February 12, 2004
The Sacred and the ProfaneBy Thomas Lifson
Almost two weeks after the fact, the Super Bowl halftime show continues to generate outrage and threats to regulate, fine, or even revoke the broadcast licenses of the media outlets which have brought degrading and crude images to our televisions for years. Mel Karmazin, the head of CBS and MTV corporate parent Viacom, was exposed to withering criticism in House hearings yesterday. You could actually see him squirming.
Though he would never say so publicly, he must be asking himself, 'Why are people coming down so hard on us now? We've been broadcasting this stuff for years, and nobody but the kooks complained.' On the record, he only asked for clear definitions of what is and isn't permissible: "I urge the F.C.C. to undertake rule—making on the subject of indecency so people can operate with responsibility and have a clear—cut road map for what constitutes indecency."
At one level, one has to have sympathy for Mel and his compatriots. It IS true that Americans have tolerated, and some delighted in, increasingly vulgar language, partial nudity, and smutty innuendo in prime time television. Suddenly, standards seem to have changed. To the entertainment moguls, it must seem so unfair to be called on the carpet all of a sudden, without warning. Who knew?
All of this trouble could have been avoided, and the steady glide path downward of our culture could have continued without serious political opposition, if only CBS executives had understood the true symbolic nature of the Super Bowl: a sacred ritual of the American family. That's right: 'sacred.'
It was easy for them to miss the inner meaning, of course. When a million dollars buys only a few seconds' worth of commercial time, when the host city's airports fill up with corporate jets, when the year's hottest parties and prettiest models all gather in conjunction with the event, it is very, very easy to conclude that It Is All About Money. For these guys on top of the economic ladder, it is.
But for the majority of American families (the bedrock of our society, not simply the 'eyeballs' coveted by the networks), the Super Bowl is like all the other major sacred holidays. It marks an important passage of the calendar, a milepost by which we measure our lives; and it celebrates the values and traditions by which many people live their lives.
The Super Bowl is the end of the football season, but also the end of far more than merely a game. People live differently afterward than they did before. Men, quite simply, have extra time for other activities, now that their weekend afternoons are free.
Football begins in the Fall, symbolically marking the looming onset of Winter. As the harvest is completed, and our atavistic sense of work—as—agriculture kicks in, football makes its claim on our weekend leisure time. It is our reward for the symbolic completion of the harvest cycle. We deserve the pleasure of it because we have finished something important, and the cold weather looms, causing us to gather around the flickering fires of the television screen, instead of the antique hearth.
More than any other sport, football's schedule mimics the rhythms of religion. Games are played only once a week, on the Sabbath. Friday nights, the onset of the Jewish Sabbath, are for high schoolers, our children, the source of what we will become in a generation. Daytime Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, is for collegians, the seed corn of the NFL. Sunday is the Sabbath of Christianity the far larger offspring religion of Judaism. The pros, the grown—up graduates of the college football programs, reach their larger audience on this chosen day. Let baseball, basketball, and hockey randomly sprinkle games all over the week. Football knows that the rhythm of the Sabbath is powerful.
Then there is the V—word (the one which isn't followed by 'monologues'): values. Football is our game: uniquely American. Even the Canadians play a slightly different version. Australians, our more distant Anglo—heritage cousins, pay a more dissimilar version, 'Australian—rules football.' Our British parent culture sticks with football's distant ancestor, rugby, and uses the word 'football' to refer to the European sport of soccer. Despite decades of top—down pressure from American internationalist sophisticates to make soccer more popular here, it remains a game of immigrant ethnics and suburban BoBos. Check the TV ratings. Only one kind of program makes the top ten most—viewed list for both whites and blacks: NFL football.
Football is a tough sport, not for sissies. If you play it, you can expect to get injured. We Americans, derided by the Euros for our obesity, our big cars, our air—conditioning, and our big, sprawling, suburban developments, know that we are tough, even if foreigners don't like to admit it. If you doubt it, ask anybody who has ever fought against our military. Or who has played football ( but not the kind of 'football' we call soccer).
Football also requires brains, planning, and the ability to scramble when plans go awry. These are the skills which we Americans celebrate. We love the huddle — the quick gathering of the troops, to agree on What We Do Next. We love the tension leading up to the snap, when it all comes together in a glorious choreography of combat. Anything can happen, from a sack to the long bomb. What a perfect metaphor for the land of unlimited opportunity!
Parents like to teach their children about the importance of self—discipline, of practice—until—perfect, of teamwork, and of a willingness to endure short term pain, to take the hits life deals out, and to triumph in the end, even if it means graciously accepting a loss and vowing to do better next weekend.
Even Madison Avenue used to get—it about the Super Bowl. It became the showcase for the best, more creative (not to mention the most expensive) advertising we could come up with. Americans value businesses which create new things, unlike our European betters. But then along came the dot—commers, with their creative sock puppet commercials for a now—vanished pet supply website, and Madison Avenue reverted to form. The Super Bowl commercials we saw this time around were, in their own way, an affront to our celebration of commercial creativity. Horse flatulence and unfunny sexual innuendo instead of interesting, funny, and creative celebration of business and businesses.
Maybe eventually the NFL, which seems to understand that football is a unique sport, with a special claim on the American mind and heart, will force the broadcasters of its game to acknowledge the true symbolic importance of what they give us but once a year. The willingness of the NFL to tolerate Monday, and sometimes even Thursday night football telecasts, is not encouraging.
Are they listening?