TAMPA, Fla.-There is talk now that if the taxpayers of New
York are willing to part with a billion dollars of their money, one day they
will know the thrill of playing host to the great ahistorical American
spectacle formerly known as the National Football League championship.
The massive West Side stadium proposal, which Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani has revived and reconstituted to serve as a new home for the New York
Jets, would qualify as a potential Super Bowl site because it will, in the
words of hockey writer Michael McKinley, put a roof on winter. The N.F.L.
demands that the Super Bowl be played in winter-defying locales like Tampa or,
on very rare occasions, in suburban northern locations with indoor stadiums and
E-Z access to the interstate system, like Pontiac, Mich. That these places not
only defy weather but history is not coincidental. The Super Bowl is the
grossest sort of sports-history revisionism, its Roman-numeral chronology
suggesting that the world championship of American football held its first
convocation a mere 35 years ago, and not back in the early days of radio.
Similarly, its warm-weather locales have bulldozed the past and constructed a
narrative beginning in the 1960’s. Here in Tampa, a lonely marker commemorates
the site of Fort Brooke, from which two future U.S. Presidents, Andrew Jackson
and Zachary Taylor, directed wars against the Seminoles. The marker is meant
for passers-by; this being a 1960’s city in Florida, pedestrians are few and
cars many. This being Florida, the site of Fort Brooke is a parking lot
adjacent to an elevated highway named not for a President, but for a football
player, Lee Roy Selman.
Throughout Super Bowl
week, the N.F.L. fed the media a diet of processed, flash-frozen and
microwavable facts dating back to Super Bowl I in 1967. We were presented with
a list of Super Bowl M.V.P.’s; the record for completed passes in a Super Bowl;
the fewest points allowed in a Super Bowl. Halfway through the Ravens’ 34-7
rout of the Giants, the media was informed that the two teams already had combined
for the most number of punts in a Super Bowl. Punt returner Tiki Barber was a
Written out of these records, then, are those teams and
individuals who competed for the world championship of American football before
1967. As the giant video screen in Raymond James Stadium entertained the crowd
during endless commercial breaks with highlights from past Super Bowls, the
contingent of foreign press and other tourists might have concluded that
American football didn’t exist before the
invention of color TV, Astroturf and performance-enhancing dietary
Like Tampa, like the
other Sunbelt cities that host most Super Bowls, the N.F.L. prefers lonely
markers to preservation. A spiral-bound press handout had a small account of
championship games before 1967; the era of the Super Bowl, however, had its own
records, its own narrative, its own legends. Sam Huff, Sid Luckman, Charlie
Conerly and Rosy Grier have no place in the revised history of the N.F.L.
championship. It is as if Major League Baseball decided that championship
history began with divisional play in 1969, and that the likes of Ted Williams,
Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller deserved no more than a plaque on a
lonely corner. In the revised canon of N.F.L. championship lore, the New York
Giants have two wins and one loss. In fact, the Giants have competed for the
world championshipof American football 17 times since 1933, winning five
titles. But only the championships of 1987 and 1991 are celebrated; the others
have been virtually erased from the record.
The Super Bowl, then, is completely harmonious with its
usual settings, and surely would seem out of place in New York, where a
Landmarks Preservation Commission attempts to control the impulse to wipe out
the past, where residents do not touch even a single brick on a landmarked
townhouse. New Yorkers are famous for their apparent disregard for antiquity if
it stands in the way of a buck, but that reputation is highly exaggerated, as
many a foiled developer well knows.
Nevertheless, a campaign
to bring the game to New York seems inevitable. The Jets and Mr. Giuliani will
play the part of the Ravens’ defense to the taxpayers’ Kerry Collins. The Jets
and the Mayor will disguise their maneuvering; they will set up distractions, and
they will force errors.
Gone are the days when
New York could watch places like Tampa and Pontiac and Jacksonville with
confident detachment, recognizing quiet desperation in their hunger for Super
Bowl validation. Mr. Giuliani is not unlike those good citizens of the
provinces who associate civic pride with sporting events. He was here in Tampa,
walking grim-faced toward the losing team’s locker room and wearing a blue
Giants’ cap with an “NY” logo.
The Giants, of course, have been playing in the New Jersey
suburbs, with E-Z highway access, since 1976.
Of course, there’s another, perhaps more profound, reason to
argue against the pairing of New York and the Super Bowl. Somebody, wiser than
he or she may ever know, once said that politics is show business for ugly
people. To that axiom, add another: The Super Bowl is the Oscars for fat
That’s not to say that the Super Bowl is only for people of
girth-although those who trolled this city’s ad-hoc souvenir stands for an
official Super Bowl golf shirt with the letter M on the collar were subjected
to the humiliation of sifting through mounds of XL’s and XXL’s. It was enough
of an ordeal to feel singled out, personally aggrieved and even discriminated
against, and thus eligible for the victim-compensation entitlements (appearance
on talk shows, large legal settlements, etc.).
Regardless of body shape
and size, the 100,000 people who came here to watch the Ravens pummel the
Giants were fat-that is, fat in the sense of being unfashionable, whether in
dress, personal consumption, reading material or voting habits. Although they
gather every year to put on the single biggest spectacle in American popular
culture, Super Bowl goers do so without the company of society’s high priests
and priestesses, i.e., the glossy New Yorkers who celebrate the edginess of
fart jokes in prime time or the courage of actors who publicly proclaim their
devotion to partial-birth abortion and animal rights.
More people watch the
Super Bowl than watch the Academy Awards, a fact that was noted with some
astonishment last year in The Village Voice . The Super Bowl, then,
could be and indeed should be viewed as the signature event in American popular
culture. Yet during Super Bowl week, there were no equivalents of those
fabulous Oscar parties (unless one counts the Commissioner’s Ball, and one
doesn’t), no celebrity editors attaching themselves to a famous face in hopes
of a moment of reflected glory, no Fleet Street types (or their high-end peers)
voicing their well-informed interpretations of Americana.
The Super Bowl apparently is a puzzle for those who
otherwise are quick to celebrate, or excuse, popular culture. Over Super Bowl
weekend, National Public Radio-a reliable
barometer of elite opinion-acknowledged the game with features about the
criminal records of some of the participants and a light-hearted report on
testosterone levels that had all the hallmarks of an anthropological study of
this odd species known as the male sports fan. One earnest NPR host (the
redundancy will be excused), in the course of wringing her hands over the
admittedly bad behavior of some N.F.L. players, noted with some exasperation
that fans still flocked to the game despite the low crimes and misdemeanors of
some players. No doubt I missed similar
commentary about those who continued to donate money, vote for and defend a
handful of Democratic miscreants in recent years. On Super Bowl Sunday itself,
NPR featured a celebratory report on the persistence of disco culture in
Europe-there was no mention of some of that culture’s ancillary activities,
like drug consumption and date rape.
At its heart, the Super
Bowl is a Red Country cultural event, looked upon with disdain or ignored entirely among Blue Country’s arbiters in
New York. This is just as well, I suppose: The Super Bowl may well be as
commercial as your average political
convention, but it remains strangely
unaffected by the rituals of celebrity culture. Unfortunately, some N.F.L.
officials apparently find this worrisome, and thus they recruited MTV to help
produce a half-time show that took only a few seconds to put matters on a level
the cultural elites might better understand. One of the hosts, looking for that
cutting-edge NPR audience, used the word “sucked” during this most-watched
television event known to humankind. This great cultural victory for hip
entertainment took place at about 8:10 p.m. E.S.T., early enough for the
children in the audience to listen and learn.
Though it no doubt would
take some courage on their part, N.F.L. officials would be well-advised to
resist the urge to bring their product down to the low levels celebrated in
high places, like New York. The sport’s heroes-its legitimate heroes, not the
thugs who are as naturally inclined to violent sports as self-centered louts are
to show business-are positively countercultural.
At a Super Bowl eve
ceremony announcing new inductees to the N.F.L. Hall of Fame, the speeches were
humble, touching, self-effacing and utterly without political or cultural
commentary. In other words, precisely the opposite of the Oscars or the Grammys
or the MTV awards. Jack Youngblood, the onetime Los Angeles Ram, began his
remarks by thanking God for giving him talent; Jackie Slater, one of the
largest human beings in Tampa or on the planet, paid tribute to his teammates.
And Marv Levy, the Harvard history major who coached the Buffalo Bills to four
championship games, cut himself off when he decided he was rambling. He had
spoken for no more than a minute or two.
For better and for worse, the Super Bowl clearly is best