The eight most-watched television broadcasts in US history were Super Bowl games. Though viewership has slipped in recent years, the 2018 game still gathered 103.4 million people in front of their screens. It was the top-rated TV event of the year.
The game’s glitzy halftime show has its own starry history. Over a half-century, performers have included a who’s who of pop music, from Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, and Prince, to Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé.
This year’s headliner, Maroon 5, can boast of three Grammy awards and millions of album sales, but it’s hardly the hot act of the moment. Cardi B, Rihanna, Jay-Z, and others apparently turned down the opportunity to star in the year’s biggest showcase to instead show support for Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. .
Mr. Kaepernick, an African-American, became the eye of a public storm during the 2016 season when he knelt during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games to express his concern over incidents of racial injustice. But others saw the act as showing disrespect for the anthem and US flag. A cultural debate ensued. Today Kaepernick is no longer employed by an NFL team. That has led some to argue team owners won’t hire him because of his public political expression while working in an NFL event.
An online petition asking Maroon 5 not to perform has received more than 110,000 signatures. But PJ Morton, the lone African-American member of Maroon 5, has defended the group’s appearance.
“We can support being against police brutality against black and brown people and be in support of being able to peacefully protest and still do our jobs,” Mr. Morton has said. “We just want to have a good time and entertain people while understanding the important issues that are at hand.”
Another African-American, the “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight, has agreed to sing the national anthem at the game.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting ... police violence and injustice,” she told Variety in a written statement. But “[i]t is unfortunate that our National Anthem has been dragged into this debate.... I pray that this National Anthem will bring us all together in a way never before witnessed and we can move forward and untangle these truths which mean so much to all of us.”
Perhaps in an effort to quiet the controversy, Maroon 5 did not give a traditional press conference this week. Instead, it announced it would join with the NFL and Interscope Records to make a $500,000 donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. Travis Scott, an African-American rapper who will join Maroon 5 on stage at halftime, earlier pledged to donate in partnership with the NFL $500,000 to Dream Corps, a nonprofit social justice group with several initiatives, including prison reform.
One thing is certain in 2019: The show (and the football game) will go on. Those protesting or boycotting will make their point that racial issues still need attention. The participating performers will respect the issues Kaepernick raises while not seeing a need to politicize a sports and entertainment event. And the necessary national conversation about the best ways to draw attention to and correct social wrongs will go on. The civility of the debate will help ensure civil rights.