I’m here today to report that the state of the Super Bowl is, uh, strong. Really, really strong. The question — one I’ve been asking in various newspapers and news sites over way too many years — is why.
How did the Super Bowl become America’s midwinter celebration and unashamed paean to all things in excess, and not just in the partaking of either Doritos or Buffalo wings? And why, when so much in the world is changing, has it remained so?
It’s not just the game, although pro football is by far the most popular sport in America. It’s not just the ads, although Super Bowl commercials — which now run at about $7 million for 30 seconds — will be better remembered than 95% of the football played today. I mean, people were replaying Go Daddy commercials for years before anyone knew what they were actually selling.
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But it looked like the same thing that Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett were selling back in a 1973 Noxzema ad, in which Namath said, before Fawcett rubs shaving cream on his face, “I’m so excited. I’m going to get creamed.” Advertising historians — assuming there is such a thing — say that’s what got the whole Super Bowl ad thing started.
And it’s not just the halftime show. If you’re of a certain age, as I am, you’ll remember when Up With People was a halftime staple. This year, it’s Rihanna, in her much-ballyhooed on-stage comeback, but you can expect her to bring along surprise guests and at least one controversy. In both cases, I’m betting the over.
Before we get too far, here’s a reminder. The teams in play in Super Bowl LVII are the Kansas City Chiefs — the Redskins and Indians may be gone, but, yes, we still have teams named Chiefs, along with their fans doing the tomahawk chop— and the Philadelphia Eagles, whose name is inoffensive, but whose fans often are not.
The quarterbacks are Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts, marking the first time two Black QBs will face each other in a Super Bowl. There’s also a Kelce brother on each team, which is another first. That’s pretty much all you need to know, except that you can make bets on everything from what Rihanna’s first song or last song or hair color will be, and, in keeping with the entertainment side of the game, the over/under on how long it takes to sing the National Anthem. The American Gaming Association — yes, of course, there’s an American Gaming Association — estimates that more than 50 million people will bet on the game.
You’d think the Super Bowl’s popularity might have suffered when so many of us no longer want our kids playing football on account of the danger of concussions and resulting brain damage. It’s not just the NFL, where too many retired players die young and wind up donating their brains to the study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). In the latest study of players’ brains — which can only be done after they’ve died — Boston University researchers found 92% of those analyzed suffered from CTE.
Meanwhile, the latest estimates are that somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 high school players suffer concussions annually. And “pee-wee” football? Some doctors are saying that youth football is the most dangerous football.
The sight of Damar Hamlin collapsing on the field during a Monday Night Football game — after a routine tackle caused cardiac arrest and nearly his death — shocked the nation. Fortunately, thanks to the quick work of medical teams, he recovered, although probably not as quickly as did the nation’s appetite for more football.
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But it was not so long ago that the NFL game seemed to be in trouble. You could even say it was nearly brought to its knees.
You remember. It was Colin Kaepernick who took the famous knee in a 2016 preseason game in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. By 2017, Kaepernick was gone — and has never been invited back — but taking a knee had become endemic, and Donald Trump, as president, was calling on the league owners to fire any player for taking a knee. And so it became a major battle in the culture wars, with culture warriors saying the knee meant showing disrespect for the nation, the armed forces, the police and whoever else volunteered to be offended.
TV ratings began to fall, and it was assumed that Trump’s base had deserted the game in droves. The question was, would it recover? The irony is that the NFL has spent decades wrapping itself in the flag — usually one that’s football-field-sized for the Super Bowl — featuring the annual military jet flyover and generally playing cheerleader for every war the United States has been engaged in.
In 2016, I think the word “woke” still meant either the past tense of “wake” or, by some in the Black community, a sign of recognizing the kinds of things for which Kaepernick was kneeling. We know what “woke” means today — anything that progressives like and Trumpists don’t. In fact, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis may base a presidential campaign on the slogan that Florida is the place “where woke goes to die.”
Still, by 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was sufficiently comfortable with player protests that he apologized to Kaepernick for not paying closer attention to what he was saying. And by 2023, Rihanna, who boycotted the 2019 halftime show in support of Kaepernick, is officially back while Trump is calling her a “NO TALENT.”
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And Arizona, who once lost the Super Bowl because it refused to pass a law honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day, bowed to the pressure, passed the law, and is back in the regular rotation.
Oh, and the really good news, if you’re the NFL or Fox TV or an advertising company or fans of the Bud Bowl, is that analysts expect a record TV audience for Super Bowl LVII, which is maybe the last thing Americans watch on TV at the same time or even on the same day.
How many viewers? Just remember that all screens count, no matter the size, shape or whether Siri is involved. If you need a hint, try this: If you can figure out what the Roman numeral is for 115,000,000, you’re a winner.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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