America Goes Bowling

Football as a Way of Life


The 38th Super Bowl is over and the Carolina Panthers should have followed Justin Timberlake's lead and settled for one extra point. As hard as it might be for someone who marked the occasion by punching a hole in his drywall to admit it, winning is actually a small part of the Super Bowl. The event has moved beyond status as a mere American secular holiday and firmly into pagan festival mode. It is both flexible and finite, able to fit into many lives on many different levels.

Unlike multi-game championship series, which require a large investment of time to follow, the Super Bowl is still just a few hours long, despite the TV networks' best attempts to stretch it out. In fact, the only lament heard from anywhere in the Carolinas pre-game was that the game would keep little Panther fans up past their school-night bedtimes. The scheduling, of course, is a function of trying to get the game into primetime on both coasts, a near impossibility with the three-hour time difference.

But were it not for the depth of the game of football, no amount of hype could attract 280 million eyeballs. The sport is at once simple and complex. The casual fan can see that everybody on one team is trying to dismember the guy on the other team with the ball. The die-hards see everything that goes into that effort stretching back to mini-camp in August.

Then there are the gridiron philosophers who see in football a synthesis of everything in life, just blown up to 300-pounds or racing past you with Olympic-class speed. The Panthers have a professor of art history for a locker-room towel-boy who is adamant that, "Football is the most intellectual team sport, by far."

Shaw Smith goes on to explain football to the Charlotte alt-weekly Creative Loafing in terms that might leave Andy Griffith backpedaling:

The French writer Charles Baudelaire said of Delacroix, "He was passionately in love with passion, but coldly determined to find the means to express it." And that's exactly what football is! It's based on Nietzschean will, the ability to impose yourself physically over someone else on the field, and decide that no matter what the conditions are, you can still get it done. It couples power with the mental with the aesthetic. It's visceral, like a Delacroix painting. It hits you in the gut and in the mind.

Not unlike one too many tequila fanny-bangers, that is. Many Panther fans no doubt discovered the Nietzchean will to their dismay, which is itself a testament to the power and appeal of football. When the NFL came to Charlotte North Carolina's blue laws had to be changed to accommodate alcohol sales before 1 p.m. on Sundays. The gate now drops at high noon for beer and wine, leaving just enough time to knock a few back before 1 p.m. kick-offs. (The Panthers still have a more uptight attitude toward booze than much of the league, opting not to flood the stands with bellowing beer vendors lest tee-totalers be offended. Other NFL stadiums seem to have about a 10-1 beer man-to-fan ratio.)

So the pagan festival rolls on with its libations, ritual battles, and damsels in distress. It is somehow fitting that a country so young has raided the classics for its own unique expression of a winter festival, an Up Helly Aa celebration without the burning Viking ship.

Like it or not, American civilization is reflected in the Super Bowl, everything always bigger and louder and better than the year before. It is a bizarre, pointless promise that we buy every year because the hope and optimism that is infused in American culture demands it.

This Super Bowl is always the best Super Bowl, no matter who is playing, because it is the one happening right now. Until next year.