Super Bowl as respite and bridge

This outsize TV spectacle is losing viewers. Yet such national rituals are needed to help Americans transcend their widening political divide.

AP Photo
New England Patriots fans cheer during an NFL football Super Bowl send-off rally for the team Jan. 29, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are to play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 52, Sunday, Feb. 4, in Minneapolis.

One national tradition that helps bridge differences between Americans is that secular holiday called Super Bowl Sunday. Even if they differ over their favorite National Football League team, a third of the population comes together for this TV spectacle, fans and nonfans alike. They share a communal dish (guacamole). They grade the commercials. They loathe or love the halftime show.

This one annual sporting event helps transcend the nation’s widening political divide. For one day, the gridiron is the anti-gridlock.

The TV audience for the Super Bowl still far surpasses that for the Oscars ceremony or popular entertainment programs. Yet in the past two years, the numbers have declined. And they are expected to drop again for Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4.

The reasons are unclear. Perhaps many viewers now prefer to stream the commercials later online. Some may be concerned about player safety. Or perhaps fans have tired of the New England Patriots.

Other major live events, such as the Academy Awards, have also seen a drop in viewers. One producer of the Oscars told The New York Times that “vast swaths” of people turned off their televisions when celebrities used the Oscars to jab political opponents.

This decline in shared national experiences is a reminder of the need to maintain such bridging rituals. Traditions, even a spectacle like the Super Bowl, create a unity of purpose and promote mutual affection. They help overcome the loneliness of interacting online. They may last only a few hours. Yet they reflect an intentional community.

Most of all, by coming together for a transcendent moment, they allow people to feel connected and want to listen to others with whom they may otherwise disagree.

The Super Bowl, like the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving, is a test of the nation’s spiritual literacy. These rituals foster the opportunity for friendly conversation. They fill the emptiness left by highly partisan politics. A door for love is opened. They bring out a higher longing to affirm a grander identity.

Yes, Tom Brady may win again on Sunday. The commercials may not be that funny. And the snacks could be boring. But watching the Super Bowl isn’t just watching a game. It is a respite from politics and a bridge to each other.

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