super bowls and the unwitting participants of culture


Tonight, millions of people sat and watched a singular football game.

The funny thing about the cultural phenomena surrounding the NFL’s championship is that, while the game itself certainly attracts football and sports fans around the world, by far, most of the people who watch are not interested in what goes on between the sidelines. It’s about the national anthem, the halftime show, what’s coming on afterward and, of course, the commercials. What’s more, the game itself, two weeks separated from the NFL postseason, is often sloppy and a grueling affair, and this coming from the most boring–and, in terms of game strategy, I would add predictable–of the big four American sports.

This marked the first year I could actually watch the Super Bowl since 2008: during my three years of grad school, I would be commuting to Minnesota for my intensive class sessions on this weekend. I would attempt to listen on the radio, from central Wisconsin or from Kansas City to the Twin Cities, but what one learns quickly after being raised on watching the Super Bowl is that it is nothing if not a made-for-TV event.

As an autobiographical side note, of course, being the good fundamentalist Pentecostals we were growing up, we would watch the National Anthem and then get ready for Sunday night service at church, and then come home to see what the score was. We were interested, but not engaged…save for 1997, when the Packers won it all against the Patriots, who apparently lost again tonight.

You see, I saw some of the game, but I really could not care less. One, the Packers weren’t involved in the affair, after going out and taking a giant dump at Lambeau against the would-be NFL champion Giants in the divisional playoff round, not unlike my beloved Brewers collapsing against the would-be champion Cardinals in the NLCS last fall. But I was also considering what to write for tonight’s post, making myself a quick dinner, taking Seneca the fuzzy for his evening constitutional and running errands. After all, who is out and about during the Super Bowl? ‘Tis a great time to get stuff done.

One realizes how strange parts of our culture are when one is not a part of it; notice that I do not say that those who do not participate in parts of our culture are strange, it is the whole that is weirder than the sum of its parts. I’ve never smoked, had an alcoholic beverage or taken an illegal substance, though I’ve been around lots of people who have and or did/do. As such, I never understood the hippies at the university where I earned my BA, thirsty Thursdays, pub crawls or the historic Stevens Point public square. I don’t get getting wasted, people who insist that Dave Matthews Band or Pink Floyd is qualitatively better when high, and have been on the losing end of smoke breaks, like the time when, during the tail end of a lunch rush at a sub shop where I worked, six people decided to have a smoke break, leaving me to deal with the front end, while they parked their butts in the gravel behind the store.

I was raised in front of a television; thanks to the USA Network’s old afternoon block of running old game shows, I have an inordinate amount of knowledge about game shows and trivia. (It also explains why I spent most of my childhood as a beefy, but that’s beside the point.) So, when I entered the gulag in Minnesota in 1999 and our dorm room not only didn’t have cable, but could not regularly pull in a television signal, save for random music video channels and TBN, I spent eight months in television detox. That year changed my perspective on everything.

Again, we don’t often realize the ways in which we allow culture to dominate ourselves, unless something happens which detaches us from it. And this is not a post decrying watching a football game and its commercials; that in and of itself is not a bad thing. What I am saying is that because something is a cultural phenomena does not mean we have to participate in it, for what happens is that, while an event may get more popular, us participants in it tend to become even more willing to be exploited and less concerned with our responsibility to culture. The experience negotiates away our ability to be ourselves, which is deleterious to both self and society.

Panem et circenses. Or fiddling while a civilization burns. Those are extreme examples from the decline of the Roman empire; we are not a society on the verge of complete collapse, at least, not yet.

This is a simple reminder to each of us that there was, this evening, a life away from the bright lights of Lucas Oil Stadium, the bajillion hours of pregame and the myriad 30 second spots no one has seen before. What’s really going on, behind the pump fakes and circumstance, is that wealthy people, organizations and companies are getting wealthier while we watch a lackluster game. We decry an athlete or movie star who mails in performances after s/he has arrived, or a politician who, once elected, fails to deliver on much of his/her campaign promises. But we are too often remiss to recognize that we cheer on the exact same pattern of behavior on this first weekend in February every year.

Some might call this cultural phenomena, in the light of similar examples, a triumph of mediocrity.

I call it just another Super Bowl Sunday.

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