Super Bowls are as much about what happens off the field as what happens on. In an era of media demassification, when everyone has his favorite blog or Internet chat forum, the Super Bowl is one of the last events that nearly everyone watches, at least on some level. And discusses the next day at work (or in their favorite Internet chat forum. Or on their blog, come to think of it…)
What happens off the field can tells us much about the state of our shared culture. You can call it “pop culture,” but today, all of American culture is pop culture. For a start, compare the most recent halftime performers — The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, and last night, Beyoncé, with some of the performers at the first Super Bowls: Carol Channing, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Charley Pride, Mercer Ellington (Duke’s son), Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt. Those early performers were grown-ups; today’s are perpetual adolescents.
Back in the mid-1970s, when each Super Bowl seemed to alternate between low-scoring ball control snoozers and lopsided mismatched blowouts, someone once quipped something along the lines of, “Let’s finally have a Super Bowl the pre-game show would be proud of.”*
The competitive nature of most recent Super Bowls inverts that formula: given the quality of the play on the field last night, it would be nice to finally see a pop culture that lived up to game on the field.
Whatever caused the interminable half-hour power outage, it will serve as countless metaphors for writers looking to place yesterday’s game into perspective. My initial take, immediately after the game concluded, is how utterly exhausted today’s pop culture feels. The power’s out; the electrical bill has come due; nihilism’s dark shroud has descended upon America’s pop culture.
But cultural trends often marinate for a long period before bubbling to the top; much of what we saw last night was the result of decades of cultural stagnation or regression.
During the pregame show, I saw 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s adopted mother complaining about the recent Drudge-linked article by AOL sportswriter David Whitley on her son’s body of green ink. She complained about how unfair this sportswriter was, given what a nice young man her son is, and all that he’s accomplished. But I was reminded of Jonah Goldberg’s observation that while people always say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, until actually reading the book, the cover is the clearest indication of the author’s intent. If Kaepernick is attempting to push back against 500 years or so of conventional wisdom that tattoos are déclassé and reflect an obsession with nostalgie de la boue, that seems a rather curious decision for a player whose position as QB makes him the most visible member of his team.
Not to mention how worn-out the idea is. I remember when tattoos went from being the province of middle-aged men who had survived World War II and picked up a tat on the night before they hit the beach in Normandy, and began to be worn on the arms (or butts, in Cher’s case) of “transgressive” pop stars. That was in the late ’70s and early 1980s, thirty years ago.
Almost 50 years ago, when Henry Luce was phasing out his day-to-day involvement in Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Fortune, the magazine empire he founded, Time magazine decided to echo the words of Friedrich Nietzsche from 1882, and asked “Is God Dead?” Given that Luce’s parents were Christian missionaries to China at the start of the 20th century, this is a particularly rich question, one that would foreshadow both the American culture’s atomization at the close of the 1960s, and Time magazine’s increasing alienation from its subscriber base.
But if God still had a faint pulse left in 1966, Sports Illustrated seemed determined to finish Him off this past week, as Andrew Klavan wrote yesterday, linking to SI’s cover story — a cover that featured Ray Lewis arising from the sea, hands placed together in prayer, and the above-the-mast-headline, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?”
Organized prayer is made to sound like a conspiracy. Statements like “Football corrupts its fans” are thrown out without any proof whatsoever. And then there’s the fourth rate theology: “The Bible is clear that [God] preferred the loser.” Mr. Oppenheimer has a PHD in American religious history so really, he might want to read the Bible sometime.
Well, I could go on, but why bother? I’ve chronicled SI’s Lord-o-phobia before. And Oppenheimer is entitled to his shallow opinion. My point is only that it’s not journalism, or interesting, or even vaguely worth reading. I would love to read a well-reported, balanced article about the problems of mixing faith and sports as I would be interested in intelligent debate about Title IX and whether the damage it does to boys’ sports outweighs whatever good it does, if any, for girls. But you will never find that in SI today.
All you get here are leftists telling leftists how to think leftily about leftism. Which is a waste of everyone’s time. Especially when what you’re trying to do is find out about your favorite sport.
Screw em. Sports Illustrated officially stinks now. Cancel my subscription.
Of course, SI has been politicized for some years now, as every sportswriter seems determined to be a wannabe political pundit, determined to destroy any sense of what Jay Nordlinger of National Review calls “safe zones — i.e., spheres free of partisan politics.”