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Published: February 12th 2009
Essay on the Super Bowl for writing about sports. It is almost shocking the degree to which I have lost interest in baseball, college basketball and football, passions of my youth. Time, I guess, time. If only to have more of it. What do you think?
Super Bowl as Ritual
Pizza, wings, beer, chips, hot dogs, burgers, commercials, football- these, the components of an American ritual. The Super Bowl is no game, it is a happening. It is a rare moment when America's gears grate to a halt. When the franticness and isolation that seem such a part of America pauses and a collective breath is taken. Granted, that inhale is heavy with grease and cheap beer. But in a land stripped of traditions, the Super bowl is a time when most people, fans or not, come together in community.
America has lost much of our traditions and ritual. Busy at jobs that take us far from home and living great distances from family and old friends, Americans are, more than probably any other group of people in the world, isolated from one another. Children and parents often eat meals separately and often have little bond with their extended family. There are no puberty rituals welcoming girls into womanhood or coming-of-age ceremonies for young men. We don’t celebrate the harvest or worship the moon. These ceremonies took place within the group of friends, families, and neighbors.
Whether our ancestry was of Spanish or Italian, African or Mexican descent, the traditions we all come from are those of community. Even those such as myself whose roots can't be traced back any further than the original settlers, have a history of communal living. Barn raisings, square dances, and feasts all dotted the calendar of the original European settlers. Which is to say nothing of the harvest celebrations and festivals of the original occupants of this country, the Native Americans.
The gathering of people rarely occurs spontaneously. Daily lives are almost by definition scheduled; it seems the rare person who can accomplish much without planning. Work takes time, so does preparing and eating food, and after attending to one's interpersonal relationships, there is often little time for leisure. This seems true of all people, Native Americans, settlers, and us. So as a way of creating times when everything else will be set aside for celebration, cultures developed ceremonies that dotted the calendar. These holidays could be expected, but perhaps more importantly, these holidays could be looked forward to.
Residing in a country composed of people from everywhere in the world, and often living in sub-cultures that have little connection to the American mainstream, many Americans feel disconnected from those around them. Unlike, say, Italians who are mostly Catholic and generally share both recent and ancient history, America has little common history and few shared myths. Often I ask myself, What is it we share with one another? In the supermarket, what do I have to talk about with another person? There is always the weather which, being weather, is never what we want it to be. There are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on the cover of magazines at the end of the check out line. There is our president and the wars we seem forever engaged in. There are news stories, usually disconcerting, and economic predictions, now usually dire.
But there are also, on display in front of the store, the accessories of the upcoming holiday. We share these celebrations and can discuss them with strangers free of depression. Christmas lights, jack-o-lanterns, nativity scenes with baby Jesus, green St. Patrick's Day hats, valentines hearts, alternate sitting on the front display. But they are also all parts of celebrations that give us a shared purpose into the near future. I would rather, for example, talk to the man behind me in the checkout line about his Easter plans than I would his thoughts on the looming economic crisis.
The Super Bowl falls under the same category of event as the older, usually Christian holidays. In the front of the supermarket there are huge stacks of soda, mounds of chips and signs for deals on pizza delivery. Salsa, hot dogs, the pre-cut vegetable platters with tasteless white dip and cases upon cases of beer. Weeks before the event, you must walk past these symbols of the Super Bowl. And then once in the store, other advertisements abound. I am not denouncing capitalism's appropriation of the Super Bowl, nor its appropriation of other holidays. I know where that discussion goes and I don't want to go down that route. I would rather comment on the effect of an annual ceremony on the collective unconscious of a people.
Whether a football fan or not, there is the expectation that you will have watched the game, or at least know the result. At work the following Monday, the Super Bowl is usually the topic of discussion. There is enough built into the spectacle so that everyone is entertained. My mom watched, she said, to see Bruce Springsteen. Others I know watched just to see the commercials. Having something in common, to talk about and connect over, is no small thing. These shared experiences are what keep society together. So rather than being merely an event that one may feel pressure to have a party for, the Super Bowl is an occasion for collective celebration.
Now a few years removed from seriously following the NFL, I watch the Super Bowl more for the sake of celebration and connection than for a rooting interest. Last year was different. Being a lifelong Giants fan and having to suffer through quarterbacks such as Kent Graham, Dave Brown, and Danny Kanell, I had little reason to expect to see the Giants win the Super Bowl. I watched the game at a friend's apartment. He had taken out the trash that usually littered the floor, but the bathrooms and the kitchen sink were still smeared with green slime and stunk. In his living room there were about twenty friends. There were a few people that I didn't know and I we introduced ourselves. All were Giants fans. No one expected much. But when the Giants made their improbable fourth quarter drive, the energy of the crowded, dirty room focused on the television. And when the Giants capped off their run with a deep touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, the room exploded. Drunken cheers were heard from apartments in the same complex and a house across the road. My Dad called me. He said that he hadn't wanted to watch the game alone, so he had called two people with whom he had previously kayaked and invited them to watch with him at a bar. This was during the time when my parents had just separated. And it was one of the first times since he had been married that he hung out with friends.
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