The tortured politics of the Super Bowl

Sunday is the championship game of America’s National Football League, between the Los Angeles Rams and the New England Patriots.

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So, you are firmly ensconced in the unforgiving bosom of the polar vortex. The mere thought of venturing outside your home is as perilous as taking a brief nap in quicksand. You literally might die! God forbid you watch any more of the news, filled to the edge with the po-faced grimacing of sickly-looking pundits whinging about the apocalyptic promise of a no-deal Brexit. What does one do when life itself is cause for immense panic?

Why, you stay in and watch the Super Bowl, of course. You’re guaranteed to be entertained for at least four hours, which might be the last four hours you ever spend on this planet. If you’re not thrilled by the billion-dollar spectacle, you’ll be numbed into submission by the sweet crackling of hot bone-on-bone action and the expensive beer commercials starring celebrities pantomiming getting kicked in the nuts. At least you’re not freezing to death.

The National Football League championship game is something of a holiday here in the States – men and women gather ‘round their ludicrously gargantuan flat screens to watch people attempt to cripple each other in order to celebrate capitalism’s rousing defeat over such nefarious forces as “empathy” and “moderation.” Since 9/11, the NFL has only become more inseparable from America’s identity and sense of self-worth. While it’s far and away the most popular sport in the US across multiple demographics, the very DNA of the game is tied to red state culture, with its dedication to the flag and emphasis on “traditional” values.

The television series Friday Night Lights, and the film it was based on, was soapy mainstream entertainment, but the story it told of small-town Americans obsessed with the machinations of teenagers on the gridiron, is based in a fundamental truth. The Buzz Bissinger non-fiction book the movie and series were based on told a real story about the grip American football has on the rural parts of the country – one that shows no signs of loosening any time soon. It should come as no surprise, then, that the NFL has become a focal point in the never ending American culture war.

Sunday’s game is the culmination of the months-long NFL season, but it’s also one of the few remaining mass entertainment institutions in the US that doesn’t involve Marvel Comics characters punching CGI monsters in front of a green-screen. The Super Bowl party is a chance for us Yanks to put aside our ideological difference to scream at something other than CNN. My household Super Bowl tradition involves each guest being forced to eat an entire bucket of fried chicken in one sitting. The last person to finish gets punched in the stomach.

In the UK, though, the Super Bowl is a curiosity on par with Channel 5’s 2001 reality competition series Touch the Truck, which is exactly what it sounds like: touch the truck long enough and you get to keep it. The Super Bowl might not be quite as pedantic as watching a person stand around doing nothing, but it is on at an unseemly hour and features esoteric, labyrinthine rules that can alienate even the most devoted follower of the NFL. In fact, I’d estimate that it’s easier to jump into an episode of Touch the Truck on YouTube than it is to watch the Super Bowl. But if you want to understand the state of the States and exactly why we’re in this mess, football is the best place to start.

NFL games are one of the last places that it’s socially acceptable to enjoy country music, if the continued use of singer Carrie Underwood on NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast is any indication. Despite the protests of our precious cultural elites, with their upturned noses and borderline obsession with Cardi B’s Instagram, Underwood’s Sunday Night Football theme tune remains intact. The only time I see Underwood on TV is on Sunday nights, which is equal parts the passage of her cultural high point and my own ignorance about anything that goes on in red states that doesn’t end up in a ponderous New York Times feature story.

The NFL knows it must appeal to the demographics I don’t belong to, that it has to cultivate this fan base which makes up the most rabid supporters of the sport. It’s one of the reasons the saga of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick threatened the immensely profitable peace of “America’s Game.” When Kaepernick chose to kneel for the customary pre-game singing of the Star-Spangled Banner in 2016, he exacerbated a simmering cold war between the factions within football fandom. The liberal contingent of sports fans rallied behind Kap’s right to free speech, but also the message he was trying to communicate with his action: America has a persistent problem with racial inequality that we seem to have no interest in reckoning with.

Despite the cavalcade of horrific news stories about the rise of white supremacy in the US that bolstered Kaepernick’s thesis – from Charlottesville to the latest tragedy involving Empire star Jussie Smollett – he remains persona non grata in the NFL. He’s even gone to the lengths of suing the league, alleging collusion in keeping him unemployed. The stand he took did earn him a lucrative sponsorship deal and visible ad campaign courtesy of Nike, but in the eyes of many football fans he’s still highly controversial.

As with any major cultural flashpoint in America, President Trump clumsily squeezed himself into the Kaepernick matter many times over, calling anyone who protested a “son of a bitch” – which constitutes one of his milder insults. Trump’s histrionic 2017 tweets vilifying Kap and any other players protesting the national anthem resulted in a showy week of NFL players, coaches, and owners banding together to express a vague sense of solidarity in the face of the attacks.

It was a valiant effort on their part: they did their level best to make fans and pundits forget what this whole thing was about. So what followed was baffling: an aborted attempt to punish those who didn’t stand for the anthem, which was widely seen as capitulation to Trump’s bullying. It was so roundly mocked as a form of surrender that the policy was vaporized before it could even be implemented.

What the leaders of football have come to realise is that all of this is unavoidable. While the NFL has officially sought to be above the base, distasteful business of politics, its aforementioned standing within American society means it has always and will continue to be dragged into the mire. Still, they carrying on hoping to play both sides, a tactic that is increasingly becoming archaic in our polarized reality. When asked about Trump’s previous comments that the sport had become “soft,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded by saying “We have a lot of fans, the president among them.”

It’s true that Trump is a fan of American football, so much so that he famously mounted a failed rival league, the USFL, in the 1980s. He even tried to buy the Buffalo Bills franchise in 2014. His ties to the sport run even deeper, though. Sunday’s game features the dynastic juggernaut known as the New England Patriots, a team with clear and open ties to the president. A recent report by the Los Angeles Times detailed how Patriots owner Robert Kraft reached out to Trump for help securing a trade deal with Canada that would guarantee the NFL millions of dollars from the sale of broadcast rights to the league in Canada.

Since then Trump’s attacks have ceased, and besides the ongoing litigation around Kaepernick’s collusion charges the NFL has gone back to business as usual. The build-up to this year’s Super Bowl has been mercifully free of political squabbling and self-righteous posturing. As much as I’d like this to be a sign that we too can move past the last three years of perpetual in-fighting, this detente is guaranteed to be short-lived. Surely, another front will open up in this rhetorical pillow fight. Maybe halftime show performers Maroon 5 will unfurl a Palestinian flag during their set. Could Patriots quarterback Tom Brady remove his jersey to reveal a “Build the Wall” t-shirt? What if the Los Angeles Rams win the game and refuse to visit the White House, then donate their championship bonus to Kamala Harris?

I certainly hope not. I’m hardly the “stick to sports” guy conservative Americans are so fond of lashing out at, but I also would like to enjoy my Bud Light commercials in peace. The one thing right-wing bloviators are correct about is that sport is meant to be an escape. I’ve grown tired of mixing my personal ideological convictions with the simple, binary pleasures of watching two teams compete in an athletic contest.

As politics becomes more and more like a grim, mutant version of sport with the fate of humanity at stake, I increasingly yearn for actual sport’s pedantic, low-stakes heroes and villains. Whether or not you watch the Super Bowl in America should not be a proxy for your leanings on the political spectrum or a litmus test for your wokeness.

I envy all those in the UK, able to watch Sunday’s game without wondering what it says about you as a citizen. Enjoy this most unique cultural export if you can, because the state of things is not making it easy for me. The Super Bowl should be pure, or as pure as any comically overblown brand extension devise can ever be. This is not a time to squabble over our differences. It should be a time to get together, eat a whole bucket of chicken, and punch your best friend in the stomach – like God intended.

Dave Schilling is a writer and humourist whose work has appeared in the Guardian, Vice, and New York Magazine. He tweets @dave_schilling.