The Magazine

The Golden Bowl

Duncan Currie, pigskin pagan.

Feb 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 21 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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IF SPORTS ARE A CIVIC religion, then Super Bowl Sunday is Christmas and Hanukkah wrapped into one. For a single night, we all get to play Joe Superfan and lose ourselves in bacchanalian excess. As Dennis Miller once quipped, "More toilets are flushed during Super Bowl halftime than at any other time of the year."

So if the Super Bowl is the mecca of sporting events, then football must be our national pastime, right? Well, no. Baseball still wears that crown. But why, exactly? Oh, sure, Americans catch baseball fever every October, especially if a great story like the 2004 Boston Red Sox comes along. But baseball earned its status as America's game in a bygone age: before the invention of TV, when Ronald Reagan was still in grammar school. Football seems a more apt choice for the era of Pat Tillman, the late Arizona Cardinal turned heroic Army Ranger.

The baseball/football dichotomy is simple. Baseball is the hobbyhorse of poets, authors, and highbrow social critics. It's peaceable and boring. It's a summer breeze at Wrigley. It's George Will pontificating on the infield fly rule. It exalts skill and grace.

Football, by contrast, is the lunch-pail pastime of blue-collar, beer-toting suburbanites. It's intense and chaotic. It's 0-degree weather at Lambeau. It's John Madden talkin' turkey on Thanksgiving. It celebrates brute strength and physical toughness.

But that's why we love it. Americans revere athletes who do things most of us could never dream of doing. Lord knows I couldn't play football. The closest I ever came was starring as a wide receiver in pickup games with my buddies. Now, I played two very rough, helmet-necessary sports in high school, hockey and lacrosse. But neither prepared me for the time my friend Kevin--the Chuck Cecil of our pickup games--nailed me with a perfect shoulder-to-chin tackle as I went up for catch. "People do this for a living?" I dizzily thought.

Some people object that football is too violent. Sure, it's violent. But ever since Roman gladiators made like Russell Crowe on each other, sports have always radiated untamed energy. The NFL stadium is the modern gladiatorial arena. The players are our combatants, sacrificing their bodies in pursuit of glory. NFL violence, moreover, occurs on the field. European and Latin American soccer matches often feature hooligan-led mayhem in the stands. Which is preferable?

That's not to say NFL fans are wimps. In fact, they tend to be a rowdy bunch. What other fans go to such creative lengths to support their teams? Who else paint their chests and bounce around shirtless in ice-cold temperatures? What other sport has Cheeseheads?

And the NFL rewards those fans. It is by far the most competently run pro sports league. Thanks to a salary cap and revenue-sharing scheme, the NFL ensures an unrivaled degree of parity among teams. There are few perennial doormats. It's not unusual for a franchise to go from chumps to champs, like the St. Louis Rams, or from champs to chumps, like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Football also boasts the maximal field-general position, quarterback. A QB is the comandante supremo of a team--which makes QBs the ultimate alpha males. And that's why, right now, the guy atop my gee-I-wish-I-were-him list is Southern Cal QB Matt Leinart. Why Leinart? Only because he bagged a Heisman Trophy, national title, and Orange Bowl MVP award within a span of four weeks. As my colleague Mike Goldfarb recently put it, "Can you imagine that guy's dorm life?" Um, yeah.

Anyway, about the Super Bowl. It's not just a cultural and athletic fete. It's also a bonanza for beer, salsa, and pizza distributors. I dare say that Super Bowl Sunday bests even New Year's Eve in alcohol-consumption per capita. Certainly as dip-and-Tostitos eating goes, the Super Bowl is king.

Because I'm writing before kickoff, I don't know if the Patriots or Eagles won Super Bowl XXXIX. But either way, Americans of all stripes got to party like rock stars. And really, what more can you ask of a single game?

--Duncan Currie