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The Super Bowl: A Museum of American Culture

Super Bowl LV.
Super Bowl LV. By Courtesy of Associated Press
By Charles W. McCormick, Crimson Staff Writer

“Why do people care so much about the ads?” my roommates — a handful of international students from the United Kingdom, among other places — asked me a few Sundays ago.

“Is the pitch the same size in rugby?”

“This is where ‘left shark’ happened, isn’t it?”

“How can that 43-year-old man throwing the football be so beautiful?”

Okay, that last one actually came from me. But as my apartment’s resident American football fan, I fielded no shortage of questions during Super Bowl LV. My tea-drinking, Queen Elizabeth-fearing roommates were quite puzzled by the game that unfolded that evening — American football is chess, not checkers, and it requires far more discipline and savvy than Tom Brady’s alleged victory celebration would suggest. Yet my roommates’ questions reflect their understanding of two critical truths about America’s most-watched sporting event: it’s a big deal in the ole’ U.S. of A., and it transcends mere football.

No, you haven’t stumbled into the Sports section of the Crimson — stick with me for a second. If not just the matchup between the National Football League’s two best teams, what is the Super Bowl? Is it the epitome of American consumption and ugliness — an annual excuse to binge an inappropriate amount of nachos with belligerent relatives touting beer-stained jerseys? Does it stand for something even worse when we willingly tune into a league plagued by issues of systematic racism and, more recently, negligence towards the current pandemic?

Answering these questions is far beyond the paygrade of a football hobbyist, let alone a deeply misguided Denver Broncos fan (sorry for the reference, Crimson Arts readers — please just trust that anything and everything I say about football and football culture is true). But I was offered a unique opportunity to view the Super Bowl through the eyes of international friends — newcomers who could recognize it as distinctly American yet struggled to define it. From their perspective, it wasn’t a single, concrete work of art or display to be judged. It was something more encompassing, more varied, more nebulous — like a living museum. And like any other museum, this one houses an abundance of stories across different wings. With so much to see, it invites visitors to simply wander around.

The first wing is dedicated to the game of football itself. Visitors hoping for pure action need not look beyond the surface: The Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are outstanding football teams. Talent abounded between the two rosters, and even my rugby-loving companions could appreciate the artistry of a perfect tackle or a twenty mile-per-hour run. Yet, just as there is more to a Van Gogh than pretty swirls, there is more to football than sheer athletic effort.

Although no one lost an ear during the course of the game, the mythology of football’s high-profile teams and players is as fascinating as the game itself. Kansas City and Tampa Bay proved that small market teams can make big splashes. The Chiefs’ young but decorated quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, won them last year’s trophy and might be the face of the league’s next dynasty. But Mahomes couldn’t stop Gisele Bündchen’s husband, who happened to win his record seventh Super Bowl in his first year with a new team at 43 years of age. Art is nothing without art history; beneath the universal sporting language of making flashy plays, there lies a rich web of narratives surrounding this game.

As we continue wandering, we might leave the realm of sports and stumble into the most expensive exhibition space in all of television: the hall of Super Bowl commercial slots. Ads on TV are often annoying interruptions, but for half of Americans, they’re Super Bowl Sunday’s main event. As a result of the unparalleled exposure brands receive during the most popular American broadcast every year, the game’s commercial slots have become a hatchery for some of the most memorable commercials ever seen — for better or for worse. This year’s slate featured a plea for pandemic unity from Jeep and a surreal five-second cameo from Reddit, but how could we forget all-time greats like Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” and Snickers’ Willem-Dafoe-turned-Marilyn-Monroe edition of “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry”? Parallel to the football competition runs a championship in marketing — one that paints a unique portrait of today’s TV watchers and their interests (deodorant and Willem Dafoe, naturally).

But museums can be composed of physical experiences, too. Perhaps we leave this wing hungry and amble over to the food court, where a plethora of Super Bowl snacks awaits us. From traditional family feasts to Pinterest-worthy treats, there exists an entire culinary field dedicated to the social event that is game-day grub. One Google search reveals hundreds upon hundreds of recipe ideas for shareable dishes with a distinctly American flare. That is to say, these recipes leave something to be desired from a health perspective. It’s a near-holiday in the states, after all — indulgence and communal dining is to be expected. So far, this is an America my roommates can get behind: we’ve got sports! Snacks! Raging consumerism!

After a quick bite (or a meal, if we took the time to discover all seven layers of that famous dip), we might decide to walk off our nutritional regrets and stroll to the next wing. Here, we find another cultural phenomenon with a legacy as rich as the Super Bowl itself. What do Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, and Christina Aguilera have in common? They all played quarterback for the Denver Broncos. Just kidding, Crimson Arts readers. They’ve all represented America’s prevailing musical tastes at one of the most prestigious annual concerts: the Super Bowl halftime show. Home to massive set pieces and stunning visuals, the halftime show is a chance to make history — be it as a comically off-beat background dancer, a victim of a Justin Timberlake-induced wardrobe malfunction, or as trailblazers of representation in the entertainment industry. Even my roommates understood how strange, yet monumental, The Weeknd’s pandemic performance was. As great art reflects the state of life around it, so did The Weeknd’s show: the singer largely performed for the cameras, spending little time on a stage that would be surrounded by fans under normal circumstances.

The narrative of the halftime show is even more profound, however. There’s a reason Rihanna, Jay-Z, and other gigantic names in the entertainment industry have turned down this illustrious venue in the past, and much of it surrounds the league’s longstanding issues around racism. Former quarterback Colin Kaepernick sued the NFL for allegedly colluding to lock him out of the league after the rising star protested police brutality during the national anthem just a few years ago, and many have opted to boycott the league in solidarity. As similar treatment of other activists, allegations of discriminatory testing for healthcare payouts, and the marked lack of diversity in the league’s management positions suggest, the NFL has more than its fair share of catching up to do when it comes to advancing equity and inclusivity. The halftime wing of our museum consists of more than just a few minutes of serenade; it’s an arena where matters of justice beyond the field come to play.

Discussions of social issues and the Weeknd’s lonely production point us in the direction of an adjacent wing with a rather unsavory surprise — a grisly reality check in the form of a pop up gallery. Raymond James Stadium hosted nearly 25,000 fans this year. 25,000 fans. In one space. No amount of hand sanitizer dispenser installations can make up for an attendance number that so blatantly rejects all guidance on gatherings from the past year. Praising healthcare workers at the opening ceremonies only comes across as tone deaf when players and sideline officials let masks dangle haphazardly over their chins and the threat of a super-spreader event looms overhead. In the same way commercial breaks and halftime embody American cultural interests, American arrogance in the face of a lethal virus manifests in the coordination of this Super Bowl.

These last wings — no matter how disquieting — are very real parts of our museum, and it’s important to not look away; they demand our attention while we continue exploring. No story worth chronicling in a museum is without an ugly chapter of some kind, and what I gradually came to understand while getting grilled by my roommates was that a Sunday in spring can mean infinitely many things to different people. This game didn’t just foster a group dissection of American sports and celebrities, but of our handling of today’s most pressing social dilemmas, from the NFL’s involvement in the oppression and exploitations of Black Americans to sometimes-fatal pandemic individualism. Our conversation even extended to global attitudes towards these topics, covering far more ground than the mere rules of “less exciting rugby.”

Perhaps you didn’t particularly fancy a work you saw in one wing of our museum — football isn’t your thing, say — or maybe you were horrified by an entire display — in-person events at the height of a pandemic don’t resonate with you. That’s what makes the Super Bowl necessary viewing. As you peruse a museum’s various exhibitions, good and bad, you are forced to reflect in a powerful way — especially when accompanied by a first-timer, in whom even the self-proclaimed expert can find a learning companion. You learn about yourself, the community that constructed the museum, and the events that shape its collections every year. Museums of this size and grandeur don’t ask you to pass comprehensive, resounding judgement on everything you saw. They simply put artifacts on display and invite you to explore, offering windows into nuanced and at times contradictory facets of life.

Super Bowl LV may have been unabashed and concerningly American at times, but that’s why it’s important. Between sport, entertainment, and deeply meditative conversation on the country’s underlying social issues, there’s something important for everyone between our museum’s walls. The Super Bowl isn’t seeking cultural redemption — no museum needs to. All it asks is that we watch together, and hopefully learn something about who we are in the process.

— Staff Writer Charles W. McCormick can be reached at Charles.McCormick@thecrimson.com.

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