On the Super Bowl, and the Nature of Culture.

When I was a senior in college, I briefly enrolled in an honors tutorial entitled “What it Means to an American.” It was a 3 person class offered by the history department, and since its subject matter dovetailed beautifully with my German-Music-Anthropology thesis, I decided to give it a try. Our very first class, we were ushered into the professor’s top floor office. He was an old-school, long-tenured sort with a sprawling personal space that spanned half the floor. His office had a cozy loft, a reading nook with matching brocade sofas, and not 1, not 2, but 3 vintage writing desks strewn across the room.

It was no surprise, then, that his first lecture consisted of him droning at the 3 of us in a mind-numbing baritone as we perched nervously on the cushy sofas. We compulsively sipped Earl Grey as he waxed poetic on his vast and varied academic credentials, pausing for breath only once every minute or so. Eventually, after repeatedly assuring us he was the most qualified professor on campus in every measurable way, he waded into the meat of the class: what does it mean to be an American?

I figured, having read the course description and the online syllabus, that we’d be delving straight into political science treatises, constitutional analyses, and historical dissertations. Instead, our professor sat down with his own lukewarm tea and stared each of us in the eye.

“Who can tell me what the most highly celebrated American holiday is, statistically?”

Thanksgiving, we tentatively guessed? Does Christmas count — no? Then it must be the 4th of July.

“None of the above. The most highly celebrated American holiday, statistically, is Super Bowl Sunday.”

I remember being floored. Completely flabbergasted. This was the ritual that all of America came out, en masse, to celebrate? Our best enjoyed American holiday was one defined not by weighty history or shared culture but by sanctioned athletic violence and copious amounts of hot wings?

Super Bowl LI Logo
What is the most celebrated American holiday, you ask? Super Bowl Sunday, of course!

Then again, perhaps that’s not so surprising. In a nation defined by its ideology and beliefs — in freedom, liberty, and justice for all — not by shared ethnicity, rituals, or culture, why not bond through something where the stakes are so low? Why not come together over heavily fried finger foods and contrived team allegiances?

The Super Bowl almost always includes an underdog, the great American hero across all creeds. It usually includes a healthy does of suspense, alongside a heaping helping of patriotism. For those not wholly interested in sportsball of any kind, the pre-game rituals and halftime pageantry appeal to theater nerds and band geeks alike. Plus, for those of us aligned in the great sway of capitalist America, the best commercials of the year offer incentive to tune in whether you like football or not.

Although, I didn’t stay enrolled in his tutorial, I’ll never forget that little tidbit shared by that silver-haired professor. The Super Bowl is our most universal holiday. It’s the thing that, whether we realize it or not, ties many of us together as Americans.

So, I participate. Tonight I made ribs with my roommates, and brought them to a get-together at the apartment downstairs. We drank beer and ate our roast pork alongside deep-fried balls of mac and cheese. We gasped as the New England Patriots — not actually underdogs, but seemingly taking up the mantle tonight — uncharacteristically struggled through minute after painful minute of high-level football. We screamed collectively at the television set, exclaimed over emotional commercials, offered good-natured commentary on Lady Gaga’s half time show. We got to know folks we’d never met before. When politics reared its ugly head we all chuckled, glanced nervously around, and let it rest. This wasn’t the time. This wasn’t the place.

I’ve never been able to decide if I feel good or bad about the fact that the Super Bowl is the event that unites so many of us. I’ve never felt the deep-seated enthusiasm and loyalty towards my sports teams that many others do. Though my family had season tickets to our NFL team growing up, and I actively enjoyed the game as a child, as an adult I have mixed feelings. After living in Europe for a while, sitting an a stadium with hundreds of thousands of fans making patriotic gestures, screaming and yelling and hollering together makes me hugely uncomfortable. I don’t like the tribal loyalties that seem to develop in the pursuit of pure fandom.

Plus, whether we want to admit it or not, the NFL can be a pretty horrible place. It doesn’t adequately look out for the long-term health of its players. It shields perpetrators of domestic violence. It overlooks drug usage, drunk driving convictions, and much more.

Still, there’s something innocently fun in the enjoyment of football. I have a genuine love for sitting on the sectional couch with my family, my mom knee-deep in a romance novel, my father, brother, and I yelling at the screen when the ref makes a bad call. I like the sense of camaraderie, of solidarity as we root for a common goal. I like reveling in a successful victory, when, in the grand scheme of things, the stakes are so low.

There’s something great about this American past time. So, though in the grand scheme of things, it may not be a real holiday, so what? It brings us together, beyond political strife and daily worries. It lets us all, for one day, forget about all the crazy things happening in the world around us and enjoy an innocent, highly suspenseful game, hot wings in hand. It may not be high-brow, but it’s ours. Tomorrow, I’ll go back to contemplating the ways in which we can hold the NFL accountable for its cultural responsibilities, can address many of the Patriots’ ties to our current President, whom so many of us do not support.

For today though? I’m going to bask in the come-from-behind win of the New England Patriots in a damn good game of football. Happy Super Bowl Sunday, y’all.

–S

Day 35: February 5, 2017

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