My Plea After Grisly Giants Game: Don’t Bring the Super Bowl Here

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

busy man.

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

supplements.

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

people.

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

suited elsewhere.