by Jonny Craig
Last week the New England Patriots faced off against the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl 53. At this, the culmination of the NFL season, five-time winners, the Patriots, carried the tag of overwhelming favourites, having reached the final in nine of the last twenty seasons. Having paid no attention to the Super Bowl in previous years, this time I succumbed to a ubiquitous barrage of build-up hype. Like a Craig Charles DJ set, it was everywhere you looked, all the time. It proved impossible to go to work, buy groceries, visit the gym – basically, to leave the house and engage the outside world in any way whatsoever – without being drawn centripetally into the event’s orbit; by its irresistible excesses and promises of grandstanding, not-to-be-missed entertainment.
It was 3.45pm on Super Bowl Sunday, and I found myself at a suitably-franchised sports bar in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico. My jock itch had built to a thenceforth unknown level of excitation, and – since they were clearly the underdogs – I was all hot for the Lambs. “Fuck the Patriots!” a man in a baseball cap yelled from the other end of the bar, drawing murmurs of agreement. “And fuck their fucking mothers!”, he added for good measure. Warming to his theme, the bar roared in approval, with several of the crowd affectionately shaking their heads as if to say, ‘This Guy! He really is a Top-Quality Guy!’ Being a Top-Quality Guy myself, and not wanting to blow my cover as an experienced connoisseur of the game, I shook my head with the same amused, ‘seen-it-all’ quality. I ordered some piss-weak domestic lager that had been placed on promotion in honour of the event, found myself a safely vacant table, and sat back, ready for the Superbowl.
The game itself started at 4 o’clock and, so far as I could tell, not much was happening in the way of meaningful, decisive action. Match reports I have subsequently read confirm that this was indeed, in the parlance of English football punditry (or soccer if you prefer), a cagey affair. Both side’s defences – particularly the Patriots’ – were resolute under pressure from the other team’s offensive manoeuvres, leading to what seemed like a pretty drab encounter.
Even had it been a higher-scoring affair, however, I’m not sure it would have done it for me. Coverage of the game itself ran for about four hours, and this comprised at least 75% advertising. It is well-understood that the NFL and its annual flagship event go hand in hand with monumental corporate investment. News networks estimate that a 30-second ad in the televised coverage of Super Bowl 2019 cost companies over 5 million dollars, on average. With over 100 million viewers in the USA alone (global figures are trickier to quantify), the event is almost unrivalled in its capacity to reach would-be consumers.
Taking up considerably longer than 30 seconds a piece, Google pitched its products with two exquisitely produced short films, each promoting vague, yet undeniably worthy, causes. With one ad focusing on the search engine’s capacity to help US war veterans find their way back into employment, and the other extolling their free translation service — and thus, their unmatched ability to teach the the world to sing in perfect harmony — the company cleverly spread its brand-promotion over a disparate area. In this, Google reared its Godhead and demonstrated an omniscient command over their global user-base. Maybe next year the Ayatollah Khomeini and Kellyanne Conway will appear in a charming mini-doc where they travel Southeast Asia, singing carpool karaoke with James Cordon as their chauffeur, and playfully ribbing each other with the aid of Google Translate.
Also notable was a guest appearance by Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski, ‘The Dude’, in an advert for Stella Artois. The foremost fictional proponent of drop-out culture in our time, The Dude’s reprise in this guise was, in fact, downright dejecting, perhaps the perfect instantiation of how hyperactive late-capitalism swallows everything, before digesting and excreting it back into the world in scentless little turd-packets. Lebowski’s louche negation of the proclivities of fast, corporate capitalism – a disavowal par excellence of ‘self-improvement’ imperatives that dominate our psycho-cultural horizons – are, it seems, available to the highest bidder. The Dude abides by the logic of his own brand-value in the service of selling over-priced beer.
By the end of the second quarter I was feeling disaffected. Luckily, the barmaid had noted my second empty glass and offered me another domestic beer. I refused, and instead ordered a bottle of ice-cool Stella Artois to Change Up The Usual, followed by a White Russian, followed by another Stella. By the time I had again drained my glass, Maroon 5 had taken to stage and were running through an underwhelming assortment of their greatest hits, to which an audience – cherry-picked for diversity – jigged and grooved to a pitch of preapproved ebullience.
The Los Angeles pop-rock outfit had been called on only when several more-prominent artists – reportedly including Rhianna, Jay Z and Cardi B – had turned down the gig in support of former San Francisco 49ers star Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racially motivated police brutality. As it turned out, even front-man Adam Levine’s glistening torso failed to energise a sedate set. If the Football had so far been underwhelming, the Half Time entertainment had been positively deflating.
Speaking of deflating, the game’s decisive moment came in the final quarter when veteran quarterback, renowned stud muffin, and infamous ball-tamperer, Tom Brady, picked out Rob Gronkowski with an inch perfect 34-yard pass, eventually leading to the only touchdown of Superbowl 53. In a historically low-scoring match-up, Brady once more proved his class under pressure, becoming the only individual to have won six Superbowl titles. So that was that: the Patriots were victorious. And though their opponents, the Glans, had fought valiantly, they had in the end been ground-down by a relentless force of Football.
Unfortunately for an neophyte like me, the game had sprung into life just too late to sufficiently seize my attention and convert me to NFL. Even disregarding the time taken up by advertising and bloodless pop-rock performances, the game seemed stilted. Enacted entirely in set-plays, too much occurs in simply too short a space of time. Up-close head shots of stern coaches — their bulging temple-veins hinting at violent tempers and upcoming aneurysms — add neither drama nor technical clarification, and instead function only to embolden stereotypes. And so, disillusioned by the commercial orgy and ignorant of the game’s intricacies, it is necessarily within stereotypes that I continue to cast my judgement. Until next year, Super Bowl.
Jonny Craig is a Sussex MA Anthropology graduate. His academic interests include the anthropology of neo-nationalism and whiteness. He currently spends most of his time chopping watermelon. One day he’d like to do a PhD instead.