Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The Politics of Sport - The Superbowl. America's Crucible

By Shane Thomas

So, it turns out that I couldn't indulge in my yearly tradition of having no chill towards Peyton Manning for the final time. This won't be a breakdown of the Denver Broncos winning Super Bowl 50 - best to leave that to the likes of Bruce Arthur and Bill Barnwell - only to say, that we should be wary about reverting to the cliche of defense winning championships, as it's a lot easier for that good defense when the opposing offense is non-existent.
The Super Bowl has a weird fascination for many in Britain, much like observing One Direction fandom: you can tell it has plenty of relevance; and that people care about it zealously; but surely it's all a silly phase that they'll eventually grow out of.

However, this fails to comprehend that it's a key plank in the edifice of America. Make no mistake, it's not a sporting contest, it's an event. More so than either the World Cup or the Olympics (summer or winter). This is an occasion where it takes seven guest legends of the sport, three officials, two captains and an MC just to get the coin tossed.

It's the id of the sports-industrial complex. Specifically America's. The culmination of powerful institutions realising that the joy and agglomeration inherent in sport could be used as a cashpoint machine and/or as a tool of political power.

The true point of the Super Bowl isn't trying to ascertain which side in the NFL is the best, but to buttress the way middle America feels about itself. Football and the Superbowl functions much like the way Victorian Britain used sport to inculcate "Muscular Christianity" into its body politic, for the good of their brutal empire.

And this is what makes the past three years of the event especially important. Anti-black racism has always been baked into the sport, but it remained cloaked enough for the national dialectic to ignore it. But the second Richard Sherman proudly bellowed, "Don't you ever talk about me!", in 2014, it changed everything.

The cognoscenti demeaned Sherman as a thug, and invoked pseudo-concern for pitchside interviewer, Erin Andrews[1]. They didn't realise they were dealing with someone who had the acumen and verbiage to immediately explicate their dog-whistle racism.

America was now forced to countenance that black NFL players - many of whom are given minimal options to reach affluence in an inequitable society - weren't just here to take and receive hits, while remaining grateful and obeisant. Sherman helped turn Super Bowl week into a purlieu to discuss elements of America's anti-black racism.

Last year, Sherman took a backseat, as Marshawn Lynch became the focus. The taciturn - and now retired - Lynch got his message across in seven words. Once again, we had a black athlete who wouldn't get with the program, irking middle America, and becoming a paladin for those used to being trampled over by the most powerful.

This year it was Cam Newton's turn. Tariq Toure brilliantly elucidated on Newton's significance beyond his ability as a quarterback. But his position as a QB is particularly piquant. Sherman and Lynch were important lieutenants on their team. Cam's the general, the leader, the one in charge. His promise is something more, because someone who is not only black, but refuses to be self-effacing is potentially transformational.

Few have any quarrel with black athletes succeeding, but many do when black success is twinned with any hint of boastfulness. One may look to Muhammad Ali as a parallel for Newton, but I think a more accurate comparison is with the legendary West Indian cricketer, Sir Viv Richards.

We should also acknowledge that this paradigm has been inflamed by the opposition quarterbacks in the past three Super Bowls: Peyton Manning (twice), and Tom Brady. Iconic names, who posses qualities that many think a proper leader should have, giving a refuge for those who don't like the changing make-up of their country.

The Super Bowl's always been more than a game. And it's becoming increasingly apparent just how much. Just look at the edacious scramble for companies to advertise their products, with the game doubling up as a tentpole of commerce. But being the nucleus of the nation's focus means that it can be used for a variety of agendas - even ones that don't align with the status-quo.

It's no coincidence that Beyonce used the halftime show for the most striking - and thrilling - detonation of her musical career, nor is there anything coincidental about the reaction, positive and otherwise. This wouldn't happen without the platform of the Super Bowl. It's a crucible for the American story; something that's probably not ending any time soon.

Because what happens when we see openly gay players in the Super Bowl? Or if Washington make it to the big game? Imagine the conversations if a Native American quarterback features in a Super Bowl - especially if it happens against Washington?

The past three years are proof positive that the Super Bowl is a reflection of American life. Yes, it's an orgy of militarism, jingoism, and capitalism, but the likes of Sherman and Newton are forcing America to look hard in the mirror at its flaws as well as its strengths. It's become a utensil for the country to scrutinise itself, its very own sporting State of the Union.

NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell always wanted the NFL and the Super Bowl to be the epicentre of sporting world. One could argue that he's succeeded. But this is a double-edged sword, as with the money comes the attention. Goodell seems to have overlooked that the NFL only exists as part of the fabric of a world outside the league. It's a world that has plenty to talk about.

[1] - Ftr, Andrews said she had no issue with Sherman's post-match interview.

"The Greatest Events in Sporting History" is available at https://soundcloud.com/sportshistory and http://www.simplysyndicated.com/shows/sportinghistory/, e-mail us at sportshistoryshow@googlemail.com and you can follow us on Twitter @TGEISH

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