Now the season of football "bowls" is upon us--or upon those of us who pay the slightest attention to bowls of this kind (my wife pays no attention, whereas I pay token attention). Two football teams are invited to play a game in a stadium; the game is sponsored by a corporation and televised; money streams in; the colleges the football teams represent get some of the money. At home or in bars, we are allegedly entertained by the spectacle. There is something called "pageantry." There are tight close-ups of cheerleaders. You get the idea.
"Bowl" as applied to stadia and to games played in the stadia is an Americanism, according to the OED online, which cites the following early appearances of the word:
1913 Yale Alumni Weekly 4 July 1073/1 I voice the thanks of all Yale graduates for the ‘Bowl’... I am glad that Yale..prefers the good old word ‘bowl’ with its savor of manly English sport, to the ‘coliseum’ of the Romans or the ‘stadium’ of the Greeks.
That the writer in the Yale Alumni Weekly yearned for a word that would provide a "savor of manly English sport" suggests an insecurity about masculinity and Americanism that I associate with Ivy League universities and with academia in general. I think Americans and Brits both think that "real academia" exists in England and elsewhere in Europe, but not in America, even at Harvard and Yale, even though the latter two universities can afford to buy any scholar from any country any time they want.
I'm not sure I agree that "bowl" provides a savor of anything manly or English or even sporting. It seems rather domestic, which might make it masculine, feminine, neither, or both--but not necessarily "manly." I may be wrong, but I think those gladiators in the coliseum were pretty darned "manly," both in the sense of being violent and murderous (two things we associate with men) and in the sense of how Hollywood likes to portray gladiators: muscle-bound, shaved, oiled, and scantily costumed (Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Brad Pitt, and that Australian guy). I think literary critics call this "over-determined" masculinity. (See the remark about insecurity above.)
The second citation makes me wish they'd named the stadium "Arroyo Seco" instead of the Rose Bowl. How poetic "Arroyo Seco" is--great syllables, great rhythm! Rose Bowl sounds rather morose, like two blasts of a foghorn. Does it (the former) mean "dry gulch"? I think so. But that's okay. It's not like the Rose Bowl is really a bowl full of roses, so we're not going for literal denotation.
In my ever-more-distant youth, there were only three bowls of much--let's say any--significance, to the degree bowls can have significance: The Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Orange Bowl. Then there came along the Blue Bonnet Bowl and the Sun Bowl. Then a proliferation of bowls occurred, and they took on highly visible sponsors, so now we have the All State [insurance] Sun Bowl or the IBM Rose Bowl or whatever. I think there are over 30 bowl games now. Some of the teams in the bowls have records like 7-5. At least one of the bowls might be called the Barely Competent Bowl.
Bowls I would like to see played, to make "bowl season" more interesting:
1. The Despair Bowl, featuring the two worst teams in college football. Different faith-traditions could sponsor this bowl and offer hope to the teams and their long-suffering fans.
2. The Absurdity Bowl, in which, if a team "scores," points are subtracted, not added. So if a team scored a lot, the scoreboard would read "-58" or something like that. The defenses would attempt to let the offenses score; they would be hospitable, polite, and supportive. The offenses would be inoffensive, reticent, and shy.
3. The Don't Go To War Unless It's Absolutely Necessary Bowl, featuring teams from the military academies. Before the game, all in attendance would pray in their own fashion that the players would never have to see military action and especially not have to suffer wounds or get killed in combat, ever.
4. The Poetry Bowl, in which players from the two teams would choose their favorite poems and read them aloud to the crowd during the four timed quarters. There would be a half-time, during which the teams could change their strategies and consult different anthologies. Judges would determine which set of poems was more interesting and which team gave better readings. All the players would earn academic credits in English at their respective universities.
5. The Zen Bowl, featuring no teams, only spectators, who would file in and look at the empty field. Cheerleaders representing no teams would "cheer" silently.
6. The Interpretation Bowl. This would be an ordinary football game, but on television, you could select different commentators to describe and interpret the game. The menu would include political scientists, feminist scholars, anthropologists, game-theorists, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, and so forth. Everyone at home would get the deeper meaning of their choice.
7. The Out Bowl. This would be a game between two teams composed of players from all teams across the nation--perhaps East and West. Players would be invited to come out as gay, but no player would be outed without his permission. One aim would be to assemble enough gay players to field two teams. Another aim would be to help the United States get over its homophobia and realize that about 10 per cent of any given group--including athletes--is gay. (Consider the appeal of gladiator-movies.) I predict that this Bowl will not occur soon.
8. The Soup Bowl. Innumerable corporate sponsors would support this Bowl lavishly, but all the profits would go to feeding the homeless, who would be able to attend the game for free (if they so desired), after a good meal, a hot shower, and a fresh change of clothes.