Guacamole on Your Shorts

Searching, futilely, for the Super Bowl’s deeper meaning.

The Billion Dollar Game: Behind-the-Scenes of the Greatest Day in American SportSuper Bowl Sunday, by Allen St. John, is a detailed behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into the making of a Super Bowl (in this particular case, Super Bowl XLII, last Februarys victory of the New York Giants over the New England Patriots). As we have learned from David Halberstam and Tom Wolfe, one of the tricks to pulling off this kind of book is to Go Big, to make it seem as though by reading this tome, youre learning one of the hidden truths about civilization itselfor, at least, about America. Alas, if there is indeed a deeper unknown significance to the Super Bowl, Allen has not discovered it, though his book is not without its satisfactions.

The author of Claptons Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Build the Perfect Instrument, St. John has a sharp eye for telling details, a very valuable skill that has no doubt endeared him to the editors for whom he frequently works at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and many other newspapers and magazines. Happily, he lets us into a wealth of football arcana. For instance, Troy Aikman, the three-time Super Bowlwinning quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, who serves as a color commentator for Fox Sports, was the only boy among thirty-eight students in his high school typing class, and was so good that he represented the school in a typing contest at Okmulgee State Tech, and won. (Who knew?) It also turns out that all those glam Super Bowl halftime performers dont get paid anything (besides expenses) for playing. And during Princes halftime show for Super Bowl XLI, in the middle of a downpour in Miami, a power cable was cut, and the performance managed to be broadcast thanks to a technician who, like a communications industry Paul Bunyan, held the severed cord together with his own bare hands for twelve whole Purple Rainy minutes.

St. John notes that Artie Kempner, the director of Foxs broadcast, can watch the tape of a football game and know not only which network broadcast it was on, but which director was in charge of the coverage. In one very sharp moment, St. John talks about the twenty freelance cameramen who captured Tom Brady, New Englands star quarterback, outside the Greenwich Village townhouse of his supermodel girlfriend, Gisele Bndchen, a week before the AFC Championship Game, wearing a walking cast on his foota previously undisclosed injury that would have interested fans and especially bookies from coast to coast.
St. John observes that the questions the crew asked betrayed that they were working for the celebrity-gossip outlet TMZ. “The fact that no one asked a single question about his gimpy foot revealed that this crew had much more experience in trailing Britney Spears than Peyton Manning.”

But for all the very fine newspaper and magazine articles these morsels would have fueled, the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Perhaps the problem is that St. John, who seems like a very nice guy, almost always seems to take things at face value. He seldom seems to witness, let alone seek, examples of fatuousness, pomposity, and other prevalent vanities. At various times in this book he has in his sights the architect and aesthetic visionary Peter Eisenman, Playboy magazine owner (and my old boss) Hugh Hefner, television announcers, football players and coaches, and TV advertising overlords, and seldom is St. Johns attitude anything other than gee-whizzy. All of these outsized players are presented as the springs and studs and flywheels of a watch, and are about as colorless.

In fairness, St. John does try to summon some conclusions and get some wind beneath his wings that way. Why, he asks, does the country get charged up over the Super Bowl?

From the days when cavemen would gather around the fire after the days hunt, societies have always needed a time and place to come together, and Super Bowl Sunday is ours, a moment that gives us comfort and communion, even as we scream at our flat-screen televisions. It is a time when, for a few hours, America simply stops. Sixty minutes of professional football, punctuated by commercials, on the first Sunday in February has become a time when we can project our hopes and dreams, a place where we can display our best vision of ourselves.

Comfort and communion? Hopes and dreams? Our best vision of ourselves? Really? Geez, in my best vision of America, none of us has guacamole stains on his shirt. This hefty load of bull appears on the final page of St. Johns book, and endings being as tough to come up with as they are, he shouldnt be judged too harshly for trying to dazzle us with some soaring rhetoric and then dashing for the door. But it really is nonsense.

There are a lot of reasons that the Super Bowl has become the event that it is. One is very simple: it is a single-elimination game, so viewers who care about the event dont have to devote multiple days to viewing it. It is also always played on Sunday, which is still a day of rest for a great many people, and a day that for nearly half the year is the regular home of the NFL. Even before the training camps open, the NFL can tell you exactly where and when the seasons championship will be decided. None of the other major sports can do that.

Another reason for the Super Bowls primacy is that the National Football League is primarily a TV show. A raffish stepbrother to the college game for the first four decades of its existence, the league took off when it found a home on the tube. And while football can be counted on to achieve high ratings, an appointment program like the finale of M*A*S*H* or the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of Dallas racks up the viewers as well. Think of the Super Bowl as an appointment show for the most popular program on the air.

But there is one word St. John invoked in his valediction which bears some thought: “cavemen.” Super Bowl Sunday does not really fall, as St. John at one point contends, “into the holiday gap between New Years Day and Valentines Day.” Super Bowl Sunday is really the last of Americas prolonged interdenominational, generic Holiday Season, which begins on Thanksgiving, and includes Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, that conjoined celebration of God and Mammon, Christmas, the Nobody Does Any Work in the Week After Christmas Week, New Years Eve and New Years Day, Martin Luther King Dayand, finally, Super Bowl Sunday, the last excuse to have a party until Memorial Day. And of all of these days, Super Bowl Sunday is really the holiday for guys. Thanksgiving and Christmas are all about feminine values and virtueshome, hearth, family, children, giving, cooking, baking, large demonstrations of loveand its a beautiful thing that we have them. Not for nothing is this season the culmination of the year, a time of peace and reflection. But after awhile, enough is enough, and so we have developed a holiday devoted to guy enthusiasms wearing loud, brightly colored jerseys (and, when appropriate, pig snouts, Viking horns, cheeseheads, and similar ugly and ridiculous accessories); eating high-fat, high-calorie, high-cholesterol foods; drinking excessively; gambling excessively; and shouting such manifestly un-Christmasy things as “Kill him!” Throw in color guards, Air Force flyovers, half-dressed cheerleaders, and a big bucket of statistics for the more bookish fellows, and even if a giant erect penis is not wheeled out (as happens at festivals in places even less subtle than America), the ads for Cialis and Viagra make the point: This is Guy Day, and women should indulge us.

And why not? If Thanksgiving and Christmas havent been enough, Valentines Day, the holiday of romance and extortion, lies just around the corner.

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Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.