Commentary

Superb Owl: Football as America

Updated: February 8, 2011, 12:09 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Declaration of Independence.

"America the Beautiful."

Bad anthem.

[+] EnlargeLea Michele
Kevin Mazur/Getty ImagesActress Lea Michele "in celebration of our beautiful country," sang "America the Beautiful."

Good game.

Bad commercials.

Weird night.

I admit to having watched it wrong. No one is supposed to pay 100 percent attention to the Super Bowl. You're not meant to stare at it. You're not meant to derive meaning from it.

You're supposed to be in and out of the room, Facebooking, Tweeting, basting those honey/jalapeno wings and distracted by complaints about the bean dip and your brother-in-law's running commentary on the state of television body models.

I just sat and stared. Sorry.

Thus our annual spasm of national excess came and went and knocked me flat, because what I saw being sold Sunday night was not football in America but football as America.

Borrowing NASCAR's marketing playbook, the NFL is now peddling 200-proof patriotism. This not only on the eve of a probable lockout of Labor by Capital, but on Ronald Reagan's centennial, on the very day of that great union buster's double jubilee.

Which may somehow account for the presence of former Secretary of State Colin Powell at the game to introduce a seriatim reading of the Declaration of Independence by NFL personnel. Let that sink in. This absurd bit of recurring corporate performance art was staged at around 5:55 p.m. Eastern this year, in case you missed it. If so, maybe there's a commemorative DVD in the pipeline. We can only hope.

Last seen selling the United Nations an elaborate and unfounded promise of weapons of mass destruction, the self-made general was this time seen next to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the self-made senator's son who pulled himself up by his loafer tassels to his present position of absolute authority.

To sell us just exactly what, I'm not entirely sure.

But the implication?

Two generals side by side.

Their message?

Freedom is good.

At least in moderation.

[+] EnlargeSuper Bowl Flyover
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesThe planners marshaled full military and political pomp, from the flyover to cut-ins of active duty troops to the presence of one-time leaders.

Too much freedom is apt to result in a 15-yard, 15-grand penalty for excessive celebration, after all.

Besides, conventional wisdom knows that NFL football doesn't teach freedom, it teaches teamwork. But even that's not true. The NFL teaches conformity. Teamwork you learn playing peewee ball. In the NFL you learn to keep your socks up and your head down and your mouth shut so as not to impede the steady flow of revenue. Which may be why we stopped seeing that single finger salute to solidarity so early in the season.

Apt, then, that on the heels of all this freedom-mongering and patriotic Dada, we get a botched anthem from Christina Aguilera.

Then 90-plus minutes of football and commerce.

Then halftime. Black Eyed Peas.

During which you received 279 very funny Tweets from your friends ("They're like future crime fighters in outer space!"), and of which pro-democracy Egyptians on Liberation Square were heard to say, "If the box-head robot run amok of pop-and-lock is where freedom leads, then thank you Mr. George Washington, but no thank you."

Then back to football.

And that Chrysler commercial everyone's talking about today.

The strangeness of the spot being that it shifts blame while sentimentalizing failure. As if a series of things had happened to Detroit over which Detroit had no control. As if terrible design and low build-quality and 19 layers of overlapping vice presidents outlobbying the EPA from 1970 to 2000 were unavoidable natural disasters. How about choosing instead to produce cars people actually wanted to buy? Or making cars that didn't fall apart, cars that outlasted their new car smell?

Instead of a Hallmark card indicting Fate, how about a nice thank-you note to the rest of us for the repeated bailouts, and a workable design for a high-quality, high-mileage family sedan?

[+] EnlargeFiat Workers
Mario Laporta/AFP/Getty ImagesDetails not covered in the Super Bowl ads: Fiat workers expressed their displeasure about the company's ties to Chrysler last month.

And note, please, the pivotal imagery of those autoworkers hard at it. The vigor of those forms. Because the very people who would gladly dismantle Organized Labor all together are always willing to appropriate the Technicolor detail of happy, muscular labor when trying to sell the story of our own lives back to us.

As is the NFL. Thus revealing this year's Super Bowl theme: Work hard. Don't worry about freedom. Trust the bosses. They'll take care of you. Honest.

If this year's edition of our professional football championship is predictive, 25 years from now Super Sunday will be the most sacred holiday on the American calendar. July 4th will be forgotten, as will Memorial Day and Labor Day and Election Day.

We will simply appoint former players to the Hall of Fame and high office in the same ceremony.

And now, to honor America, please rise and greet your next president, Mr. Ben Roethlisberger!


There was a time not long ago -- back before Sept. 11, 2001 -- when Americans were more suspicious of patriotic tripe like this. More skeptical. We knew we were being sold to. Manipulated. We were wary of the bunting and the fireworks, the martial music and the orotund speeches and the free beer and lemonade. We were cautious in the face of all those easy promises, because even worse than having the wool pulled over our eyes was having the flag pulled over them.

This is no longer the case.

Now freedom insists on our willingness to be suckered, to be gulled by the demagogues and swindled by the interests. To be hoodwinked. Bamboozled.

To pay 10 bucks for a beer.

That trained eagle they release just before kickoff? The one that flies a few feet, circles, then returns to the comfort and safety of his cage?

He flies for us all.

Good game, though.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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