Tonight some 100 million U.S. screens are tuning in to watch Super Bowl 51 while I sit alone in my apartment with a cup of peach tea and some French bread that I baked and my pile of library books which include exciting titles like “Origins of the Urban Crisis” and “Making Sense of Qualitative Data.” It is the yearly U.S. ritual where hundreds of millions of people sit for hours watching some 50 men perform masculinity on a fake grass field while lines of sexualized women coax us to cheer the men on. Some older men in suits recycle a limited sports lexicon as they narrate what the 50 or so men are doing: “So many storylines leading up to tonight’s game.” “Record crowd in attendance.” “Flag on the play.” It’s a contagious event that anyone can participate in, that people have created strange and innovative ways for any random person to participate in. Last night as I sat at a bar the bartender carried an enormous markerboard over to our end: it was an elaborate chart, and each box was filled in with incomprehensible numbers and letters and colors. We all knew what it was, for the next day was the Super Bowl. The bartender threw the giant board into a dark corner on the floor. Now that it was all filled in he didn’t have to deal with it anymore.
Twice as many people will watch Super Bowl 51 tonight than the number of people who voted for President Donald Trump in November. That’s assuming there’s more than one human per glowing screen. If televisions and computers were votes, a game of football would be twice as popular as the president. I guess this could mean a lot of things: liberals also like football; Donald Trump ain’t shit; the United States is having a crisis of civic participation; Super Bowl viewer suppression schemes have failed once again.
I remember in first grade our teacher had us color in the helmet of the team we thought would win the big game. That year it was the Buffalo Bills versus the Washington Redskins; every single person in the class with the exception of one girl, Jessica, colored in a blue buffalo with a red streak. Jessica colored in her Redskin. Nobody likes the Redskins: brown man, yellow feathers. We posted our helmets up in the hallway for all the other children and adults to admire, and after the Redskins won we all couldn’t believe how clairvoyant six year-old Jessica had been. The following year the Bills were back and the Redskins had been subdued into irrelevance. The Cowboys defeated the Bills in a match that, this time, everyone predicted. Everyone liked the Cowboys. The Cowboys were “America’s Team” and I suppose we were all “America.” The buffalo and the Indians were both history. A white, androgynous Michael Jackson performed the halftime show, to my utter fascination. No one in my family seemed to know how to talk about it.
The Super Bowl is one of those momentous cultural landmarks from which indelible associative memories are made. If you name a Super Bowl matchup I can probably tell you where and with whom I was, and how much snow we got. The event is sort of like 9/11, or for my parents’ generation, JFK’s assassination. At age 22 I had graduated from college and was working three terrible jobs and living in an apartment by the Poughkeepsie train station. That winter I never turned the heat above 55 because I thought it would save me a lot of money. On Super Bowl Sunday I was teaching a Kaplan SAT prep class in Westchester, and when my class ended I realized the football game was about to begin and I was standing alone in a dark church and everyone I loved was watching the game somewhere. I had been planning on boycotting the dumb game but suddenly I felt desperately lonely. Desperately lonely because I wasn’t watching a game of football. I drove two hours north so I could watch the second half with my parents. I remember feeling exhilarated and loved and lucky as I barreled down the highway for my parents’ house. I remembered how my 6th grade health class teacher had told us that one day in her twenties she realized she was no longer embarrassed to hang out with her parents again, and I wondered then if I had finally reached that day. Later, as the New York Giants were about to beat the New England Patriots, my mom came over from the kitchen to watch. She had been able to sense, just from the tone of the announcers’ voices and the rising din of the crowd, that we were approaching the game’s climax. The three of us sat on the couch and quietly watched the sparkling screen. If you had been sitting in a canoe in the middle of the forest lake outside my parents’ house you would have seen a hundred of these sharp but small flickering screens dotting the otherwise gaping darkness all around you.
If the Giants won, the announcers claimed, it would be the most historic upset in Super Bowl History.
That was 2008. Tonight, the Patriots would have their way. “We are all Patriots,” the team’s owner famously announced when they had first won in 2001, and now, 2017, these words echo back as a new team would inherit the mantle of “America’s team.” Whereas most other U.S. citizens would have balked at these words 16 years ago, hating the northeastern elitism that Robert Kraft’s and Bill Bellichick’s and Tom Brady’s team represented, now these men were frontrunners, and elementary school students everywhere would rejoice. The Patriots were the new Cowboys. Some of my friends on social media would equate the victory with the election of Donald Trump, since New England has direct ties to the new president. Tom Brady, a known Trump supporter, has come to represent toxic white male nationalism, even for New England liberals, who must walk a line between hating him for his politics and respecting him for his football prowess and wishing they’d never been so fickle to fall for him in the first place just because he wore their jersey.
The football victory would be chiseled yet again into political symbolism. Halftime performer Lady Gaga would be lauded for being subtly political, criticized for being too political, and decried for being apolitical. Some would yearn for the previous year’s performance, when Beyonce’s political symbolism was deemed divisive, distasteful, powerful, incoherent, and so on. Last year she used her platform to commemorate the Black Panthers halfway through the Patriots’ victory. This year she is having twins. It is hard to tell what social media is more excited about. Corporations would stage overt celebrations of American nationalism during the commercial breaks, and they would also stage subtle but provocative subversions of Trump’s agenda. Families and friends trying to be social would freeze up with uncertainty. Someone you know probably said, “Can we just enjoy the game?” Someone else you know said, “I only watch this game for the commercials.” But it is not just entertainment when corporations are paying 6 million dollars for a spot. And it is not just a game when the winner gets invited to the White House and grown men and women cry in their living rooms as they wax allegorical about a Republican coup led by a serial golf course tycoon dressed up as a populist. And fuck, it is not just a game when you realize that any one of these male athlete-celebrities might be more electable, for the citizens of your country, than career politicians, law experts, public servants, educators, community organizers, lifelong activists. These people on our screens are symbols, and symbols are currency. We feel them dropped into our pockets and we wrap them around our necks for warmth. We own them, we make their story ours, and though the actors and the names and the words change the story cycles on.