- Joshua Keating, Slate
The latest installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.
EAST RUTHERFORD, United States—This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event—and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.
Despite decades of exposure to the outside world through trade and globalization, Americans have resisted adopting internationally popular sports like soccer, cricket, and kabaddi, preferring instead a complex, brutal, and highly mechanized form of rugby confusingly called football. (Except for in a couple of instances, feet do not touch the ball.)
The two finest teams from the nation’s 32 premier league squads meet each year in an event known as the Super Bowl. (There is in fact no bowl.) This year, the game pits a young upstart team from the Northwest Frontier Provinces against another from the mountainous interior region led by the aging scion of one of the sport’s most legendary families. The winner of the contest will claim the title of “world champion,” although very few people play the sport beyond the country’s national borders.
Although the rules are complex—this video offers a brief overview—in broad strokes the contest involves two large teams of large men wearing large amounts of protective padding attempting to move an oblong ball down a 91.44-meter field by either throwing it or running with it while their opponents attempt to knock them to the ground with maximum force.
While the competition can last for more than three hours, actual playing time is no more than about 11 minutes. The rest of the time is taken up by military-level strategizing, replays of the action, and providing medical attention to injured players. The game’s rules are so intricate that television networks employ teams of well-paid “analysts” to explain to viewers what happened in the play they just watched.
Despite its origins in the nation’s elite educational institutions, the game is today the nation’s most popular—and populist—form of entertainment. Players, mostly drawn from the nation’s rural areas and inner cities, are selected early in youth for their size, speed, and agility—sometimes as young as 8 or 9 years old—and work their way through youth leagues associated with secondary schools and universities. The vast majority of these players will never receive any compensation for playing, but a select few will become highly paid national heroes at the professional level.
The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game's lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.
Perhaps in homage to the country’s patriarchal culture, women are generally involved only as scantily clad dancers during breaks in the action. Minority rights groups have also criticized the owner and fans of one of the country’s most popular teams—the one representing the national capital, in fact—for referring to players using a racial nickname too offensive to be printed in this newspaper. Fans of the team, like those of Tottenham Hotspur, have defended the name, saying it is a term of affection.
But the spectacle of the Super Bowl—which can consume more electricity on its own than some small countries—involves more than just football. The nation’s largest corporations use the event to showcase their latest products in elaborately produced advertisements that some fans find as entertaining as the game itself. (American businesses, in defiance of normal economic logic, consider it worthwhile to spend $4 million on just 30 seconds of airtime during the event.) America’s premier recording artists are brought out to perform at the game’s midpoint. Millions of chickens are slaughtered to obtain only their wings—the traditional American delicacy consumed by fans at home.
Foreign human rights NGOs have often found it difficult to reconcile their respect and appreciation for America’s rich cultural heritage with their shock at the violence, excess, and wastefulness of this event. But however problematic the international community may find the game, it is a rare unifying tradition that binds most segments of a society increasingly divided by class, culture, and geography.