern-day gladiators (Oliver Stone makes stunning visual use of this in Any Given Sunday). Inadvertently, the NFL is thus linked to ancient Rome. However, upon closer scrutiny, football today has much more in common with the spirit of ancient Athens. Consider the following:

Innovation and Change
Ancient Athens was not unlike modern-day America (just read Pericles' Funeral Oration and you will understand). It was a society open to outside influences that cherished and even celebrated what was new. Just think of all the innovations and new paths explored in philosophy, politics, poetry, architecture, medicine, naval technology (the list is long). At the same time, Athens also managed to somehow remain conservative, on occasion fiercely resisting change (think of the fate of Socrates).

In many ways, the same attributes can be found in the NFL, a sport that at heart is conservative and even traditional. But it is also a sport that is open to continuous change and innovation. Consider the NFL's Competition Committee. Every year, it reviews every single rule and regulation. Everything is thus studied, examined and debated; and every year many subtle changes are proposed and subsequently endorsed; and in some cases changes are adopted that decisively influence the way that the game is played (think of all the protection afforded to QBs nowadays that a Johnny Unitas could have only dreamed of).

Or, if one is to delve into the sport's rich history, think of the state of football circa 1905. Deaths and injuries on the gridiron were mounting and some were predicting and even actively working for the sport's demise (sounds familiar?). The situation was so serious that it required the intervention of no less an eminence than U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt. He oversaw the adoption of the necessary changes in coaching, penalties, and refereeing, thus saving the game. (The story is wonderfully told in John J. Miller's The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football). But TR was essentially helped by the fact that football has always been open to change, even more so at a time of emergency; which is why this author is convinced that the NFL will sufficiently innovate an thus successfully confront the current concussion crisis.

Sound Mind In A Sound Body
The ancient Athenians aimed at an almost perfect human balance. The men exercised incessantly thus managing to withstand the rigors of the age in which they lived in, as well as near constant war. But they never neglected the intellectual life. Their ideal was to have a sound mind in a sound body

Football players are admired for their often stunning physiques. For all of them, exercise is a way of life. However, never make the mistake of thinking that football is merely about physical attributes. That is simply not the case. Successful NFL players have to also be exceptionally bright. Even in the cases that they are relatively unsophisticated (which contrary to stereotypes are not usual), they absolutely need to have a quick mind, possess a fine memory, make instant decisions factoring in a myriad of parameters and also be able to muster a playbook that is akin to a thick, complex technical manual.

One of my favorite anecdotes took place in 1995 on the eve of Super Bowl XXIX. The San Francisco 49ers Offensive Coordinator Mike Shanahan and QB Steve Young decided to prepare for the year's most important game not by practicing on the field but by going over the entire playbook, several times over. Steve Young was able to recall and describe, "like Rain Man" according to his own admission, some 300 plays. No wonder his team emerged victorious and hoisted the Lombardi trophy; and lest there be any doubt about the importance of intellectual excellence in football, journalist Gregg Easterbrook makes the following observation in his brilliant, must-read new book The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America: "Quarterbacks from Notre Dame or Stanford, colleges with strict academic standards for athletes, have started in the Super Bowl on fourteen occasions. No quarterback from an Oklahoma or Texas university has ever started in the Super Bowl."

War was an almost perennial phenomenon in ancient Athens, especially when the weather and agricultural conditions were conducive to such a deadly activity. Few were the years without some kind of military confrontation. In fact, it was only during the Enlightenment that peace was "invented" as the desired, natural norm in human affairs (and the world has no doubt been better off because of it). But in ancient Greece, it was almost annual war that was the expectation; and the greatest shame was reserved for whomever dropped his shield and retreated, thus abandoning his comrades in peril.

In many ways, professional football players come close to representing a throwback to these ancient times. Every year, they prepare for a campaign during a specific period of time. These campaigns, akin to a form of controlled "warfare," are brutal, dangerous and require a special kind of team work: protecting your fellow players by putting at risk your physical well-being. This represents a magnificent manifestation of manliness.

By embracing a culture of innovation, demanding a sound mind in a sound body and accepting the challenges and dangers of annual war-like campaigns, the modern NFL comes close to exemplifying the spirit of ancient Athens. No doubt, classical-era Athenians would have both understood and approved.

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