SAN FRANCISCO — I look at my friends and see they are all weaklings. Pale, soft, and cursed with amusingly spindly legs — they sit in ragged little heaps very close to the large television screen in the living room of a crowded apartment, chain-smoking and furiously draining bright red beer cans.
None of these welterweights ever played any football in high school. Serious young men of such meager proportions wound up as scrabble-team ringers and rock musicians, not promising monsters of the gridiron. I imagine one of my particularly neurotic college buddies taking the field in heavy pads and an over-sized helmet, chattering nervously in the huddle and then, after the hike, running in circles for a few seconds, and yelping before being ground to a fine paste by a tattooed M1 Abrams with $300 cleats.
At that image, I can no longer hide my laughter, so it’s a good thing the rest of the party is too busy watching the game to notice. Indeed, the tube had never before seen devotion of this magnitude. Normally, this talkative crowd would have no trouble drowning out a squawking flat-screen with arch reflections on literature, politics, and the love lives of trashy acquaintances.
But not today: Today everyone is keeping their witticisms to themselves. Eyes are focused; hands are shaky and tense. They run corn chips through seven-layer been dip and shovel them into their open maws. Over the crunching, I hear only the soothing murmur of game-play grunts and shoulder-pad thuds.
WELCOME TO SUPER BOWL XXXVIII in San Fran. Given the crowd’s lack of muscle tone and green politics, one might expect this bunch to be less enthralled by the biggest game in football, a game which, according to a small, clueless minority, is a brutish sport. Thuggish skull-cracking is prized above nimble athleticism and perplexing parallels to modern warfare are the order of the day.
And your expectations would be crushed right about the time that Panthers’ quarterback Jake Delhomme stumbles out of the pocket looking for a receiver. Patriots linebackers roar past his blocker to maul the quarterback from his vulnerable blind-side. Struggling like a tender antelope in the unforgiving jaws of a ferocious wild cat, Delhomme flounders but manages to fling the ball away before he crashes on the turf.
The living room erupts in raucous cheers. “Damn, he got dropped cold,” screeches my friend, the 130-pound librarian/actor. His roommate, a skeletal special education teacher/musician, concurs. “Did you see his helmet bounce?” he shouts, cracking open a fresh brew and ripping a hot wing in half. “Did you? Oh man, that was awesome!” They both pound the coffee table like mental patients.
Surprisingly, these two insane fans care little for the Patriots, or the Panthers for that matter. Last year, many of us transplants from the East tried to solidify our newly won residential status by endorsing the Oakland Raiders in their ill-fated effort to defeat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In that contest, our loyalty was contrived at best, as we became, at least once the second quarter rolled by, uniformly impressed by the liquor-swilling talents of the extravagantly-costumed Raider faithful staggering about outside the arena.
This time around, no one even has a dog in the fight. Instead of taking sides based on hometown pride or the talents of an especially charismatic player, the guests at this Super Bowl party made the decision to rally behind the guy delivering the monster hit, regardless of his team affiliation. Onlookers feel free to channel their emotions not towards joy in victory, or dismay in defeat, but to a wild, ecstatic toast to the sport’s unrivalled cult of celebration.
This crowd isn’t made up of dedicated football aficionados, but of armchair theorists obsessed with the ironic possibilities of watching sports they’ve ceased to enjoy on a visceral level. We’re going through the motions, acting out the traits unfairly linked with the majority of true sports fans — gorging on junk food, screaming incomprehensible obscenities at flag-happy referees, etc. — when the outcome of the match is no longer of any real importance.
After the second quarter ends, a few toss a Nerf football in the rain outside but we are drawn back in when we hear that Kid Rock, a noted master of populist pastiche, has taken the stage for his half-time performance. Yet instead of using the opportunity to scoff at his lack of talent we applaud enthusiastically, because that’s what the fans on the field are doing.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG and thus much less inclined to scrutinize its cultural significance, I’d behave this way while watching the Super Bowl with my dad and little brother — sans the booze and swearing of course. Back then, I really liked football and would have been less preoccupied with what might fall from Janet Jackson’s corset.
Scholarly and exhaustive in my approach, I was a self-taught pigskin strategist with a fairly sophisticated sense of the sport’s ethos — one I picked up from Paper Lion, not a Sony Playstation game. I could watch games all Sunday long.
Now, I sit and see my friends desperately mimic how my younger self enjoyed this game, and I’m starting to grasp at the strands of a theory. Regardless of our tin-foil constitutions, we all liked football when we were younger. Then, many of us started wondering if all the perceived machismo surrounding the game ran contrary to our new-found self-consciously “creative” pursuits. So we bid adieu to open-field tackles, third-down conversions, and long bombs, and instead embraced abrasive rock music, art, and New German cinema in their stead, kidding ourselves into thinking we had made the leap to a more evolved state of mind.
We may no longer harbor the same affection for football we once did but I, for one, still insist on resisting the temptation to hold it entirely at arm’s length, the same way I’d handle a historical film or socio-political movement. I hope my well-intentioned friends try to do the same at some point, because our gleeful simulation of stadium revelry is, in part, a cry for help.