William Harrison, the author and screenwriter whose 1975 classic Rollerball semi-accurately foretold how the future of sport would suck, died Tuesday, just shy of his 80th birthday.
Harrison wrote the short story "Roller Ball Murder" on which he later based the screenplay for the film. Imagine a dark future (waaaaay out there in 2018) where corporations, rather than nations, sponsor and control teams that offer up spectacular carnage, in sort of a roller derby crossed with gladiatorial combat. James Caan played the top Rollerballer of all time, a star for the Houston team. As the executives for team owner Energy Corporation try to strongarm him out of the sport, Caan sticks around — forcing Rollerball's overlords to make the matches increasingly dangerous, in hopes he'll be maimed or killed in the arena. Instead, he survives and becomes an even bigger star, upsetting the pervasive corporate culture that Rollerball is meant to reinforce. The triumph of the individual in the face of corporate domination subverts the sport and, by extension, societal order. (Or a more succinct synopsis might read, simply, "Fuck Exxon.")
It must've seemed plausible to Harrison in the early '70s that by, oh, our present decade, corporate ownership and sponsorship of international sporting events would turn athletes into pawns. I don't have any insight into Harrison's thinking on this, other than to imagine what the Olympics looked like before 1973, when he published the short story. Just a few years earlier, in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos caught every shade of hell for raising their fists on the medal stand in Mexico City; the later homogenizing domination by the likes of Dow, Coke, Visa, Panasonic, etc., must've been discernible on the horizon. And while the theme of exalting individuality seems redundant in 21st-century sports (we haven't exactly seen the collapse of the star system), the modern NFL has been ramping up to the dystopian Rollerball ideal very much on schedule.