The Super Duper, Endless Stupor Bowl
A lifetime Jets fan, longtime fantasy commissioner, and exhausted American explains his waning interest in America's Game
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One of my earliest childhood memories was watching the pitiful Jets on our 80’s console TV with my dad. It looked something like this:
I had no concept of the sport, the rules, or the systems that created it…for me it was a game of colors (we were the green guys) and inexplicable moments of screaming at our TV, which was generally fun. We had a few Super Bowl parties that rivaled or even exceeded our Easter revelry, and a small piece of me thinks some of my love of media and appreciation for advertising comes from the early fanfare of the Super Bowl.
And what’s not to like? There’s drama, there’s athletic competition, there’s musical entertainment, and every company with the means to try and impress you is putting their A-Team in this week. If July 4th is America’s birthday party, The Super Bowl is America’s homecoming dance.
This was not always the case, football was long considered a secondary sport behind the post-war glow of lazy, momentarily exciting baseball. “America’s Pastime” was the first truly nationalized sport in America, and it dominated the public interest for decades in the 40’s-60’s. Radio, a new-ish consumer medium, hastened the sport’s popularity, and amazingly the broadcast format pioneered back then has changed very little in almost 100 years.
But as televisions started displacing radios in the living room, baseball was exposed as a slow, mostly actionless slog played by dumpy men with an impossible-to-track ball. Football was comparably violent and fast paced with a much larger, slower ball to follow; even the most mundane play could turn into a spectacular catch, sprint, interception, or tackle.
And if baseball was to be played in the slow hot scorch of midsummer when people tended to be outside (not a ton of a/c back then), football opted to play their game into the cold frost of winter while people were at home looking for something to do or watch.
In 1967 the second Super Bowl was played in Green Bay, where the wind chill temperatures were in the -30s. It was considered so unspectacular at the time there’s little archival footage of the game itself, but the moniker “The Ice Bowl” made for national headlines and NFL legend status. It sounded like there were superhumans slamming into each other in an iced-over stadium with a pig carcass flying through the air, infinitely more exciting than the occasional nip that accompanies the “Fall Classic.”
The development of TV as a national pastime and football as a Sunday staple on that medium cannot be understated, but even that took time to develop. CBS didn’t think to archive the game in 1967, and in 1968 a blow out game between the NY Jets and the Oakland Raiders would be preempted by the NBC Movie of the Week, Heidi. So when 7pm rolled around and Oakland seemed likely to lose, NBC executives made the call to drop the game and switch to the movie.
Oakland scored two touchdowns inside of the final minute to win the game, and the resulting “Heidi Bowl” outrage led to a slew of changes inside TV network and the NFL. The network installed a “Heidi Phone” so that executives could bypass the main NBC switchboard (which got jammed by callers at 6:55pm wondering if they were going to stay on the game), and the NFL insisted all future broadcast contracts would guarantee games would never be preempted in their home markets.
The NFL started as filler content; for Sundays, for winter, and for boys who needed an outlet and structure for their size, strength, and the war-traumatized society that wanted those boys to be more like “men.” By the 1970’s, the lax, heavy drinking and drugging MLB was losing steam while networks were scrambling to rearrange their line ups to accommodate football, sandwiched between the weekly violence and horror of Vietnam. The introduction of Monday Night Football by ABC and the NFL in 1970 was also a stroke of programming brilliance, a move to create a weekly national audience for non-local teams with virtually zero competition. It garnered some of the highest ratings ever for sports at the time.
5 decades later, the NFL is now the unrivaled champion of broadcast television, and sports in general. But like all enormous capitalist machinations, the system can only work through oppression. Oppression leads to wealth, wealth leads to corruption, corruption leads to authoritarianism, racism, and expanded dehumanization. And that’s about where we are right now with the NFL, sadly.
Let’s review how one “makes it” into the NFL. Generally, you will start playing football as a kid. If you show promise, systems exist to scout you and bring you into the NCAA collegiate system, sometimes the clearest path to a good education for a child in poverty. The benefit here is a “free” education, the downside is that the NCAA greatly restricts how those students monetize their own fame, with lots of them not having enough money to eat outside of the training facility (this is starting to change, but decades too little, late imo).
Assuming you manage to avoid catastrophic (or even rote) injury in the 10+ years you’re expected to play the game for free, only the very best amongst your peer group will make it into the NFL (the last number I heard was 2% of college football players wind up playing professionally). Starting salaries are pretty decent if you make it that far, but the average NFL player generally doesn’t last beyond their first contract. Many never even make it into a real game.
The ones who do manage to play do so at their own peril and often at great bodily expense. The movie Any Given Sunday is fantastical at times, but they really nail the lengths that players are willing to sacrifice their bodies for the game. It’s what they’re conditioned to do. It’s why you can suffer cardiac arrest and then be praised as a hero when your reportedly first conscious question is “Did we win?”
The latest study out of BU found 92% of the 400 former NFL players they studied had some form of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated concussions or blows to the head. It’s a violent sport, and violent sports have violent ends. For decades the NFL was able to ignore this unfortunate truth by plucking another corn-fed teenager from Texas and putting him under center on primetime. It took decades to discover that former players were dying younger and more likely to experience mental and physical disability, and decades longer for the NFL to acknowledge some responsibility to those players after the House Judiciary Committee dragged them in.
With all things, it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the societal costs from the capital benefits here. The system always felt at least a little racist: Images of rich, white haired old men bumming around in their Roman Colosseum-esque owners boxes, trading and buying the strongest young (often black) men in the country to run into each other until they can’t walk, think, or function. Hard to ignore how that looks in 2023…squint during an ESPN broadcast and listen to how we talk about these hunks of human musculature; you could imagine similar conversations being had over juleps in 1858.
The flyovers and the color guards that the NFL warmly embraced post 9/11 now feel vaguely threatening and imperialistic. A reminder that this country and this sport is bonded by the blood of our military, and a failure to respect the ultimate import of this silly little sport is anti-patriotic, anti-capitalist, and anti-American. It's why people lost their mind when Colin Kapernick took a knee, and the NFL effectively shut him out of the league.
And curiously, it's also why Nike's stock popped when they signed him to a deal: Even the markets are signaling that they’re tired of being held hostage by the Kabuki morality of a barbaric game.
This cozy tradition between our Armed Forces’ marketing budgets and the NFL only exists for recruitment. If you play college football but can’t make it to the NFL, the Pentagon will gladly find a home for your disappointed, bruised, violent male ego. They regularly spend millions of taxpayer dollars on keeping the NFL humming—our collective exhaustion, horror, and addictions be damned.
Speaking of addiction and football, two points: First, DUI incidents increase by 22% on Super Bowl Sunday, easily making it one of the more dangerous nights on the road. Don’t party and drive.
Secondly, the country has a rapidly growing gambling problem on its hands. Legalized sports betting has been quietly legislated into existence by casino company lobbyists all across the country, and for the first time in history, the Super Bowl is being played in a state where gambling is legal (there is a sports book AT the stadium). Over 16 billion dollars are expected to be wagered this year, nearly doubling last year’s record.
I don’t have the time or energy right now to sidetrack into why gambling generally hurts people and societies that become addicted to it, but just know that a system mathematically balanced to have more losers than winners and then goads the losers to try and win it all back is a foolproof recipe for long term financial suffering.
I hate to be a buzzkill. Seriously. Super Bowl Sunday is a night that I have many fond memories of, from college:
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