Superbowl Sunday is traditionally the First Sunday in February. It is a day that I suspect nearly has, and will probably soon get, one of those little small font holiday tags you find on a calendar down at the bottom of the open block. The kind that informs you that Veteran’s Day is this Monday, or that Administrative Assistant’s Day is that Thursday. You might be wondering if it already has a mark on the calendar. It does not, but it’s coming.
In one way it deserves it. The game and its surroundings certainly compel us now more than most minor holidays do. After all, 110 million people tune in each year to watch it. No group of people anywhere near that large do the same thing on Flag Day or Armistice Day. One hundred and ten million engaged in the same thing is just slightly less than the number who vote in a National Presidential election. I am sure the NFL execs are working on the calendar dating. They are so much better than most of us modern religious folk are at marking their brand and turf. Do you know it is illegal for anyone to use the very word “Superbowl” in an advertisement without paying a royalty to do so? Can you imagine if the UUA went to file a patent restriction on the word “religiously tolerant” because we thought we coined it? The fact that we would never dare do such a thing for fear of sounding greedy and absurd should indicate how we should feel about the NFL, but we don’t. You also might be asking why Steve is stopping to talk about football. I do so because it matters. I do so because we should have our ears perked at anything that is both so culturally impactful, and that has such a mixed moral track record as the NFL. The Superbowl is two years older than I am. I grew up with it, and never remember not having it. That is exactly the way they want it. Those who market the game want it to be ubiquitous with what it is to be an American, and they have largely succeeded. For better or worse, football, particularly pro football, is the single most powerful form of entertainment in our country right now. As Scott Van Pelt, an ESPN reporter, said (I believe accurately), “Football is not the most popular sport in America; it is the most popular thing in America.” If we use TV ratings and revenues as our gauge for what we think is important, it most certainly is. In just my lifetime watching “the game” has quietly come to mean watching the local NFL football game, and watching “thee’ game” means watching the Superbowl. Some of this popularity is fine. There are values to be learned from the game. We can certainly admire the discipline it takes to play it at a high level; we can enjoy the way it provides for fans and for the teams’ areas a tribal-like affiliation, and of course, all sports can be a fun building block in our sense of identity. The game at its best also provides a bridge for conversation and connection with strangers, neighbors, family, and most often even with fans from other cities. Other things are not so good. It is of course a dangerous and violent sport to passively encourage our young people to play. It is also for those same young people a risky place to have them set their occupational goals and dreams. Moreover, football sanctions and sanitizes a certain cruelty towards one another as an appropriate part of life. However, perhaps the biggest danger football is at present providing is its capacity to delude and distract us from more important social issues, and from collectively making prudent economic decisions in challenging times. See, the NFL knows we love the game and uses that to our disadvantage. If you watch “the big game,” I hope you will enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the night, the hard hits, the pretty colors, and the athletic gifts these men at the peak of their talents will exhibit. But while you were watching I hope you stop to remember that the NFL and its corporate sponsors are perfectly happy that you just might have missed that this Billion Dollar Industry with its $40 million a year Commissioner pays taxes like a non-profit. No, sadly, I am not kidding. Add to that that most of the billion-dollar owners of the teams force the taxpayers of the cities and towns they represent to largely build the stadiums they perform in, and then rent back at pennies on the dollar from the municipalities they are “So proud to represent!” So watch the big game if you like, but watch both as innocently as doves and as wise as the serpents. Steve