This Sunday, February 2, a major American cultural event will take place. The 54th Super Bowl game will be played in Miami. To decide the championship of American professional football, the San Francisco 49ers will play the Kansas City Chiefs.
As in the past, this year the game will hold the attention of much of the nation, commanding a television audience larger than for any other event in 2020. The five most-watched American television programs in history have all been Super Bowl broadcasts. For that reason, commercial time for this telecast will cost more than for any other: around $5.6 million for 30 seconds of airtime. Advertisers lavish effort and resources on producing these brief messages, and surveys have shown that a small but significant fraction of the Super Bowl’s huge viewership tunes in principally to see the commercials.
Tens of thousands of parties will convene across the country to watch the game. Americans consume more food on the day of the Super Bowl than on any other day of the year except Thanksgiving, including an estimated 28 million pounds of potato chips, 1.25 billion chicken wings, and eight million pounds of guacamole. In addition to commerce and conviviality, Sunday will be a landmark day for another American obsession: gambling. In the United States, more money is bet on the Super Bowl than on any other event.
The first of them, on January 15, 1967, was a far more modest affair. It was not, in fact, the first championship game of the National Football League (NFL), which had been operating since 1920. In 1960 a rival group of teams, the American Football League, came into existence, the two leagues merged in 1966, and the 1967 contest marked the first meeting of their respective champions. While all the seats for next Sunday’s game have long been sold, the venue for the first game, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, was only two-thirds full. Tickets to that game cost $12; now the average resale value for one approaches $8,000. Indeed, that initial game was not called the Super Bowl: that honorific was only added for the third one, in 1969.
Thus, what was, more than half a century ago, an interesting but hardly earth-shaking addition to the American sports calendar has become something akin to a national holiday—“Super Bowl Sunday.” How and why did this happen, and what does the event’s cultural significance tell us about the country in which it is celebrated?
The Super Bowl’s timing, occurring as it does on the first Sunday in February, is propitious. It comes in the middle of winter, when alternative outdoor activities are sparse. It takes place over three and a half hours beginning shortly after 6 p.m. Eastern time, ending early enough for adults to go comfortably to work and children to school the next day. It is a single, decisive, and therefore maximally dramatic event. By contrast, to become the champion of the other major American professional sports—baseball, basketball, and ice hockey—a team has to win four games (of a possible seven), so single contests rarely carry the same weight as the Super Bowl.
Moreover, it is easy to take part in this particular national ritual: all that is required is a television set. Indeed, the Super Bowl is unimaginable without television: only a tiny fraction of the total audience witnesses it in person. The event therefore testifies to the importance of television in American life. And while television is often said to have a fragmenting, atomizing impact on society, directing the individual’s attention to the screen rather than to other people, the Super Bowl has the opposite effect: It not only provides an occasion for social gatherings, it supplies one of the most widely shared experiences in American life, the subject of countless conversations in homes, workplaces, and elsewhere, among people of all ages, occupations, and educational backgrounds.
The Super Bowl began at a time when the influence of television in American life had reached its zenith. Virtually every household had at least one set, and those offering transmission in color were just beginning to replace the black-and-white models. American viewers’ choice of programming was restricted: Three major networks (two of which, NBC and CBS, televised the 1967 game) dominated the airwaves, which gave them far greater influence than any single network enjoys today. Fifty years later, cable has created a world with hundreds of channels, and television has to compete for Americans’ attention with the internet and social media. Audiences for all television programs have shrunk—except in the case of the Super Bowl, where the other media reinforce rather than compete with it. What is it, then, about this particular annual television program that has made it so massively popular?
What is being televised is a game, and Americans, perhaps the most competitive people since the ancient Greeks, with a penchant for turning everything from architecture to eating into a contest, are inordinately fond of games. They are fond of playing them and they are just as fond of watching them: Games—sports—are a form of mass entertainment. They differ from the other principal form of mass entertainment, scripted drama, in three ways that help to account for their appeal. They are spontaneous. Unlike in films and theatrical productions, the outcome is not known in advance: No one bets on the outcome of a play or movie. They are authentic. Unlike film stars, athletes really are doing what audiences see them doing. And games are coherent. Unlike so much of life they have a beginning, middle, and end, with a plot line and a conclusion that can be easily understood.
A certain development in football over the past 54 years has added to its appeal: There is now more scoring, in large part through changes in the rules that make advancing the ball through the forward pass easier. An old adage has it that while defense—preventing scoring—wins championships, offense puts people in the seats. So it has been with football; but so it has been, as well, with the other American sports, which have also changed their rules for this purpose. The Super Bowl is America’s most popular televised event because football has become, over the last half century, America’s most popular sport. Why is that?
Football differs from the country’s other major team sports in that it has violence at its heart. The game’s basic activities are blocking (trying forcibly to move an opposing player or impeding his progress) and tackling (knocking to the ground the player in possession of the ball). Football’s violence is organized, indeed choreographed, rather than random or purely individual. It therefore resembles a very old form of organized violence: war. Football is a small-scale, restrained, relatively (but not entirely) safe version of warfare. The tens of millions of people who will watch the 49ers play the Chiefs are the very distant descendants of the Americans who, in 1861, brought picnic baskets to northern Virginia to watch the First Battle of Bull Run.
From a distance, a football game resembles a pre-modern battle: two groups of men in uniforms, wearing protective gear, crash into each other. Like most military battles, football is a contest for territory, with each team trying to advance the ball to the opposing side’s goal. In football, as in war, older men draw up plans for younger, more vigorous men to carry out: The sport’s coaches are its generals, the players its troops. Football teams mirror the tripartite organization of classical armies: the beefy linemen correspond to the infantry; the smaller, lighter players who actually carry the ball are the equivalent of cavalry; and the quarterback who advances the ball by throwing it through the air and the receivers who catch it are the sport’s version of an army’s artillery.
Football borrows some of its vocabulary from the terminology of war. A forward pass far down the field is a “long bomb.” The large men arrayed against each other along the line of scrimmage, where each football play begins, are said, like the soldiers on the western front in World War I, to be skirmishing “in the trenches.” An all-out assault on a quarterback attempting to pass is a “blitz,” taking its name from a comparable German tactic in World War II—the blitzkrieg, or lightning war.
War was once considered a normal, natural, and even, under some circumstances, an admirable part of social and political life. That is no longer the case, which perhaps helps to account to football’s popularity: The game is the one remaining socially acceptable form of organized violence.
War has not disappeared, of course, but in the United States it has changed in yet another way, which also contributes to the appeal of football. In traditional warfare individuals confronted each other directly and did battle with their personal weapons. Today the American military has become a high-tech organization that does some of its fighting impersonally and at very long range. The controller sitting in a shed maneuvering by remote control a drone thousands of miles away has partly replaced the warrior armed with his sword or battle-ax or bayonet. The result of a conflict waged in this new way depends not only on the bravery of a nation’s soldiers, but also on the ingenuity of its engineers.
Football, however, preserves some of the features of war before the advent of sensors and lasers. It is, as war was in the past (and sometimes still is), a test of will and skill. The traditional martial virtues, which societies admired and individuals sought to emulate—persistence, discipline, grace under pressure and, above all, courage—still matter in football. In this way Super Bowl Sunday, like other American holidays such as the Fourth of July or the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, honors the past by celebrating, implicitly, human qualities that appear, in 2020, to have been more common in the past than they are in the present. Football players, like those who will take part in Super Bowl LIV, become heroes for some of the same reasons that Alvin York and Audie Murphy, highly decorated American soldiers in World Wars I and II, respectively, were regarded as heroic.
Football players do not face death on their field of conflict, but the sport does share, up to a point, war’s dark side. Their common feature gives reason to wonder whether the Super Bowl will have the same cachet 50 years from now.
Like war, football is a dangerous activity. The multiple collisions between large, powerful men take a toll. Fractured and broken arms and legs and torn ligaments are occupational hazards for football players. Many of the participants in Sunday’s game, who will, by the time their careers end, have played for a decade or more—in high school and college before joining the professional ranks—will ultimately suffer from chronic arthritis.
In recent years, moreover, a far worse kind of injury has come to be associated with the game: brain damage. Examinations of the brains of deceased players, many of whom displayed signs of mental illness when alive and some of whom committed suicide, have shown evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) a degenerative disease that leads to memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression.
A number of retired players sued the NFL on the grounds that it had not adequately warned them of the risks of the game it employed them to play. The suit was settled out of court, with the League not conceding any liability but making payments to the players. The settlement will surely not prevent future suits.
Moreover, if further research confirms the suspected link between the game and CTE, football may meet the same fate as boxing or smoking—once popular activities that remain legal but are now strongly discouraged and take place on a far smaller scale than in the past. The more persuasive the evidence connecting football with brain damage becomes, the more reluctant parents will be to allow their sons to play the game, which will restrict, perhaps dramatically, the pool from which professional teams draw their players. That pool will be severely restricted, as well, if the school districts that sponsor high school football and the universities whose teams play each other at the collegiate level are forced to take out expensive insurance policies against the claims that players or their families may make against them. In an era of straitened finances local school boards and the state legislatures that fund most football-playing universities may simply refuse to pay the premiums. In that case, while football may not die out completely, it will surely wither.
The proprietors of football at all levels will try—indeed, are trying today—to make the game safer for the players. If they do not succeed, however, Super Bowl 104, in 2070, will be a much-reduced version of the spectacle that will unfold this Sunday—that is, if the 104th Super Bowl takes place at all.
A version of this essay was first published in these pages in 2016.