Reflections on the American Superbowl, 2020

Once the US sport of football consolidated its position as the national game (supplanting baseball), it assigned itself a distinctive role in the concluding game of the year – the Superbowl. The evening marks a concerted attempted to capture the country in a single night, to represent it to itself, expressing the nation’s pieties, its most venerable truths and aspirations. The Superbowl is never just about the game, it’s about America’s self-ritualisation.

In this year’s extravaganza, the San Francisco 49ers met the Kansas City Chiefs on February 2nd. The event started with the impulse to honour the armed services, which forms part of the decided militarism of the evening. No fewer than four 100-year-old veterans assisted in the coin toss, marking in the process the centenary of the first season of the NFL. The colour guard of serving members of the different branches of the military (minus, to the disappointment of some, of President Trump’s newly declared “Space Force”) presented the flags and solemnly attended as the national anthem was performed from a dais by Demi Lovato.

Shots of players with their right hands covering their hearts provided reassurance that we assemble with due reverence for the nation. No one took a knee, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously did when he was on the 49ers’ roster. A different evening might have honoured him, given that he used to play for one of the teams competing on the field. The America on view had no racial conflicts or injustices to address; rather, the races here cooperate in a team sport with a shared goal of victory where disputes can be settled in rule-bound play. When the song concluded, a flypast of warplanes thundered by.

The country, immersed in political divisiveness in the Trump era, comes together for this event. The endlessly deferred kick off had to wait further still for a choreographed scene in which America’s children rushed the field, dutifully representing diversity, for another feel-good moment. Football embraced the country’s future and invited the future to embrace it in return.

The broadcast is noteworthy for the length and frequency of commercial breaks, the cost of buying a 30-second slot, and the degree of attention paid to advertisements specially produced for the occasion. Part of this speaks to the wide audience captured by the telecast – not all, or even a majority, are actual football fans. But only America, with its worship of commercialism, would consider devoting so much cultural energy to narrativizing product choice. The best ads are afterwards assessed and ranked.

Following a competitive first half, ending in a tied score, the extended half-time show began, led for this instalment by Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. The Hispanic focus was a nod to this year’s venue (which switches year on year) – Miami. This spectacle, now a staple of the entertainment calendar, certainly did not hold back. Some debate has ensued about the appropriateness, given the family audience, of the routines, with others praising the age-defying commitment of the performers and the impact of female agency. Perhaps this represents a conceptual confusion between the notion of being powerful and being empowering. There was, in any case, something incongruous about J.Lo singing about still being “Jenny from the block” while decked in a spectacular outfit worthy of a Vegas stage.

During the broadcast, Fox offered frequent glimpses of billionaire club owners enjoying the game in luxury boxes (along with Rupert Murdoch, owner of the channel, accompanied by an attentive Jerry Hall). Their lofty position, sealed off from the crowd, mirrored their socio-economic status and power, somehow naturalizing inequalities and making them socially acceptable.

The second half saw the 49ers take a solid lead, only for the Chiefs to come back in style against an accomplished defence. They took away the Lombardi trophy, named for the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers. The Chiefs’ head coach, Andy Reid, was a sentimental favourite after years on the sideline without claiming the top prize.

It is easy to make light of the occasion, given its excess and overcharged efforts to overcome America’s contradictions, the way it ritualizes combat, and integrates technology so thoroughly into an athletic contest. But in this period of time there’s also something to be said for an event where we rediscover that there are at least some norms that we don’t feel like violating.

Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey, MRIA, is Director of the Moore Institute for the Humanities and Social Studies at NUI Galway and Professor of English in the School of Humanities. He was Chair of the Irish Humanities Alliance 2014-16.