A Jaundiced View of a Game that Exemplies American Values

I began to hate American football when I was forced to attend weekly high school "pep rallies" in which cheer leaders worked their fellow students into a foot-stomping frenzy in the unsubstantiated belief that it would inspire the school's team to win that night's game. When, decades later, I learned that there is an incontrovertible link between football and brain damage, my hatred of the game escalated. Despite this loathing, Peggy and I watched this year's Super Bowl to see what all the hooplah was about. It was an enlightening experience. 

First, the football players ran onto the field between lines of Rah, Rah, Boom Bang cheerleaders. Next came the singing of America the Beautiful and the Star Spangled Banner. The latter is America's National Anthem, and everyone is expected to stand with their hands over their hearts while listening to it. This is not the case with America the Beautiful, but most of the crowd didn't seem to know that. Then military jets flew overhead and World War II Medal of Honor winners were paraded onto the field for no apparent reason. 

I don't know if every Super Bowl goes to such extremes to tie football to patriotism, but I do know that the teams' owners were eager to reverse the impression that black football players (most professional football players are black) are unpatriotic, an impression that started in 2016 when some of them started "taking the knee" during the National Anthem in order to protest police mistreatment of black people. Trump fanned the flames with his usual mean spirited ineloquence when he said, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field..." His epithet made him the first president to use language that couldn't be repeated on TV or radio, although, thanks to Trump, vulgarity during newscasts is now commonplace.

Companies that run ads during the Super Bowl go all out to make the $1.7 million a second cost worthwhile. Coke proved that its mixture of corn syrup and carbonated water is the choice of those who value individuality and diversity (not to mention obesity, tooth decay, and diabetes) by showing diverse people (all of them young, thin, and attractive) in a state of exaltation because, "There's a Coke for he, and she, and her, and me, and them. There's a different Coke for all of us." 

Dodge tried to boost truck sales by claiming that it's true to the vision of Martin Luther King Jr., in that its primary values are love and service (because America's highest court regards corporations as having the rights of human beings, it only follows that corporations can feel the gamut of human emotions). It did this--that is it attempted to do this--by playing an audio of King sermonizing alongside a video of inspirational images (a fireman rescuing a child, volunteers handing out food, etc.) interlaced with images of Dodge trucks. For those who still failed to understand that Dodge is the choice of people who buy a truck because they value love and good deeds over flashiness and horsepower, the commercial ended with the name of the company in white letters against a black background (it had kicked-off the commercial with the name of King against a black background). 

Because MLK was an outspoken opponent of both capitalism and materialism (he objected to Coretta spending money on curtains), no one can seriously envision him sitting behind the wheel of a two ton diesel (Americans just adore superfluous power), but Dodge relied on the fact that he was dead before its mostly white buyers were born, and the finer points of his message have been forgotten, not just by Dodge buyers but by King's children who have long shown themselves ready to rake in big bucks in exchange for his sermons. Not to be bested by Dodge, Jeep showed that its Wrangler can leave tread marks and erosion channels in pristine natural settings (Jeep admitted the destructive power of its product by boasting that the commercial was filmed in a manmade lake and waterfall that doesn't flow into any other body of water).

This year's Super Bowl was in Minneapolis, home of the deceased musician, Prince. The star attraction, Justin Timberlake, sang a duet (I know of no other way to put it) with a hologram of the dead performer. The fact that Prince called such performances "demonic" didn't dampen the crowd's enthusiasm. Because Prince is associated with the color purple, viewers were lifted high above the stadium and treated to a view of a city blanketed by purple snow, a phenomenon that never occurred during my two winters in Minneapolis. 

During the game, my inner eye kept returning to the very real image of the brains of football players setting silently in jars in darkened labs (it being Sunday) waiting to be sliced and diced in the study of brain damage caused by that damnable game. The carnage continues with the blessing of parents and public schools despite the fact that studies have shown that boys in their teens exhibit football related learning disabilities. America gives football scholarships and other, under the table, benefits to poor (mostly black) youngsters who have no other way out of poverty; sends them to the pros; and is unmoved by the fact that they're bumbling and pain-wracked by age forty.

How do people find it within themselves to pay $3,000 (cost of a cheap seat at the Super Bowl) to witness a game that destroys lives? And why don't fans care that no kid with an IQ higher than 38 can come to age in America without being cynicalized by an onslaught of commercials that exploit our species' best people and its highest values to sell products that harm minds, bodies, and the environment? Super Bowl fans pretend that they're watching gifted athletes at the height of their prowess, but what they're actually seeing are wounded men who are propped up on a diet of narcotics and steroids so they can play through their injuries. 

Coke was touted as the beverage choice of young, healthy, athletic, liberal, and mostly white, heterosexuals (among the couples depicted, there were no gays), although its primary users are fat, diabetic, poorly educated, and impoverished. Jeep presented its Wrangler as a means to enjoy nature in remote places although, as every hiker knows, no one who drives ATVs into roadless areas can seriously say they love nature when the very act of driving in such places destroys nature. Rather they want to get far enough from civilized society that they can do whatever they damn well please, which means that, in place of wildflowers and fragile rock formations, they leave a sea of mud, shell casings, bullet holes, and, oh yeah, lots and lots of garbage. 

The Super Bowl is a pernicious lie built upon a foundation of greed and callousness. The thing that bothered me most about those long ago pep rallies was that they conveyed the idea that if I was unwilling to scream, stomp, and jump up and down to inspire "our boys" to beat "their boys," I lacked some ineffable quality called "school spirit." The experience was designed to assault dissenters with the club of peer pressure in order to make them feel like they were all alone, but if this were true, why were these non-educational events compulsory? 

The answer was that pep rallies had everything to do with educating kids, only in covert ways that no teacher or administrator would have admitted to. Namely, they were meant to instill in students the value of tribalism, of pitting our side against someone else's side. Such was the message of the Super Bowl. Why else would a football game include a superabundance of patriotic songs and images, songs and images that might have been reasonably expected to bring violence upon anyone who didn't go through the motions of acquiescence? 

I don't doubt but what football fans see themselves as being every bit as compassionate and integrous as the next person, and that the same is true of those who create the pandering commercials, but how can this be? An ancient manuscript called Apophthegmata Patrum gives the answer as follows, although what the writer probably intended as a literal analysis, I regard as metaphorical. 

"When the eyes of an ox or mule are covered, then he goes round and round turning the mill wheel; but if his eyes are uncovered, he will not go around in the circle of the mill wheel. So too the devil, if he manages to cover the eyes of a man, can humiliate him in every sin. But if that man's eyes are not closed, he can easily escape the devil."

No one can enjoy football without opening both eyes to the public spectacle of bodies clashing against bodies while closing them to the long and private misery of the game's causalities, yet the latter is no less a part of the game than the former.