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Opinion

Why I won't be watching the Super Bowl: Football is un-American

I love sports, but with its media-managed commercialism, defined roles and story lines, and aristocratic sports analysis, American football is just plain un-American. The faux-drama of the Steelers-Packers contest doesn't actually uphold the 'everyman' American ideals.

By Brian Fox / February 4, 2011



Brookline, Mass.

This Sunday most of America will be watching that uniquely American spectacle known as the Super Bowl. Even casual fans will tune in because they’ve bought into the concept that the commercials – an ordinary and somewhat onerous distraction on any other day of the year – are high art, must-see TV that evening.

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I used to play my part in the annual extravaganza, dutifully marching off to show up at a Super Bowl party and even hosting a few myself. But I’ve since given up on the game of American football for the simple reason that it doesn’t fit in with American values. Let me explain.

In many ways, football, which has somehow ascended to the top of American culture, is paradoxically the most un-American of sports. Americans who celebrate modern football as the “every man” sport are duped. With its defined roles built right into the fabric of the game and a predictable storyline contingent on those roles, there’s little room for “social mobility.” American football is like Old Europe.

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More than any other sport, football viewing has also been overtaken by new media. That means heavily managed pervasive commercialism intermingled with sports commentary. The average sofa spectator isn’t watching unbridled team athleticism and split-second cooperation so much as he’s consuming perfectly engineered commercial breaks. And at every interruption, he’s fed instant analysis from the sports center aristocracy – expertly designed to give him the feeling of inclusiveness.

The real drama of other sports

Please don’t dismiss me as a non-sports fan. I wouldn’t think of missing the World Series or the NBA Finals. I marvel at the Olympics and the World Cup. I’ve simply come to the realization that American football is actually a faux sport, closer to the Disney World that the Super Bowl MVP would claim that he was going to than the real drama that one might see at other sporting venues.

Sports are magnificent. At their best, they represent our noblest efforts to surpass our human boundaries. The high jump, long jump, and pole vault may be our purest attempt to slip the bonds of gravity. Individual sports also give us a window into what it’s like to compete against ourselves. Who hasn’t gasped in awe at spectacular one-on-one clashes that have been so epic in nature that the names of the competitors will now and forever be connected with a hyphen, as if they’ve become a single entity, such as Ali-Frazier or Federer-Nadal?

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Even weekend warriors can replicate that feeling by being so evenly matched against another on the golf course or tennis court that it seems as if one is competing against oneself. With that comes the exhilarating realization that only by reaching down deep within ourselves and accessing a better, previously unexplored part, will we prevail. The result can be as personally transformative as when Jacob wrestled the angel.

Team sports contain all of that and much more still. Aside from dealing with a formidable opponent, one also has to make oneself a viable part of a team. This means retaining one’s individuality while joining with a group of individuals for a common goal. This happens all the time, of course, but rarely outside of the sports field (or perhaps a jazz band jam session) does it soar to the level that it forms an entity so dynamic and cohesive, it creates its own separate consciousness. The result can be almost transcendental. I feel sorry for those who’ve never experienced it.

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