I guess it’s my own damn fault.
After all, I was the one who pitched Last Best News this review of the sad national theater production known as Super Bowl Sunday.
As we all know by now, the Lombardi Trophy is headed to Broad Street, Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, and to her generous fans. The score was 41 to 33 and the better team won.
I’d written up the Super Bowl once before, but that was a couple decades ahead of the “wardrobe failure,” the pre-Nobel laureate Bob Dylan asking us all to let Chrysler build our next car, and well ahead of the cult that Bill Belichick built. My angle to Ed Kemmick, the editor at LBN, was that, as with all previous NFL seasons and Super Bowls, it’s hard for me to care about the teams, the ads, the odds, the half-time entertainment, or for the play-by-play callers. Still, I knew the dangers of getting sucked in.
Whenever I’m asked, “Who’s your team?” I always reply that I hate all NFL teams equally (which isn’t entirely true, but it can make for some spirited bar talk). The whole, as they say — even in disdain — can be somehow greater than the sum of its parts. And so it is with Super Bowl Sunday, which long ago became its own crazy quilt within the fiber arts of the American social scene. You just can’t pass on a chance to write about hatred on a national scale like that.
Besides, Ed promised to pay in bit-coin.
I don’t know about folks around Billings, but growing up in the Butte-Anaconda area when I did, we just didn’t get a lot of NFL football coverage on the old black-and-white. What did come across were games televised out of today’s National Football Conference North Division, and whoever was playing the Vikings, Packers, Bears, and/or Lions on any given Sunday. There were very few if any Montana boys playing on pro teams of that era. I didn’t have relatives in “The North Country.” There was just never an established connection. Why would I select a “team” then? Why would I now?
I do recall a towering Mike Tilleman visiting my seventh-grade classroom and talking about his budding career in professional football, most recently with Minnesota. Tilleman grew up on the Hi-Line and at the time had just signed with the expansion New Orleans Saints. Looking back on it, that was a very generous gesture by a great defensive lineman, and some loyalty ought to have been sown that day. But no, the seed just didn’t take. Fact is, it could have been Fran Tarkenton and it wouldn’t have made any difference — pro football would never resonate with me.
Today, it’s hard not to feel a bit of blue-collar kinship to the “Black-and-Blue Division.” I also harbor a plebeian admiration for the community-owned Green Bay Packers. Apparently, I’m not alone. For whatever reason, southwest Montana is just loaded with fans of the NFC North teams. Perhaps a growing number of younger people look west to the Seahawks and south to the Denver Broncos. The bad-guy reputation of the Raiders has always been an attraction, which will only grow as the team settles in Las Vegas. While on top, the San Francisco Forty Niners had their day. Who can forget tiny Ismay, Montana, seeking to rename itself “Joe”?
“If we gild it, he will come.”
He didn’t. You can call it Ishmay.
In a Romanesque way, college football when played by the rules seems a kind of indentured servitude, at the very least. It can be exciting to watch, but one does so with a pang of guilt. The National Collegiate Athletic Association subsidizes professional football (and basketball) by running this nationwide farm program at the expense of the athletes. Paid professionals may be closer heirs to the Roman gladiators, particularly as the lifetime casualties are compiled. Whether college or professional, though, you gotta appreciate the irony of any football game played in the L.A. Coliseum.
But I’m getting soft-minded here, if you will pardon that term in connection with football. Let’s get back to the hatred — it’s what Ed’s paying me for. The NFL seems to engender its share, and over the past five decades this legalized monopoly has built a franchise of hate rivaled only recently by the Twitter feeds and off-the-cuff remarks of our executive-in-chief. The upper management of the NFL and of our country deserve one another in no small sense because together they have delivered up this crotch-grabbing, crass, malignant, socially divisive, #Amero-trash moment. Can a World Cup Soccer Final even compare to this theater of the absurd?
With objectivity firmly in place, my first order of business was to select a venue to observe the show. Ed hadn’t invited me over to his Super Bowl Party so I was left to select among … well I had no invitations to house parties, so I stopped by a suitable venue. The evening started to go downhill the moment I walked into Helena’s Longhorn Saloon with a MacBook Pro under one arm and asked for a quiet place to watch the game.
The bartender just laughed.
The NFL had decided that this year’s big game would be dedicated to our veterans. Some pundits saw this as a hedge toward players who might choose to “take a knee” during the national anthem. For some reason, this particular style of protest, which originally brought attention to police mistreatment of people of color — namely, shooting them to death — and started following an event just a few miles from the stadium. Somehow the gesture got mixed up with a disrespect for all those who have fought to defend the American Way.
Apparently, all protocols pertaining to the flag fall under that rubric, like never letting a flag touch the ground, lighting a flag when displayed at night, and standing when the anthem is played while a flag is on display. NBC’s Al Michaels and Chris Collingsworth had indicated they would cover players who in the unlikely event might decide to protest in this fashion. As the performer Pink took the stage to sing the anthem, a bit of tension arose in the barroom, and presumably in sports bars, dens, and rumpus rooms across the country.
Not to worry, America. None of the Patriotic Ones or (presumably Bald) Eagle players appeared to … but wait, the camera pans the stadium and we see a handful of fans taking a knee. Soon others join in. This grand gesture next sweeps over U.S. Bank Stadium in a mass contagion comparable only to “the wave.” The teams get caught up in the moment and they both collectively take a knee. Hell, a field judge takes a knee. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes a knee. Patriot owner Robert Kraft takes a knee. As the television audience grasps the significance of the moment, people all over country co-opt this symbolic genuflection for their own causes.
Of course Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. All the women associated with the #MeToo movement? They take a knee! Oprah Winfrey announces Times Up! And she takes a knee! In protest of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football, the entire American Academy of Neurology and Psychiatry takes a knee! The Dreamers take a knee! The Occupy Wall Street movement reunites, and damn if they don’t take a knee! Hall of Famer Brett Favre takes a knee! Well, actually, he takes a cell phone photo of his junk and later claims it’s of his knee. The One Percenters? They don’t take a knee. Vladimir Putin? He doesn’t take a knee, either. Donald Trump Tweets that he will take a knee for no man, for no cause, for no country. “The kneelers are losers,” he Tweets. “They’re rapists and Muslims. They’re fired!”
Okay, that didn’t happen. I made it up; it’s a lie. It’s fake news, and you had to read it here on Last Best News.
Sorry about that, Ed.
But speaking of co-opting a message, deep into the game, auto manufacturer Dodge offered up a bewildering, growling, eerie sort of advertisement that overlays a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. to sell Dodge Ram pickups, from all I could gather. Yes, there seemed to be a nod toward volunteerism — and we all know the generosity of Ram truck drivers — but really, it was all about sales. According to the fake-news-mongering British Broadcasting Corporation, Dodge almost certainly paid the King family heirs a pot of money for use of the speech, but that its use was not fully sanctioned by the Martin Luther King Center, the guardian of the great man’s legacy. On Super Bowl Sunday, it’s all about money and message.
The Bald Eagles take the opening kick and show no jitters, effectively moving the ball downfield. Still, they chalk up only a field goal for the effort. And then it’s Tom Brady and the Patriotic Ones and soon they’re at the 10-yard line on third down. The Philly defense gels, though, and just like that, it’s tied 3 to 3. Next up, journeyman quarterback Nick Foles rebounds with a nice toss into the end zone and it’s 9 to 3 after a rare miss on the point after touchdown. The first quarter ends with New England knocking at the door and the second quarter opens with a botched field goal attempt after a third down stand by Philly.
It’s looking like a game. The hatred is dissipating slightly.
At this juncture, the staff of the Longhorn Saloon unveils a fabulous sideboard of brats, meatballs and authentic Indian chicken biryani, a curry casserole with lots of vegetables and basmati rice. I’m noshing in a serious fashion as Tom Brady connects over the middle with wide receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks’ turnaround upon reception results in a “legal” helmet-to-helmet hit that leaves the receiver cold on the field.
The injury timeout offers a moment to reflect on this season’s long list of injuries. Philly quarterback Nick Foles owes today’s start to a late-season injury to Carson Wentz, who pretty much got the team to the big dance. Other high-profile players on injured reserve include franchise QBs at Green Bay, Indy and Houston. A study last year by Boston University of 111 deceased former professional football players indicated that 110 of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in their brain tissues. (The brains were donated by family members who thought the men showed symptoms of CTE.) Some observers blame the 16-game schedule for fatigue and propensity to injuries. Others say the level of play has simply grown to be faster and more powerful, while improvements to helmet protection, say, and more restrictive rules simply haven’t kept pace. According to the NFL’s own figures, the number of concussions over the 2017 season is at 281, up from 243 during 2016. Whatever. My appetite is a bit off after the second replay of the collision and I’m served a reminder of why many fans have turned elsewhere for weekend family entertainment.
“Hey kids, c’mon! Cage fighting’s on TV!”
A trick play later downfield has Tom Brady muffing a reception after handing off to a fake rusher who tosses up a wide-open catch to Ms. Bundchen’s better half. It’s a difficult moment to observe for any sandlot football player who could easily have gotten under the wounded duck pass for solid yardage if not a touchdown. Don’t look back, Tom Brady. Father Time may be gaining on you, yet.
Undeterred, the Pats go for it on fourth down and Philly’s tough defense stuffs the defending champs. I suspect the Longhorn crowd reflects many Montanans’ sentiments in a grudging admiration of this goal line stand. Grudging because the Philly fan base makes European soccer thuggery look like kindergarten play. For a cultural reference, see Robert De Niro in the Oscar-winning film from a few years back, “Silver Linings Playbook.” Bradley Cooper also starred and managed to occupy the Philadelphia owner’s box, seeming to know just exactly when the camera was on him. Philly fans were said to outnumber the Patriotic Ones by almost two to one.
The Philly moment is short-lived, though, as an ad for a company called Weather Tech rises up with a vague theme on building walls. Great big walls, the kind you might throw up in south Texas. Don’t forget to bill the Mexicans, Weather Tech. A running commercial for Tide laundry detergent gets a little weirder. This themed ad is one of two that turns on the propensity for commercials to become too big for the messages’ britches. Another ad aspiring to be a full-blown movie is a fun one for Australian tourism, trading on the Crocodile Dundee franchise. For all this, advertisers have shelled out $5 million to NBC for each 30-second spot. Wash that spot out, Tide laundry detergent. Put that shrimp on the barbie, Australia.
Back on the field, the Pats collect a field goal and an unusual deflected interception on their own eight-yard line. Brady marches hard with big help from running back James White. Another missed PAT leaves the score at 15 to 12 with two minutes left in the half. The Bald Eagles pound up field with two running backs and a great reception by Corry Clement who can really throw a stiff arm. And then, as color man Chris Collingsworth says, “from the back of the back of the playbook,” quarterback Nick Foles hands off to a fake runner who in turn tosses a pass back to the wide open QB for a touchdown. The play mirrors the one just muffed by Tom Brady. Another missed PAT and the score at halftime is 22 to 12.
As halftime opens, NBC offers us an overhead shot of the $1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium, which we are informed has been designed to resemble a Viking ship run aground in modern-day mid-town Minneapolis. Within the rarified air of NFL management, if you build a stadium, the Super Bowl will come, even to this frozen North Country outpost. The economy of the Twin Cities will benefit something north of $400 million in fresh dollars for the privilege of hosting SB LII. Maybe the Mall of America will add another wing. Hold on tight to that team, though. The good taxpayers of St. Louis might have a word or two to offer since the Rams left town for the comparatively comfortable environs of L.A. and the prospect of fresh, subsidized brick and mortar. The project architect and planner of U.S. Bank Stadium also built the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, and the new Chargers/Rams stadium underway in Los Angeles.
Speaking of Vikings, I’m a little confused by another Dodge Ram truck commercial featuring Viking ships at shore and at sea. And the Bud Lite “dilly-dilly” battle series seems creatively bankrupt. It could be me, though, since I still don’t own a home TV. I don’t know Square Space, but suspect Keanu Reeves isn’t really surfing that motorcycle. An ad for E-Trade seemed slightly offensive with its ageist message featuring old folks trying to continue work in various professions: “I’m 85 and I wanna go home,” they sing. Toyota tossed out one with the tired theme of a priest, a rabbi, and an imam … well you get the picture. Budweiser ditched the Clydesdales this year for a moving ad that features a beer canning line rolling over to water production, presumably to be shipped to areas hit by natural disasters. When the big one goes up, I think I’d rather drink beer, but given that it’s Bud, what’s the big difference?
The robot ad for Sprint is amusing, but strikes me just a little odd in that the former spokesman for Verizon (“Can you hear me now?”) gets the setup for the punchline: “What made you switch?” I’d love to ask him that question myself, assuming I’d get a straight answer. Again, it’s all about the do-re-mi. Speaking of which, I thought Justin Timberlake brought his A-game and the Pepsi halftime production seemed on par with an opening ceremony for the Olympic Winter Games, which maybe it kinda was. The Olympics — that hallmark of amateur athletics — seems to be staking quite a lot on skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White. Always sexy, Vonn shows off her scars, accidents, and triumphs, while White withdraws in concentration over the half-pipe of the mind. Coming to a TV screen within days.
Timberlake seemed a safe choice to entertain at halftime, so named because it’s now a half-hour long. JT looks older, but he just owns that untucked-shirt look underneath a vaguely reflective suit. At times it looked like he might have just come from a gig painting houses.
The second half is a blur of back and forth stellar football on both sides of the ball. More than a thousand total yards are rolled up — a Super Bowl record. Brady proves to be the better quarterback. Philly the better, more balanced team. Foles, though, is fully deserving of the MVP award and seems somehow reminiscent of Earl Morrall, the quarterback who backed up Bart Starr a half century ago. Like Morrall, perhaps Foles should take up field goal kicking. A little job security advice in a competitive world.
Speaking of job security, Commissioner Goodell recently signed a contract extension with the NFL owners. Several years ago after meeting incentives, Goodell earned in the neighborhood of $34 million. Incentives may be tough to achieve in the current climate, but he’s still guaranteed about $20 million a year. Those incentives include boosting a $14 billion enterprise upward toward $20 billion. By comparison, the Pats pay Tom Brady something like $20.5 million a year. Nick Foles? He took down $1.6 million in 2017, and of course a trip to Disneyland. Yeah, Occupy NFL why doncha?
Sports, whether professional or amateur, have a way of sometimes unveiling truth. Not always but often. It’s a big reason why we watch and Sunday’s game revealed that a talented, well-balanced team can win the day over a team composed of extremely talented and well-coached individuals. Tom Brady gave his team a chance every moment he was on the field and the final pass was right where it needed to be, just inside the goal line. That was no Hail Mary. It was just good football. Less evident truths linger within the hoopla, the commercialism, the injury reports, even the music.
Now we return to our own cold weather, news of poison gas bombs in Syria, federal government shutdowns, Medicaid retraction, Russians in our polling booths. Sad as it seems, I think I will look back fondly on Super Bowl 2018.