I watched about five minutes of last year’s Super Bowl, late in the fourth quarter, simply curious about the score.
I wanted both the Patriots and the Seahawks to lose. On one side, a team marred by allegations of game manipulation not just in recent memory but over the course of a decade, too. On the other, Richard Sherman, not exactly my favorite player, who one year earlier convinced sports media of their racism rather than taking ownership of his own classless outburst, a poor model for the impressionable eyes who look up to pro athletes.
On both ends of the field, a lack of accountability. Granted, the behavior of a few does not characterize the virtue of an entire team. There were many outstanding players and people in both organizations. But, coupled with the NFL domestic abuse crisis and my ever-increasing guilt about watching football, I was thoroughly disinterested in the Super Bowl.
This year, I’m watching. I don’t care whether the Broncos or the Panthers win; I have no vested interest in either team. The tone of the big 50, though, stands in such contrast to last year’s game. In fact, the only bit of “controversy” I’ve seen (if we could really call it that) is Cam Newton’s celebratory dancing. It’s showy, but I can live with it, especially as he always gives touchdown balls to young kids in the stands.
If anything, in light of those generous gestures, his celebration indicates the joy of successful play, something that’s been long overdue for a perpetual underdog Carolina team.
On the other side of the ball, we could go on about Peyton Manning. Many have assumed that Super Bowl 50 will be his last game – they’re right, probably – and, so, it’s worth noting how the stoic quarterback has improved the game, his teammates, and the communities he’s touched. Indeed, Peyton Manning matters. But, his memorable career has already been written about plentifully.
Why I really think Super Bowl 50 matters has nothing to do with this singular game, a particular athlete, or even football specifically.
The hype seems muted this year. There is no “evil empire” of football dominating media attention, no foul taste from deflated footballs, no trash talking, no social media snafus, no domestic abuse stories headlining sports websites. (This is not to suggest, of course, that the NFL has solved its gnawing PR problem. There’s a long way to go.) Last year, when I wrote about the Super Bowl, I simply couldn’t escape these issues. My entire attempt sought a way to balance the serious controversies in professional sports, football especially, with the love of the game and the value of wholesome competition. I’m not sure if I succeeded.
Either way, we should be thrilled these headlines needn’t dominate Super Bowl commentary*. During a recent visit to NFL.com, video highlight titles included: “Can Newton handle the Broncos’ pass rush?”, “The 3 things you NEED to know about the Super Bowl teams,” and “Cam and Panthers make kids happy.” It’s not just the NFL’s PR team, either. The same search on ESPN and other major sites like For The Win returned titles including “Cam Newton’s text put Michael Oher back in the spotlight” (that’s a great story; read it) and “Remarkable journey of Broncos’ Aqib Talib: ‘Wild-horse rider’ to big brother.”
In short, Super Bowl 50 coverage is about Super Bowl 50. Everywhere I looked, the stories spotlight player profiles, team preparation, and the state of the competitors’ nerves. Their anxiety! That would have been laughable as a story last year. This year, it seems very natural. And so, my expectation has been set to watch a game between two true competitors, teams who have been respectively slapped with underdog labels, teams whose members are generally focused on proving themselves on the field and demonstrating positive community values off it.
This is good for our sports culture. There is a palpable return to the importance of play this year, a value central to the Institute. The garbage that has plagued the league incessantly has fallen away from the spotlight, making room for focus on a game which many non-partisan observers feel remorse must have a losing team. How could we not? With competitors like Peyton Manning and Cam Newton (who I think, for the record, are both model athletes) and two teams fighting their way towards respectively elusive championships, it would be difficult for coverage to focus anywhere else.
I sense something “pure” in Super Bowl 50. When the clock expires, confetti will fly. Manning and Newton will meet at mid-field. They’ll shake hands and congratulate each other for a job well done. Whether the score is close or the game is a blowout, that meeting will be collegial and genuine. And if, like last year, I were to flip the game on only as it ends, after the scoreboard disappears, I’m not sure I’ll know who won.
*With one huge exception. Sex trafficking has been, and continues to be, a serious issue surrounding the Super Bowl. The efforts of those working on safeguards against sex trafficking are far more important than anything I’ve written here.