As a hundred million viewers turn on the 50th Super Bowl, I offer 10 perspectives on turning it off.
My football viewing ended after the 47th edition, when in a moment of clarity I turned to other items of interest. It had been waning, especially after the networks lengthened the TV time slot for NFL games from 3 hours to 3:15 and made rules changes to expand the window for commercials. (I admit as a contributing factor the incompetent ownership of my hometown team, Washington.)
For a while I’ve pondered football as a metaphor for our time in the nation’s history: a mechanized, standardized product with players rotating on and off, identifiable only by their uniform numbers – I can’t actually see them. Violence is intrinsic and injury is certain, but the image management projects is indestructibility (consider the on-screen Transformer robot Fox Sports displays during sponsorship announcements). Unlike in boxing, a faded sport in which we sense the damage of each mano-a-mano punch to a half-naked body, in football injuries are cloaked. Like the drone warfare on which our real wars increasingly rely, football plays out as a kind of virtual reality.
What does this pastime say about our culture? Like Rome’s gladiators, football stands in for a military empire based on acquisition and consumption: a distracting, violent spectacle that juices our adrenaline, as does a good war movie, between interminable commercial breaks.
If you’re still with me, consider a few questions:
- When a sport gives a third of its players brain disease and destroys the bodies of most, is it time to find another rooting interest? Perhaps the mounting reports of CTE and other injuries are contributing to the modest decline in high school football participation. Several players have cited the risk to their health in walking away from their livelihoods: not worth it.
- As an NFL fan, am I not endorsing having my tax dollars used for the monopoly business of one or more of 32 billionaire families? The public pays 75% of the operating cost of pro sports stadiums, estimates Judith Grant Long of the University of Michigan.
- How shall I respond to my alma mater, the University of Virginia, which this year charged students $657 for support of an $87 million athletic budget, most of it for football and basketball?
- College football used to be played on Saturdays – you know, a day when classes aren’t held. Now college administrators contract the unpaid players most nights of the week. Schedules feature many games against distant teams, further cutting into campus time. What’s my vote?
- Speaking of time, is a three-hour TV show the best use of mine on any given Saturday or Sunday, or any other night of the week, from late summer to midwinter?
- What is my responsibility as a fan when the NFL, major colleges, and some police departments protect players who rape women?
- I like scantily clad models as much as the next real man, but what is the relationship between the NFL’s cheerleaders and the rest of the product, considering my previous question?
- When teams play with their fans’ loyalties by relocating in search of more lucrative deals, shall I continue to participate?
- About those occasionally clever Super Bowl ads: beer, cars, snacks and soda, etc. at a half-billion (tax-deductible) dollars per 30-second message. Do I support what the broadcast is selling?
- So this is the free market at work: oversized men trading their health for money and fame, crass commercialism, orgies of consumption, drinking bound to fandom, all riding the bandwagon of “wholesome” athletic competition? Is this my concept of freedom?
We like the violence. We like the taxpayer subsidies. We think we’re connecting with our friends when we gather to watch the spectacle. That’s what Roger Goodell wants us to think. I don’t.
No wonder no one has invited me to a viewing party. That’s okay, pitchers and catchers report in two weeks.