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The Super Bowl Unites Americans As Few Cultural Moments Do Anymore

By Bill Peterson · February 3rd, 2009 · Sports
Watching Joe Willie Namath wade through the Pittsburgh Steelers with the Lombardi Trophy right after Super Bowl XLIII brought back the true meaning of the Super Bowl even more powerfully than the game itself, which, considering the stakes, has to be considered one of the greatest football games of all time.

If the game lacked a certain luster beforehand because the Arizona Cardinals entered with seven losses, they made up for it by climbing from a 13-point deficit in the fourth quarter to take the lead with 2:37 left, setting up Ben Roethlisberger’s heroic final drive to snatch the NFL championship from sour defeat with 35 seconds remaining. We’ll never see a game at any time of any year decided by a more utterly perfect throw-and-catch than Roethlisberger’s hook-up with Santonio Holmes.

The Super Bowl went down every bit as well as the chicken wings, and that’s a pretty high standard. What’s more, the game stayed down a lot better. Football fans are exhausted and begging for more, just when September feels a very long way off.

As predicted, the Steelers are the NFL champions today. As not predicted, their victory against the Cardinals closed out dramatically, ending with three scores and two lead changes in the last 3:04. At a moment when the country really needed a great show, the NFL produced it.

Other Super Bowls made greater statements about the state of the NFL, most notably last year’s game in which the New York Giants killed the New England Patriots’ perfect season when Eli Manning took the winners 83 yards in 12 plays, striking Plaxico Burress with the winning touchdown as 35 seconds remained. It’s not as widely remembered that Manning’s drive responded to an 80-yard Patriots drive for the lead with 2:42 left.

But no Super Bowl has made a greater statement about the Super Bowl. On the heels of two straight Super Bowls that went back and forth, seeing Namath really brought it home. Competitive football, valuable as it is in and of itself, still isn’t as valuable as what the Super Bowl became during all those years when Super Bowls were routinely lopsided.

We used to complain that the Super Bowl was too big, as if it were the cause of some overwhelming lack of perspective that threatened America’s greatness as a nation.

The growing emphasis on such large trivialities felt like a perfect fit for our national decadence of the 1970s, the “malaise” Jimmy Carter spoke of from the White House. Pundits used to complain about our “Super Bowl culture” as if we were just too swept up to deal seriously with national affairs.

In reality, hindsight tells us, the country was exhausted and wished to go on vacation. Eschewing wars and riots, Americans turned to cocaine and circuses.

But at least circuses like the Super Bowl were everybody’s circus. The country shared the Super Bowl, not because of scarcity but because of limited choices.

Back in those old days when we geezers walked a mile to school every day bare-footed through the snow, we had three television networks that already were destroying neighborhood movie theaters, we had telephones tethered to wall outlets, we had electric ovens that cooked so slowly we waited 30 minutes to eat something warm, we did all of our research in the library and the idea that we could carry around our own movies, music and databases in our pockets was crazy.

Times definitely weren’t better, in the aggregate. We’re not giving up our cable channels, cell phones, laptops or microwaves — and certainly not our shoes — but we’ve definitely given up the shared national experiences as they were foisted on us when the media was large enough to reach everyone at the same time.

We no longer live with technology, the way we understood it even a decade ago. Now we live in technology. It surrounds and infuses us, like the weather.

Technology no longer tells us what we’re going to consume, only that we’re going to consume. When everyone is his own programmer, everyone sees only his own programming. So we don’t share like we used to.

The biggest new television shows aren’t as big as they once were, because we’re no longer stuck with two bad alternatives. The biggest recordings and movies no longer dictate mass culture as they once did, because mass culture flows through too many channels.

Because the audience no longer is so captive, the performers no longer are so powerful. Even if someone as good as Elvis or The Beatles came along today, they wouldn’t leave nearly the impact that was possible three or four decades ago because the masses are too diffused.

It’s easy enough to explain the significance of Namath’s victory 40 years ago in Super Bowl III, when his New York Jets of the upstart AFL upset the NFL’s powerful Baltimore Colts. Namath was a lightning rod on so many levels just because of his personal style. And if you didn’t care about him either way, you were stuck with him anyway, because the masses were forced to share.

The masses aren’t forced to share the Super Bowl. But they share it cheerfully.

Somehow, through the NFL’s marketing genius, the public’s need for compensatory heroes and the thrill of a good football game, the Super Bowl has proved invincible against fragmenting waves of mediating technology. A zillion channels all but go dark against the Super Bowl’s blinding splendor. Year after year, Americans share that experience as they share little else.

According to the overnight Neilsen ratings, 95.4 million Americans watched this year’s Super Bowl, making it the third most viewed program in American history. Only the 1983 final episode of M*A*S*H (106 million) and last year’s Super Bowl (97.4 million) have drawn more viewers. We’ve had 43 Super Bowls, and 21 of them are among the 43 most watched television programs in the U.S. since 1966.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Americans come pretty close to being one people. A few decades ago, social commentators despaired of such a statement’s truth. They didn’t worry about Americans being one people so much as the prospect that it would happen over the Super Bowl.

But in today’s splintered popular culture, any production that puts Americans on the same page is already a remarkable show. And when the show also happens to be good on its own merits, you almost can’t wait for the next one.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: letters@citybeat.com



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