The lights half-out in the Superdome, the Super Bowl resembled the long-burst American housing bubble, the one, like football, that was supposed to last forever, the one with the limitless future. There stood the great American sporting spectacle, with its too-big soft-core halftime show, on the phone with Entergy, reporting an outage. The football bubble had burst, ironically, in a dome, the sum no longer worth its value in size, oversaturated and bloated, even (or especially) with Beyonce and her wind machine.
The Super Bowl has, of course, been trending this way for years, with its overpriced ad buys ($4 million for 30 seconds) and its obviousness: from corporate pandering to the military (check, Oprah) to the false nostalgia of America (check, though someone should've fact-checked the negative effect Paul Harvey's pro-business, deregulation political views and radio influence actually had on those rustic farmers the Dodge Ram commercial glorified with his legendary, far-away voice) to the ragged commercial cliché (check, Taco Bell, old people really are cool, after all!).
Once clever, now obvious, the Super Bowl has outlived its time. It is Fonzie wearing a leather jacket and a pair of water skis. The corporate show has pumped more helium into the tent, inflating its mythology in a flimsy attempt to mask grimmer realities. It is Deion Sanders in pregame comments on the house organ NFL Network essentially insinuating that the 4,000 former players suing the league over benefits, injuries and head trauma are trying to extract more money from the league in a sort of insurance-style scam. Or take the "NFL Evolution" commercials suggesting the league has always been committed to safety -- then, now and tomorrow -- even though three players in the ad, Mel Gray, Rick Upchurch and the late Ollie Matson, are part of the litigating 4,000. Or take commissioner Roger Goodell, pandering to parents (and insurers and Congress) with his hollow safety message, with a 9-year-old girl in tow as a prop.
The NFL in all of its contradictions was on display during its red carpet event, from its safety paradox to the shading of outgoing star Ray Lewis. Goodell, once the commissioner who wantonly handed out player conduct suspensions to protect the image of the league, had spent the last six weeks touting the virtues of Lewis, hugging him on the field, burnishing him as the Unspoken that had found its way back to the light.
The real light, though, was provided by a courageous woman named Cindy Lollar-Owens, aunt of Richard Lollar, one of two men murdered 13 years ago. Ray Lewis, football hero, was charged in the double murder and ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice. For the past two weeks, Goodell decided that Lewis (whose white suit, the one he wore the night of the murders, has never been found) should represent the face of his business and the league. For years before this month's calls to the families, the press played along cozily as though there was no shadow (or that the mere mention of that night in Atlanta provided either proper journalistic cover or corporate transparency). But Lollar-Owens offered a reminder that although football may be fun and games and gladiators, two people are still dead, two fathers are still gone, and money and fame -- Lewis paid an undisclosed amount to the victims' families in multimillion-dollar civil suits -- as much as God, offered Lewis the redemption he now claims.
As the Super Bowl grew into an iconic piece of America, its spectacle saved the event from the anticlimax on the field. The 1980s were notorious for bad games with terrific commercials. The Super Bowl became a tradition, a much-needed excuse to throw a party, to lighten up, to actually talk to neighbors, to relate. Doug Williams threw for four touchdowns in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII and no one outside of Washington and Denver cared that the game was over. The 1989 49ers put a choke hold on the Broncos just as the Redskins and Giants had in previous years, but it didn't matter. The room was full. The chatter was loud. The world of 250 channels hadn't yet arrived and on Monday, everyone came to work talking about the same thing.
That was nearly a quarter-century ago. Now the Super Bowl is dead, swallowed whole by its total unoriginality. It offers nothing new or innovative.
Yet the game being played on Super Bowl Sunday is very much alive. The effect of the off-field extravagance was easily felt. The first halves of Super Bowls, with incessant commercial breaks, are atrocious. The game has no flow or rhythm, broken by advertising because the real game, the advertising money game, is being played (and poorly) on Madison Avenue.
Once halftime ended, however, and the volume of ad buys had relinquished the stage, all that was left was a great football game. This has been the case for the last half-decade, during which the second halves of the Super Bowl (the 2009 Arizona-Pittsburgh championship comes to mind) have been some of the best championship football the showcase has ever produced. Competition and drama returned to save the sport from being a slovenly American spectacle, and both Baltimore and San Francisco suddenly played as if a championship was stake, beautifully uninterrupted. There was pressure to win and pressure not to lose.
Throughout the final riveting quarter, tension rested on whether the 49ers could complete their marathoner's comeback kick. Still the question grew about the future of Goodell's game, whether in the future the public will watch a game of speed and skill and strategy without the kill shots of helmet-to-helmet slaughter. At one point late in the game, Ray Rice, the battering ram as running back, pointed at his helmet after taking yet another direct hit, obviously needing a reminder from the referees that running backs can be hit in the helmet because they so often lead with their heads. The exchange served as another reminder that unless the public will accept a game where defenders wrap up players and play is halted once a definitive grasp is made -- the way tackling was once taught -- football is doomed.
The Ravens won their championship and the 49ers lost a title that was within their grasp. The networks maintain their unspoken prohibition on criticizing coaches, but as much as the pressure of the Super Bowl might have affected the young Colin Kaepernick, it shrunk 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh like a wool sweater in the dryer. Seven yards from a title with (supposedly) the most electrifying offense since the single wing, Harbaugh did not run the football. He did not attempt to misdirect the Ravens. He did not even call his final timeout on offense. He panicked and called two doomed fade routs, turning Kaepernick into a drop-back passer with no chance. Petulant in defeat, he was beaten not only by his brother on the other side of the field, but also by the pressure of competition.
The largesse has killed the event, regardless of how much money it generates, but the game underneath, when allowed to peek out from the pyrotechnics and the overdone corporate overlays still has tremendous value. The bubble has already burst, not because people don't care but because the Super Bowl has grown so large and so obese that its framers won't realize that less is more. The game on the field hasn't come first for decades and likely never will again.