The NFL has made it to the ripe old age of 100. The same can be said for only a tiny clutch of its former players. Notwithstanding the league’s PR efforts, it’s a century of increasingly violent gridiron combat, unsafe at any speed. The game’s heroes are ever more likely to donate their brains to science rather than their jerseys to the Hall of Fame in Canton.
The final gladiatorial contest of each year is marked grandly with Roman numerals that bespeak imperial ambition. Last Sunday’s spectacle was Super Bowl LIV. That’s 54 in Arabic (see below) numerals—about the average life expectancy of an NFL combatant.
The Super Bowl will not make it to M, nor will the would-be thousand-year Reich that hosts it, the United States of America. Even Super Bowl C (which executives at Coca-Cola are probably already salivating over) would be past this most bizarre of shows’ expiration date.
The location chosen for the latest Phootball Phantasmagoria heightened—though only metaphorically—its lack of sustainability. Super Bowl LIV was staged at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, an ironic bit of branding since the rock it sits on isn’t hard. Miami limestone is porous and will not hold back the salt water soon to be rising up through terra-not-so-firma. This coliseum is but a few feet above sea level and within a couple of decades tidal flooding will make the venue more fit for Roman-style naval entertainments than the turf wars of American football.
As seas rise so does the temperature of the ever-more elaborate ritual of Super Sunday: the fireworks, the flyovers, and the pyrotechnics of the half-time show. Whether running in with the game ball or hymning American values (money, sex, violence) behind one nearly-naked entertainer or another, the kids drafted into service for the nation’s holiest of ceremonies may—if they avoid playing football—live long enough to see America’s great patriotic game literally go under.
Still reeling from their own 51-49 defeat in the Senate Witness Bowl after Adam Schiff’s 83-yard field goal attempt off of Nancy Pelosi’s hold came up short, Democrats had to endure the humiliation of FOX presenting the holy rites.
The liturgy now begins with the so-called Super Bowl presidential interview, a staple since the Obama Years. Early in his tenure in the White House, the “interview” was an occasion for brewpub bonhomie and manly talk about the game.
That changed in 2014. The most memorable thing about that Super Sunday was not the football (a blowout win for the Seahawks over the Broncos), but the blindsiding of Barack by Bill O’Reilly well before kick-off. There was no stripe-shirted referee on the scene to throw the flag when the since-defrocked FOX Free Safety targeted the fleet Commander-in-Chief, going helmet-to-helmet on healthcare and Benghazi. Since then, the “interview” doesn’t bother to hide its identity as political pitch, as cloying and murky as Coca Cola.
This year’s propagandistic warm-up set new standards in smarm. “Nothing is more American than the Super Bowl,” intoned a devout female voice as the FOX camera zoomed in on Hard Rock Stadium then tele-transported us just up the Florida coast to Mar-a-Lago (also destined for much-deserved immersion treatment from the covering seas) and back in time to the previous evening.
From the sunlit din of the stadium we found ourselves in the somber dimness of Trump’s pretentiously paneled study. The introit was sung in choirboy falsetto by Nuncio Sean Hannity who quickly assumed a servile stance: “Mr. President, obvious question …” Cued by his liege’s cadence, Hannity snapped one limp inflate-gate pigskin after another up to the tiny presidential hands nestled between the FOX Newsman’s muscled butt cheeks. Quarterback Trump then lobbed these balls into the rabid MAGA airwaves.
These calisthenics concluded with the Center asking his QB what he loved about sports. Clichés came quick on the heel spurs of lies: it was time for Trump to get philosophical. “You have winners, you have champions who you expect to see that final play … you have people that you expect more out of, and often times they produce.” He turned next to the underdog. It was a moment—a 4th and 8 just outside of field goal range with time ticking down – that called for grand rhetoric, uplifting words about the indomitable American spirit, the outsider, the little guy rising to the occasion. “Then you have people, you don’t even expect they’re going to do it.” He paused, gathering his limited breath and even more limited mental powers, both severely taxed in this final drive to the interview’s goal line: “And often times they don’t,” he concluded, kicking life’s losers as they lay sprawled before him. No yellow flag for unsportsmanlike conduct brightened the Mar-a-Lago Man Cave. The Fox News pre-game MVP went to Trump: Most Vicious President!
Even if the order of service began with a legacy matchup of two has-been white guys in compromising positions, the defenders of diversity would now get possession.
First on the field was the powerful gospel singer Yolanda Adams, her voice soaring far above the amber grain and purple mountains of “America the Beautiful” while she stood planted on top of a white platform shaped like a football. That she had been a frequent musical guest of the Obama White House must have been a black eye to Trump and his team.
But the ear came in for greater abuse, as Adams, abetted by her arrangers, dismantled Berlin’s famous World War I propaganda piece. Her flights of fancy fueled by polluting after-market harmonies, Adams turned butt to the anthem’s melody and Berlin’s itinerary of chords, like so many rest stops on the Interstate, too far below to be seen or heard as the Lear-Jet vocals did their acrobatics in the spacious skies. No martial crash of cymbal and saber, no cannon roar of brass, could be heard from the field below, as Adams’ voice was lofted still farther up towards the stratosphere by a key change and pacific updrafts of a harp—a harp! So far gone into the wild blue yonder was Adams that a white-clad kiddy choir had to enter the fray and orient things earthward with a forthright rendition of the hackneyed melody Berlin had penned in the war year of 1918.
Also in vestal white was Demi Lovato for the marquee task of performing that repurposed drinking song, the Anacreontic Ode, that has for a century and some served as this country’s National Anthem. The arrangers of this lurching tune must have been drunk—on booze, on self-regard, or both. Like swamp funk, the sonorities seemed to drift over from Mar-a-Lago, treacly and tasteless. To the words the “dawn’s early light” the tinkling of bells was heard at Hard Rock Stadium. Ten seconds into this two-minute epic of schlock, one yearned for the covering fire of the flyover.
No one took a knee, though if any sonic attack could have forced one to prostrate oneself and pray to the porcelain god it was this dizzyingly awful Star-Spangled Banner—the musical equivalent of malt liquor.
Kansas City Chief Head Coach Andy Reid gamely tried to sing along to both pre-game hymns but his efforts only drew attention to the futility of that endeavor, and to the over-the-top absurdity of the musical settings and their delivery. Reid’s lip service did get results: God shed his Grace on the Chiefs.
Much was made about the “inclusivity” of this year’s half-time show: for the first time two Latinas headlined. One of them, Shakira, brought Lebanese heritage into the deal as well. Her joyful ululations with tongue flickering at the mike and into the cameras echoed from the Middle East. Zainab Mudallal informed us in the Washington Post that this ecstatic vocalization is called zaghrouta, and even if Shakira didn’t do it well, this “nod to her Lebanese roots” was refreshing. The Orientalized shawms serpentined and seduced against the dance-till-you drop electro beat, and got Shakira to shimmying and shaking in her red sequined belly dancing. It was about as culturally sensitive as a drone strike. As if American invasions and assassinations weren’t enough to radicalize large swaths of the world, the Super Bowl pours kerosene on the fires of alienation.
Jennifer Lopez appeared in assless chaps fitted with studs and zippers. The (apparently) bare skin of her inner thighs drew the eye to the black leather thong at the center of it all. She stroked herself and spread her legs for the world, offered her rear up for inspection. Libidos ignited, she shed the leather for a silver body suit with more titillating gaps than demure coverage: zone defense by Versace. Lopez slithered up a stripper’s pole and clenched it with her thighs, getting horizontal in midair and spinning in ecstasy as she was pawed by the male dancers below.
“Let’s Get Loud” she lip-synched. All obeyed, including the show’s troupe of children. As the 12-minute frenzy reached its orgasmic, Roman candle spouting climax, Lopez wrapped herself in a feather boa flag as more pre-pubescent girls in white leotards appeared and obediently did their FOXy dance moves, as Lopez instructed them to “make a life a party, make it hot.”
All this was hailed as an advance for diversity: America the Land of Opportunity for selling the body and degrading women, two sides of the same greenback. At one point the riotous choreography put kids in stylized cages, a tableau meant to be a pointed critic of Trump’s border atrocities. But the more apparent message was that these were fetish cages of objectification: girls imprisoned by sex. This Super Bowl set new standards for pornographic patriotism.
Even more obscene was the outrageous waste of it all. The kilowatts alone expended for the spectacle would have lighted black-out ravaged Puerto Rico, birthplace of Lopez’s parents, for months. The Super Bowl smudge of the rockets’ red glare against the night sky above Miami could probably be seen in San Juan.
Yet this display was deemed a big win for women of color.
A more thoughtful, imaginative, and truth-seeking dramaturg of diversity would have invited Gaylene Crouser of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and executive director of the Kansas City Indian Center to take a hatchet to a loathsome and insulting arrow-headed Chiefs helmet in a symbolic catharsis enacted before the nation and the world.
Like the Super Bowl, I was born in in 1965. But being LIV-years-old isn’t what made me feel tired and decrepit this Sunday evening just gone. What’s wearing me down and aging America at a dizzying rate is that each edition of this sprawling orgy of triumphalist self-gratification is full of lifetimes of stupidity and humiliation.
Only a flood will heal the wounds.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)