I wasn’t going to watch football this year, although I do love the sport in many ways, and it is woven through my life from early boyhood.
The combination of research about chronic traumatic encephalopathy and the racism that denied Colin Kaepernick a chance to play quarterback in the worst season of quarterbacking the league has ever seen made me decide to take a moratorium this year.
Still, I did watch the Super Bowl when I found out I could stream it for free. It felt almost like a national obligation, the way that voting is in Australia.
To be honest, I was really interested in the game in itself — it seemed like a great match-up, and for any real fan of the sport, it turned out to be one of the better Super Bowls of the last 53.
I’m a New York Giants fan — I was issued my card in 1963 by my father — so I can’t root for the Patriots. But you can’t help but admire and respect an enterprise so focused, well-managed, and successful, and I was glad for all my friends who are Patriot fans, since I know what it feels like when your team wins the Super Bowl — 2003 and 2007 were good years for me.
When it was clear the game was over, one of the announcers cried, “The dynasty continues!”
That felt true me in many ways — maybe some that he had not intended.
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The sport that in the United States we call football — a word that everywhere else in the world means what we call soccer — has gradually supplanted baseball as the national pastime during my lifetime. The Super Bowl is its pinnacle.
I watched mainly because I am interested in American politics and culture, and the nation is at an inflection point. Any study of our country’s history suggests that there are periods of relative stability and periods of significant crisis and change. We are in a critical period now, with the outcome still uncertain.
It seemed to me that if I watched the show as an anthropologist from Mars rather than a New York Giants fan, I might learn something useful.
Along the way, I saw a beautiful football game.
For people who don’t follow football, it can be hard to explain how savage and cerebral the sport is at the same time. It is kind of like chess played with real bodies. This was like the Spassky-Fischer World Chess Championship in 1972.
But what interested me were the subtexts.
Football represents an intense intersection between politics and post-industrial capitalism, along with athletic prowess at levels that are hard for most of us to conceive.
The game showed us the power of the gladiators. The ads, the halftime show, and all the surrounding commentary are more suggestive, but the embedded codes can tell us something about where we are as a nation.
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The main political trope going into the game had to do with the way the Patriots’ brilliant quarterback, Tom Brady, has in some ways allied himself with Donald Trump — and the way in which the Boston team was associated with a president who is widely disliked.
This line of thinking exists either at a visceral level or in the intellectual and journalistic spaces where people try to make sense of things — sometimes in silly ways. It has very little to do with watching a football game.
Still, ever since playboy Joe Namath, with his shaggy hair, guaranteed a victory for the upstart AFL New York Jets against the establishment Baltimore Colts in 1969, the Super Bowl has had a political edge. Richard Nixon sent in a play to the Washington Redskins coach in 1972.
The Patriots were cast as the team of Trump, an overlay on the game that may inform us how deeply polarized and politicized the nation has become.
It will be interesting to see if the Pats’ win boosts Trump’s polls.
* * *
The overlay of race was only slightly more hidden.
When Colin Kaepernick, along with a teammate, took a knee during the national anthem in 2016, he created a national discussion in which the question of race in America was looped into the question of the NFL industry.
Trump and other right-wing politicians exploited the protest in ways that make clear how much our current polarization is fueled by racism.
One of the interesting dimensions of the NFL’s own promotion for the Super Bowl was how determinedly interracial and positive it was about lowering divisions that exist between white people and people of color.
One segment in the evening emphasized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and gave a very eloquent shout-out to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It was fascinating to watch the images and listen to the language within the context of a football game.
Like everything on Super Bowl night, these productions were well-crafted. Whether they were crafted sincerely or hypocritically remains an interesting question.
The halftime show fell into that same basket of emphasizing diversity within the commonality that the secular holiday of Super Bowl Sunday represents.
The lineup was criticized in advance for not having the kind of star power of earlier half-time shows: no Madonna, no Lady Gaga, no Janet and Justin, no Cardi B. It was second tier, with two apparent main goals: to be inclusive and to offend no one.
The show interwove genres of music ranging from Maroon 5’s pop rock to Big Boi’s hip-hop in a way that suggested that at least when it comes to liking different kinds of music, Americans can agree — just so long as no one talks about anything too real.
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The commercials are the most important part of the Super Bowl. That’s partly because for a lot of people, Super Bowl Sunday is the only time they watch football and the commercials are the most interesting part of the production. They are so well made, and you know that’s what a lot of people will be talking about the next day at work.
The commercials are also important because without them, the NFL and the Super Bowl would not exist. Football depends on money from the networks. The networks depend on the money from advertisers. Televised NFL football is a product, and it exists to sell other products. A network like CBS is just an intermediary.
Someday, some scholar will write a comprehensive history of Super Bowl commercials and the way they reflect the evolving history of the United States since the late 1960s. Iconic commercials like the Budweiser lizards from 1997 or Clint Eastwood and Eminem’s respective commercials for Chrysler after the Great Recession of 2008 will help us understand things about the nature of society in those times.
I’m not sure what tonight’s commercials say about U.S. politics and culture, except they seem to indicate that something is changing in America.
A lot of the commercials picked up on the theme of embracing racial diversity and a more united rather than segregated way of being in our country.
Verizon’s commercials, which focused on the dense intersectionality of first responders in terms of skin color and gender, were particularly moving. It was almost possible to forget that they were meant to sell the products of a huge corporation in a neo-feudal society.
One of the interesting motifs was how often artificial intelligence was used as a trope — generally in ways that made clear that AI is not quite as good as human social and emotional intelligence.
Microsoft ran a very sweet commercial that displayed how some of its products give access to young children whose physical challenges might otherwise prevent them from playing video games with friends.
A commercial for Budweiser played on its old 9/11 motif of the dog riding the horse-drawn wagon across country and then opened to a display of wind farms that they said were used to help produce their beer. A couple of other beer commercials emphasized how light or organic they were.
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An anthropologist from Mars watching these Super Bowl commercials might think that America is an egalitarian society in which challenges of race, gender, and the environment have largely been addressed, and in which human contact is resisting artificial connections.
Of course, this is not the case. We face hard times ahead.
Toward the end of the game, an ad delivered a series of images of news scenes, some of them desolate, and then pictures of journalists as the voice-over talked about the importance of accurate and truthful information in the current age.
One of the journalists was Marie Colvin of London’s Sunday Times, who stayed on in the city of Homs in the early period of the Syrian uprising after it was surrounded by Syrian troops and reported from there as the city was decimated by bombing. She was targeted, and she died there. Her last reports are heart-rending.
Another was the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was enticed into a Saudi consulate in Turkey and then killed and dismembered so his body could be taken back to Saudi Arabia in suitcases under diplomatic protection. His story is well-known and casts a shadow on how closely allied we are with the feudal Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It was interesting to see an advertisement for a free press during the Super Bowl. Jeff Bezos, who created Amazon, bought the Washington Post Company from the Graham family. For him, running the newspaper is just pocket change, but the editorial integrity of the paper seems untampered with.
The Post’s slogan is “Democracy dies in darkness” and, of course, throughout human history that has been true.
It was a new thing to see an advertisement like that in a Super Bowl.
* * *
It is difficult for me to know how to sort out the positive, healing, diversity-promoting images that surrounded the actual game from their corporate sponsorship and the vast inequality that our current economy has created.
In one way, it seems like a good thing. If corporations think that devoting their programming to social justice is a good way to sell products, then maybe something good is happening.
At the same time, selling products using the riff of social justice is hardly an answer to the deep ills that face U.S. society. The corporatization of America and the concentration of almost unbelievable wealth in the hands of a very few may get smoothed over by some friendly ads, but real change happens in other ways.
The Patriots won! I’m glad for my friends. The dynasty continues.
There are other dynasties, and it may be time for patriots to overturn them.