We are arriving at a moment here, an American moment, as Super Bowl Week starts today in an unusual and stripped-down way.
No Media Day. This is a day which started as an opportunity for reporters to spend an hour with players but that has since morphed into something of an event. At first, MTV VJs asked off-the-wall, entertaining questions and then comedians started to come, and then late night talk shows and some guy in a Superman outfit or a chicken suit or whatever. Eventually, the whole thing wasn’t called Media Day anymore at all, but instead Super Bowl Opening Night, Powered by Bolt 24.
The commercials. It’s hard to know what to expect during the game now and whether we’ll be introduced to modern Wassuuup guys or Budweiser frogs, as some of the biggest corporate players — including Budweiser — have decided to rethink their ad buys out of COVID necessity.
The crowd. Just 22,000 will be allowed in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. A third of them will be health workers. It’s the smallest crowd ever, even counting the first Super Bowl, which back in 1967 was called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game.
Before things were Super. And maybe in these ways, they aren’t super this week either. Instead, on Sunday we get Tampa Bay vs. Kansas City, Tom Brady vs. Patrick Mahomes.
This week, this year, is a testimony to football in America. The Super Bowl is Americana, having grown over 55 years into something that matters deeply to the USA. In a lot of ways, it has mirrored the country, growing from nuts and bolts into something big and fun and powerful. Everything surrounding the Super Bowl is about hard work, toughness, getting knocked down and getting back up. It’s about wild parties and celebration and all the pluses and minuses of massive, gaudy, consumption. It might as well be its own military parade or Fourth of July celebration.
And despite all the COVID and Capitol craziness, the NFL has seen its way through with amazing success, landing at a particularly appealing football game. Brady, the greatest of all time, against Mahomes, the greatest of this time.
Unlike the NBA — which exposed itself with low ratings despite its most marketable aspects, LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, winning the championship — the NFL has pushed through.
I actually can’t wait to see the game. Mahomes is going to need this win. Yes, he has already won a Super Bowl. But you can’t drop the baton in such a clear baton-passing moment. If Brady wins this one at age 43 over a kid in his prime, then that kid will never live it down. The best Mahomes will be able to do after that is compete for second greatest of all time.
But the hype is on football now.
The Super Bowl has grown into our biggest American sports moment. That’s nothing new this year, of course. But while this game doesn’t quite have the same feeling as the World Series after Sept. 11 — everyone certainly isn’t together on the same page as we were back then — it does have that We’re Still Standing feel to it.
And I’m not really sure if it carries the deep, emotional meaning that baseball does, but this game at this time reminds me of the James Earl Jones speech in Field of Dreams.
“America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game. It’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good. And it could be again. Oh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.’’
Well, people won’t literally come to the Super Bowl this year, or even Super Bowl Week. But at least they will watch.
I was at a Super Bowl in New Orleans once, and a few days before the game there was a massive Mardi Gras-like scene complete with celebrities and topless women on balconies dropping plastic colored beads, which seemed to be as valuable as gold to everyone — including me — in the mosh on Bourbon Street below. Just my luck: If I remember, I caught mine from Drew Carey.
So that’s not what we get this week. The Chiefs aren’t even going to arrive until a few days before the game.
We’ve been conditioned to believe that all that other stuff is necessary. It is all definitely fun and a party. But in the end, it’s just a meaningless bacchanal of consumption, really. At the heart of it is still football.
At least that’s what I think anyway. I guess we’ll just have to wait and find out if the Super Bowl can still survive, if it stands alone as a great game or it has softened up into something that requires all those other things.
I think it’ll do just fine. And I’ll take Kansas City and Mahomes, 30-27, with fireworks.