There will be no Roman numeral to denote this Sunday’s great annual rite. Instead of the classical character system — used in the past to designate the passage of a year of mayhem and broken bones, culminating in this final extravaganza of brutality — the last vestige of Western civilization will be extinguished. Instead, a big “50” will grace flat-screens all over the nation. A chiseled “L” just might be misconstrued, and that just won’t do; there will be no room for bad puns or snicker-evoking double entendres here.
The festivities of Super Bowl 50 begin with the arrival of the last two squads left standing after four weeks of nonstop attempted decapitations. These teams and their adulatory faithful will flock to the great Mecca of American ostentations and freedom on San Francisco Bay to feast on an array of free concerts, photo opportunities with the Vince Lombardi Trophy, walks around Market Street’s Super Bowl City with food, video football, dancing, bike riding, and a chance to secure a reservation for celebrity Chef Michael Mina’s restaurant. Those lucky enough to eat at that establishment can feel good knowing that a percentage of the price for $200 and up seating will go to the NFL Foundation, which has a charity for CTE injuries.
San Francisco’s Super Bowl 50 will have a halftime show by Coldplay, the Clydesdale horses, and Pepsi, Budweiser, and Taco Bell commercials. It will be piped into tents in Afghanistan, ships on the Straits of Oman, turrets on the 49th parallel in Korea, and the weightlessness of the International Space Station. It will also have a third of the country’s population watching — but this year it won’t have me.
Born into a football family
I do not come to this decision lightly: I was born into a football family. My father was an All American on the University of Pennsylvania football team in the 1930s, back when it was a national powerhouse. Years later, after the war, he would take his favorite daughter to Franklin Field to watch the Eagles. I’m told I saw Chuck Bednarick stand triumphantly over the unconscious Frank Gifford.
As a cheerleader in high school, I attended every game. My nephews all lettered in high school, and one went on to become a star cornerback for a division AA team in college. Activities for fall Sundays were all scheduled around Eagles games. The weeks the Eagles played on Monday or Thursday night, the same applied — when I ate, where I went, how long I could stay, were all based on the premise that I could not miss a game.
Football was more than a game. It was a metaphor for life in America. Unfortunately, it still is.
A shifting metaphor
The frontier values of perseverance through adversity served this country well. They enabled us to pave the wilderness, cross the Great Plains, and defeat all enemies, foreign and domestic. I am not here to criticize the actions or results. I have benefited from both. But somewhere along the way, the rules, both at the stadiums and in the boardrooms, have changed.
Once upon a time, we all started on an equal playing field and, even with severe penalties, everyone could eke out the yardage needed for a first down. With a good ground game you could slug it out to the goalpost. But we all know now that the end zone is out of reach for most players and that they have no chance to defend against an end run by the team carrying the ball.
Football as an analogy for hard work, endurance, and determination is a joke now. It now signifies the use of a driving force, doing anything for a gain. Hitting below the waist — the old benchmark for unsportsmanlike play — is minor compared to helmet-to-helmet offensive maneuvers designed specifically to paralyze. Maybe you lose some yardage, but listen to the crowd cheer the appearance of the little motorized cart that hauls off the player you just maimed. Pay a fine and keep your millions, while many lose their jobs and savings. That’s the new American way. Some sporting analogy, huh?
The anything-goes attitudes of today’s game are centered around the gold carrot dangling before the professional annihilator’s face. Tales abound about owners who offer seven-figure incentives for the players who perform the most hits, needed or not, in a championship game. These attitudes, and incentives, are echoed in the money-movers’ markets.
The ’70s PBS series I, Claudius showed the corruption of both a royal Roman family and the society they ruled. Inside the palace, family members plotted against each other, killing off wives and brothers, in their quest for the throne. The ringleader was the materfamilias of the royal brood, Livia, whose favorite pastime was watching gladiators fight.
One particular scene stays with me now. As most of Rome had gathered in the Coliseum for an epic match, Livia spoke to her gladiators. Sneering at her well-paid slaves, she reminded them of the debt owed her for their training and fame. She told them to listen to the roar of the crowd and never to forget why they were there on that day. “I want my money’s worth,” she said. “I don’t want my family watching two grown men pussyfooting ’round each other for half an hour before one of them lands a real blow — there’s been too much of that in the past.”
She’d make a great NFL coach.