• U.S.

Hey–You With The Cheese On Your Head

5 minute read
Barbara Ehrenreich

I am not the kind of feminist who believes the Super Bowl is part of a scheme to deprive American women of their human rights–although the argument does have its merits. I’ve seen too many gals in the sports bars groaning and shrieking and punching the air right along with the guys. Last summer, in fact, the National Football League declared its ambition to become an equal-opportunity entertainer, meaning that women are now encouraged to advance from serving the Doritos to donning the cheeseheads. What ever happened to make the Super Bowl America’s No. 1 secular ritual is bigger than gender, and possibly bigger than all of us.

Consider: in just a couple of decades, sports have metastasized from one of life’s small, innocent pleasures into a kind of cultural kudzu, filling our cable channels with games and game “analysis,” our urban centers with stadiums and our brains with forgettable factoids about Terrell Davis’ shoulder and Brett Favre’s third-down conversions. Once there were two seasons and two sports, with a decent interval between, during which courtships occurred and family members became reacquainted. In that distant era, bars were appropriately morose settings for the serious contemplation of fate and its ironies, not frenetic assemblages of monitors bringing us football in August and iron-man competitions from the antipodes. Guys who liked sports didn’t just kibitz from the sofa, they went out and played softball or bowled. And for those who thrive on deep partisan passions, there was always politics, or war.

But then politics turned into a rich man’s game, played out in White House bedrooms and over $100,000 plates of chicken cordon bleu. Anyone seeking angst and tension–as well as grit and struggle and nobility of spirit–was obliged to turn to sports. And turn we did, with our hearts and souls. In the town of Green Bay, it is now not only possible but unremarkable to be buried in a green-and-gold casket, if not in an entire Packers uniform. Philadelphia has had to build a courtroom into Vets Stadium to deal with fans who, in their enthusiasm, have taken to firing flare guns into the field.

I’m not saying there was a conspiracy here, a vile plot to deflect our collective passions from old-fashioned communal endeavors like caucus meetings and political canvassing to field goals and 40-yd. passes. There is no evidence that, for example, the CEO of General Motors sat down with the officials of the NFL one day back in the ’50s or ’60s and said, “Whaddya say we try the old bread-and-circuses scam?” On the contrary, I believe Americans went into sports mania willingly and with their eyes wide open. There is a human need, perhaps especially in a culture that routinely pits each against all in a relentless competition for parking spaces and aisle seats, to achieve the ecstatic merger with the mass represented by the wave or the chop. Besides, if this is the old Roman bread-and-circuses ploy, someone seems to have left out the bread.

And speaking of ancient Rome, Super Bowl weekend may be the optimal moment to reflect on the true reason for that empire’s fall–which, it could be argued, was not decadence, Christianity or post-orgy bulimia but rampant sports mania. At the height of the empire, the stadium was the centerpiece of every Roman town, dwarfing mere housing and temples. Loyalty to the chariot-racing leagues, with their colorful banners, eclipsed all political passions. When the barbarians attacked the gates of the Roman city of Hippo, no one much noticed because the groans of the dying soldiers on the wall were almost drowned out by the roar from the stadium.

We are not doomed to a similar fate–cheering obliviously while the killer asteroid draws near or the sea level rises to our chins. Already there are signs that sports may go the way of American politics and degenerate into a rarefied pastime for the rich. The real game now is about billionaire team owners trading millionaire athletes, many of them spoiled brats and all of them dedicated to selling us sneakers and cereals–while the public coughs up for yet another downtown stadium and the networks lay out billions for TV rights. This late 20th century sports biz is a spectacle perhaps best viewed from the luxury skyboxes, where the celebrities strut and the lobbyists reward their politician friends. From the bleachers, though, it’s bound to start looking a little tawdry and old.

The other possibility, of course, is that as women are recruited into fandom, the men will flee. The Super Bowl will come to resemble an evening at Chippendales, with thousands of women gaily cheering the players on to new heights of mutual destruction. And what will be left for the American male to do? Maybe go out and toss a few balls, assuming anyone remembers how.

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