The Super Bowl: American Metaphysics in Action

Many sports lay claim to a primary spot in the American heart, but TV ratings indicate one sport above all captures the nation's attention -- professional football. On Sunday, Jan. 28, 150 million people across the land will tune in for the Super Bowl.

The event consistently ranks among the most watched programs -- last year, with more than 43 million homes tuning in, it was the fifth most popular show ever (but only the third among all Super Bowls). If, as Arthur Miller suggested, the business of America is show business, then the Super Bowl is clearly America's greatest show.

Baseball and basketball don't come close. Consider this: Super Bowl Sunday is one of those days with a name, up there with Easter or Thanksgiving. Ever hear of Pennant Friday or Golden Hoop Monday?

But why this pull? Football is a ripped-guts, smashmouth contest of modern gladiators orchestrated by Patton-esque coaches and their chess-master strategies, culled from playbooks thicker than a Don De Lillo novel. And that has its attractions. But beyond the balleticism of wide receivers, the violence of the front lines and the surgical precision of quarterbacks, lies a deeper appeal. Look closely and you'll see that football is America's metaphysics played out under stadium lights.

Football, more than any other sport, gives you control over Time. Time will ultimately run out on all of us, that is everyone's fate. But America does not abide fate easily -- nothing is determined, everything is manageable.

So football turns Time into an element to be managed. One of the game's prized skills is the ability to "control the clock" -- and not just by calling time outs. Football players can stop the clock by stepping out of bounds, spiking the ball or throwing an incomplete. Conversely, you can chew up time by running the ball and letting the clock wind down. Bill Parcells, one of the greatest coaches, was America's God of Time. He rode the winged chariot to two Super Bowl victories with the Giants.

The obsession with Space is another exclusive football trait. No other sport carries the same expansionist goal of pushing forward and occupying space. Down by down, the offense stakes ground on the gridiron, settles new territory, pushes the frontier and works its way to the promised land, the end zone. That is American history rolled into four quarters, with cheerleaders to boot.

Which gives it the forward-looking, triumphant march of the New World.

Perhaps above all else, football embodies a people's cosmic struggle to wrench order out of chaos, create a system out of primordial muck. America, more than other places (which have relied on myth, custom, philosophy and decree), has achieved this through The Law.

Just as the U.S. has more lawyers than all other countries combined, so football has the greatest number of officials of any sport -- seven on the field, four in the booth and eight assistants of various sorts, from clock operators to chain crews. Its rule book can take any presidential candidate's legal team to task. The original set of 61 rules in 1876 has mutated into almost 800 today, with an average of 20 changes a year.

As with the law, some of football's rules may appear baroque and absurd. For instance, there is a ten yard penalty on any player who "uses the top of his helmet unnecessarily". Another rule states that "offensive linemen are permitted to interlock legs" and another dictates in almost mystical tones, that "after a shift or huddle all players on offensive team must come to an absolute stop for at least one second with no movement of hands, feet, head, or swaying of body".

The NFL's nit-picking rules are there to uphold a sense of justice by that most American of methods: the hubristic attempt to eliminate ambiguity and reduce the role of chance or fate or just sheer, unforeseen messiness; to level the playing field so that all that matters on the day, on the play, is talent and preparation and will, the holy trinity of the American success ethos.

Now, this is what I predict: while complaining that Super Bowl day is too long and too hyped and too gaudy, you will find yourself in the vicinity of a television set, taking in the pre-game show, a puffed-up rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, and the half-time extravaganza along with a couple of $2 million/second ads. Whether you know the score or not, you will become part of America's ultimate ritual.


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