The Super Bowl is decadent and depraved and that's okay
This is a big week if you’re a football fan.
The Super Bowl is Sunday, and it’s the unquestioned pinnacle of the sport: the ultimate showcase, the game’s best athletes playing on its biggest stage, competing for timeless glory for an audience in the high hundreds of millions.
This year’s contest, to be played at Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium, is the culmination of a truly thrilling playoff season, one filled with stunning comebacks, last-minute victories, and surprising underdogs stepping up. The matchup between the young-and-hungry Cincinnati Bengals and the star-studded Los Angeles Rams should be a great viewing experience for anyone who enjoys America’s most popular sport.
It’s almost a bigger week, though, if you’re a Super Bowl hater.
Around this time of year, they come out of the woodwork to insist that you are wrong for wanting to enjoy this event, that it represents everything wrong with this country, that it’s a massively expensive celebration of misplaced priorities.
Like this, for instance, from The Atlantic contributing writer Tom Nichols:
The best thing that I can say about this take is that he somehow avoided using the term “sportsball”, the most aggravating word seemingly beloved by people who like to say things like this and think they’re profound for doing so.
(Also, Nichols decries “hero worship of bad people” in saying that Americans should spend less time on sports and more time on politics and hooo buddy do I have some news for you about hero worship of bad people in politics. But I digress.)
There will be plenty of people making statements like this in the lead-up to Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, citing many technically-true things about the event including the eye-popping salaries of the players and coaches involved, the staggering ticket prices, the inconceivable amount of chicken wings consumed nationwide, and so on.
They’re right about much of it.
It doesn’t matter. The Super Bowl is worth it.
For virtually any American under the age of 60, the Super Bowl has been a part of our lives as long as we can remember, even if we don’t care about football.
For me, it recalls early memories of grade-school classmates in Ohio arbitrarily picking sides between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills, of knowing my family would order Italian hoagies from the church’s fundraiser, of giggling at the Bud Bowl bottles and gawking at Pepsi ads with Cindy Crawford and watching baffled and enraptured as Michael Jackson burst through a stage in Pasadena and stood stone-still for so long it seemed like something had gone wrong.
The Super Bowl is ridiculous and only becomes more so each year; I stopped to rewatch Jackson’s legendary 1993 performance as I wrote this, and it seems almost quaint by modern standards. No holograms? No drone light shows? C’mon, man.
Now, I have no interest in defending the National Football League as an institution.
Though there are surely many entities with a more direct negative impact on the lives of Americans, there are few as casually malevolent in their core intentions as the NFL. It is a bloated and corrupt club for billionaires who’ve perfected the art of socializing their losses and privatizing their gains, blackmailing municipalities for taxpayer support on the promise of revenue creation that seemingly never materializes to the sunnily-optimistic degree predicted in press conferences announcing stadium deals.
It is an organization that actively protects the culture of rampant sexual harassment allowed to flourish in the Washington franchise, and the culture of racism and discrimination cited by former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores in his class-action suit against the league. It is a league that effectively blackballed Colin Kaepernick for peaceful demonstration, and one whose nakedly self-serving embrace of the armed forces only became more cartoonish when it was revealed they were charging the military for it.
All of this is true; the NFL is a rotten organization to the very top and they will continue to print money in spite of it even as more scandals emerge in the future.
It is possible to acknowledge all of this and still appreciate Sunday’s spectacle.
If the NFL were to end tomorrow—if the stadium lights were flicked off and the franchises disbanded, if Roger Goodell and Dan Snyder and Stephen Ross and Jimmy Haslam and their peers were stripped of their powers and marched off to jail, if Aaron Rodgers were just a weird guy in your office whose Facebook invite you’ve ignored for six months—we would still need a day like this. Just as the Tournament of Roses parade existed before the football game we know as the Rose Bowl ever did, the Super Bowl could march on without football.
The Super Bowl is barely about the football at all, unless, of course, you’re in one of the two fan bases for whom it might be a day you’ve waited a generation or more for. In that case, it’s your chance to feel like a king or queen for the day—I’ve spent the last week looking at the many Cincinnati Bengals fans with whom I am acquainted with a mixture of vicarious happiness and deep envy, as I imagine what it might feel like if my hometown Cleveland Browns ever take that stage. (It looks like it feels nice!)
Until then, and for all the rest of us, the Super Bowl is simply a secular holiday at the actual worst time of the year, a frigid, slushy spot in the meteorological calendar far more bleak and depressing than the comparatively-mild winter solstice around which Christmas hangs. Valentine’s Day might deign to fill this void, but brings with it the anxieties, pressures and responsibilities of romance, gift-giving and/or finding the right set of 25 cards for a child’s class in a ransacked Target seasonal section where every set available contains 24 cards.
Valentine’s Day is but a pretender; the Super Bowl is the reason for this season.
Our culture is more segmented, sectarian and siloed than ever. This is true of course in the obvious political sense, which I have no interest in both-sidesing, but also in a more prosaic cultural sense.
For most of the year, we’re all watching different things; I’m personally stunned every time I learn that the most-watched show in America is named something like Fire Department: Nashville, itself a spin-off of Fire Department, which ran for 13 seasons and 372 episodes without me noticing. Meanwhile, the people that I consider celebrities are strangers to whole swaths of the country who are watching different things, listening to different music, experiencing a entire popular culture foreign to me.
One Sunday a year, this changes.
Our worlds collide, and we have a single day to watch the same thing, experience the same ridiculously self-important advertisements, learn together about what silly bets two cities’ mayors have made involving their local foods, watch octopi guess which team will win and delight at puppies romping around a fake stadium, rubberneck at a familiar recording artist attempting a somewhat-live performance for a billion people where a million things can go wrong and frankly we hope they do and maybe, if we have time in all of that, catch a few minutes of a football game.
It is a glorious and pointless excess that we revel in together; the spectacle is the sport.
I understand all the reasons why the Super Bowl might be considered a blight on our society; it is decadent farce, a ridiculous excess and often a tremendous waste of time. None of this is false, but I love it in spite of all that. If it did not exist, we would have to invent something like it, one day where we all revel in the same glorious disaster.
You say the Super Bowl is decadent and depraved.
I say well, that’s the one thing we’ve got.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
There is no more cynical thing in America than the presumption that a box of 24 valentines will be enough for one elementary school class. Thank you for pointing this out Scott.
There’s a charm in the Super Bowl being one of the last bastions of monoculture (or as close as anything can get to that now).
Also, since you mentioned the Bills/Giants SB, I’m going to go cry into my Bruce Smith jersey from that era, thanks.