The Super Bowl has come and gone. Reports tell us it was the third most widely witnessed event in American TV history, beaten only by two other Super Bowls. In this land of ours, the game has become as big a celebratory deal as just about anything from the Fourth of July to New Year's Eve. It features a physically tough sport. It is enmeshed in commercialism. Is all this OK?
I think so, with a caveat to come.
In fact, I think the whole affair — patriotic prelude, the football game itself, crowd fervor, technological wizardry, an advertising onslaught, the halftime extravaganza and more — speaks to a remarkable American energy, even a certain joyfulness. The evening's viewing may be mostly a dodge of life's unpleasant stuff, but so is attending a classical music concert or getting lost in a good novel. To my mind, such reprieves can be blessedly healthy.
And the frivolity did have touches of unifying seriousness, the most moving of which was the wondrous singing of "America the Beautiful" by a chorus of 26 children from Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That's where 20 first-graders along with six adults were shot to death in December, a shock that left the nation hurting. "We are Sandy Hook and We Choose Love," said a statement by school officials, and love was what you also saw in the faces shown by TV cameras in the New Orleans Superdome as the bright-eyed children performed.
In the game, Baltimore soared ahead, San Francisco roared back and the outcome was decided by a last-minute play that could easily have gone either way. Even short of similar suspense, football is a magnificent spectator sport of massive men colliding for the sake of getting the ball ahead a foot or two and then elegant, long-distance passes impossibly caught with sometimes stunning grace. It's a game of psychological ups and downs that make a difference, of skill and character and, believe it or not, of intellect that must consider strategies, counter-strategies and ingenious tactics.
It's a sport as well that many of us grew up on, though my own participation was confined to the backyard variety in which you touched instead of tackled. Some people think competition is a bad thing. I think winning and losing make statements about strengths and shortcomings, and handling either one well is a means of growth. The world gets better through competition as long as it is honest and fair. Competition in team sports demands teamwork, a virtue. It also demands exceptional individual effort and development of talents, also virtues.
There was a tech blot on the game this year, a lights-out stretch when you kept asking yourself whether America had really come to this — a power outage during the Super Bowl? But the TV technology we now take for granted is amazing, a way of watching sports that distant generations could not have imagined, and the lights were definitely working — if sometimes in unusual fashion — when Beyonce wowed the crowd. Her dazzling display of song and dance at halftime came just a couple of weeks after she deferred to a recording at President Barack Obama's inauguration, a not-so-awful fact that added interest to the Super Bowl act.
Maybe a few of the Super Bowl TV commercials fell short of super, but many were delightfully imaginative, a kind of art, even though it was seldom clear to me there had been any clear case for buying the product. I happen to believe in the least crass advertising as a means of boosting free enterprise that in turn is the greatest cure ever discovered for poverty.
Something like 108 million people watched this game, some of them fiercely loyal to one team or the other, but there's a sense in which we Americans are more together than apart on Super Bowl day, and this year the togetherness was symbolized by a rather extraordinary circumstance. The coaches of the two opposing teams were brothers. Football does have a problem in lasting brain injuries, and this must be fixed for the future. I bet we'll fix it.