Keith Strudler: Super Bowl Sadness
So in the grand scheme of American holidays, Super Bowl Sunday reigns supreme. With all deference to Thanksgiving and Halloween and even the 4th of July, nothing unifies this country in a singular activity like the Super Bowl. That activity being eating ourselves into a coma while watching a bunch of highly paid grown men wrestle for a pigskin. On Super Bowl Sunday, nearly half of this country does exactly the same thing at exactly the same time, invoking ritual and history, surrounded by friends and family. Compare that Labor Day. It’s not like we all go boating, or all picnic. Even on Christmas, it’s not like half of America goes to church as the same time. Besides, that’s not American holiday, but a religious one – although not if our current government has anything to do with it.
The Super Bowl is not only widely celebrated, it is also uniquely American. The American military play a big part in the broadcast, including flying jets over the stadium during the National Anthem – even if it’s a dome. They tell stories about American mythology, like athletes that went from rags to riches or athletes with a uniquely American immigrant story – although maybe not this year. And every year during the pre-game, the American President does a sit down interview with a journalist from the broadcast network, which this year, quite fittingly, is FOX.
And so that brings us to the odd dilemma this year. Will the Super Bowl, the most American of American days, the high holiday of American consumption, will it still be apple of our national eye? Will it still unite us, or has that shipped sailed? Maybe best put, is the Super Bowl filibuster proof?
Let’s start with the numbers. The NFL has suffered this year, with decreasing viewership and more than its share of incidents. Some of the ratings slide could be attributable to the black hole that was the presidential election. Playoff numbers have been a bit better, but still some of the lowest in years. You can craft any number of explanations, including a general concern over the safety of the sport. But no matter how you spin it, America watched less football this year than the year before.
But the Super Bowl isn’t just one game. It’s the game. It’s the game that you watch even if you haven’t watched a single sporting event all year. It’s the game you pick a side, even if you’ve never visited either of the cities, or even know a single player on either team. Although let’s face it, everyone knows Tom Brady. It’s the game where you throw a party and make pizza bites and affirm that you are, like your friends and neighbors, truly an American.
So what happens this Sunday, when a good part of this country isn’t sure they still live in America, or at the very least, they don’t feel particularly interested in celebrating its values?
It’s hard to say. Historically, sporting events have helped heal the nation. Like after 9/11. They can also be a platform for dissent and protest, like the 1968 Olympics. So it’s hard to assume that we will all turn our swords into remote controls this Sunday in the name of unity.
The likely reality is this. The Super Bowl will still get good ratings, since it always gets good ratings. Now, outside of the US, I can only imagine viewership will sink like the Titanic. Good luck trying to convince people in other countries to buy into an American pep rally right now. I’ve got a better shot at asking my kids to give up pizza.
But as far as Americans feeling good about the experience, I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think Super Bowl parties will be unusually divided, and not just around the Falcons and the Patriots. I think arguments might start during Trump’s interview, especially since Bill O’Reilly’s doing it. I think people might talk about the legacy of American more than the legacy of Brady and Belichick – which is considerable, by the way. That’s assuming people even go to Super Bowl parties, considering the number of families that are on limited speaking terms since November 8 – heck, since last weekend.
I could be wrong. Perhaps all America really wants right now are four hours where we don’t worry about the end of the free world or, perhaps more dire, the end of the entire world, free or otherwise. Maybe the Super Bowl will be a moment where we can all exhale and try to get along. To remember the good old days of America, like three weeks ago, when everything was fine. Maybe on Super Bowl Sunday, even if it’s not a day to celebrate country, it might at least be a time to relax. Assuming another executive order doesn’t come down at halftime, which seems completely likely considering Trump’s inability to have so many eyes anywhere but on him.
So I’m not so sure we can call Sunday an American holiday right now. Then again, I’m not so sure we can really call this America right now either.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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