Saturday, January 31, 2004

More Guacamole, Dammit
I do not have a rooting interest in the Super Bowl tomorrow. Even when the Packers aren't playing, I have occasionally rooted, but generally in the negative--against teams like the St. Louis Rams or Dallas Cowboys. This year, I don't particularly care whether New England or Carolina wins it (although if I had to make a prediction, I would take the Patriots, and by something like 24-17). Of course, I will be watching the game--because it's the law. Isn't it?

The Super Bowl is unusual in that we celebrate it by standing outside of ourselves to observe ourselves celebrating. Nearly every pop-culture commentator finds it hard to take the whole thing seriously--and then writes a story about how hard it is to take the whole thing seriously. We all talk about the trivia involved in watching the game, like how many tons of guacamole will be eaten nationwide. We react to the commercials, and then read news stories about how people reacted to the commercials. (The new NFL Network on cable will repeat all of the in-game commercials following the game, in case anybody wants to see them again.) We know that the hoopla surrounding the game is mostly ludicrous, but we can't help ourselves.

Well, me neither. Here's my list of Super Bowl observations--four of them, one for each quarter of the game:

1. Super Sunday is the least-interesting weekend of the NFL playoffs--the three previous playoff weekends are much more compelling every single year. It certainly was true this year, with Green Bay's overtime win over Seattle and the titanic slugfest between Tennessee and Baltimore on the first weekend and the Packers/Eagles and Rams/Panthers classics on the second. Once we're down to two teams, available storylines are magnified by the fact that they're the only storylines there are to work with. Magnified, yes. More interesting, no.

2. There is utterly no need to watch the Super Bowl pregame show. Every year, the pregame shows have too little football for the serious fan and too much football for the casual fan. This year's pregame show will feature a tribute to NASA, since the game is in Houston and the Columbia disaster was a year ago tomorrow. Such tributes are always a dicey proposition--sometimes they work, like U2's spectacular 9/11 tribute two years ago, but more often, they're clunky and maudlin. Bottom line: Anybody who can afford to watch the entire pregame show (four hours' worth this year) has entirely too much time on their hands. Even when Green Bay was in the big game in 1997 and 1998, we didn't turn the game on until about an hour before kickoff.

3. When you're hip, you don't have to call attention to yourself--you just are, and everybody can tell. The Super Bowl halftime show does everything but put up a graphic on-screen that says, "Hipness now taking place." This year's headliners, Janet Jackson and P. Diddy, are just far enough removed from their cultural peaks to seem vaguely uncool. The ubiquitous Kid Rock and Nelly are also on the bill, as well as a "secret performer." Since MTV is producing the show, the secret performer will likely be somebody people over the age of 22 have never heard of.

4. The game is on CBS, which means that once it begins, the focus of the broadcast will be largely on football--which is a good thing. Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms are the most watchable of the major play-by-play teams, lacking the bombastic befuddlement of John Madden (who should think about retiring) on ABC or the self-referential archness of Joe Buck and company on Fox. Because the game is not on ABC, we won't be subjected to crossovers from ESPN's crew, either. ESPN's NFL shows were once must viewing for the serious fan--now they're almost completely unwatchable, riddled with ex-jocks who have no business near a TV studio generating far more heat than light. This year at the Super Bowl, ESPN has allowed fans to watch while the analysts tape their bits for Sportscenter, thus adding a chorus of drunken hooting to the on-set bickering.

All that said, however, professional football remains my favorite sport, warts and all. It's true even though the NFL is the most uptight and corporate of all pro leagues, and even though football is, as George Will once termed it, "violence interrupted by committee meetings." The rituals of game day, the power and speed of football, the passion it incites, and its links to history, both the history of the game and the personal histories of each fan watching, are unmatched by any other sport. Indeed, the worst thing about the Super Bowl is that it's the last game until next August, when the season begins anew.

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