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Weather or Not: The Super Bowl, Outside, in the Cold

From the November 20, 2002 Wall Street Journal: A case for returning the Super Bowl to the North.

11:00 PM, Nov 20, 2002 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Over the course of a 16-game season, an avid fan of the National Football League typically sees several dozen serious injuries. This is to be expected in a game that features 300-pound men running at one another--at full speed--like battering bighorns on the Animal Planet. (The difference is that the men are paid and, in many cases, have verbal faculties.) Over the 36-year history of the modern NFL, fans have been treated to bone-jarring hits, violent tackles and powerful blocks, resulting in hundreds of severe concussions, dislocated shoulders, and mangled knees. And all of this is legal.

But one thing these fans have never seen is a cold-weather Super Bowl. A 1966 NFL rule prohibits the league from awarding outdoor Super Bowls to cities where the mean temperature at game time is below 50 degrees. True, the NFL has lots of stupid rules--banning loose socks and untucked shirts, for example. But for a league that prides--and aggressively markets--itself as the toughest of the tough, perhaps no stipulation is sillier than the one requiring a warm-weather or indoor championship.

The climate is right for change: The owners have signaled that they're open to considering a suspension of the rule. Baseball and basketball are under increased scrutiny about their whiny, overpaid athletes. And after a spate of heavy-handed, high-dollar fines for hard hits that in many cases appeared to be legal, pro football is facing a fundamental question itself: Are we witnessing the wussification of the NFL?

Fans are sick of high-paid wussies. This summer, baseball's All-Stars refused to go extra innings because pitchers' arms are just too fragile. Never mind that the most productive of their kind work three hours a day, once or twice a week, for half the year. The All-Star game ended in a tie. And pro basketball isn't much better. Despite contracts in some cases worth nine figures, some of the NBA's marquee players refused to play for their country this summer in basketball's world championships.

By deciding to approve cold-weather Super Bowls, the NFL has a unique opportunity to drive home the distinction between its players and the more delicate athletes that populate those other sports.

Fortunately, the cold-weather rule was the subject of heated debate at a meeting of NFL owners that wrapped up earlier this month. At issue was a proposal by the league commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, to seek a suspension of the rule as a post-September 11 goodwill gesture toward New York and Washington. Neither city would qualify as a Super Bowl host without the exemption.

New York was briefly considered as a possible emergency host last season, when it appeared that New Orleans might have trouble hosting the Super Bowl after it was delayed a week by the September 11 attacks. Those scheduling conflicts were eventually worked out, but the willingness to consider a cold-weather site reignited a debate long considered settled. And despite some stubborn opposition, many owners are warming to the prospect of a Super Bowl in the elements.

For good reason. Ask anyone to name the most memorable professional football championship, and nearly everyone will cite the "Ice Bowl," the 1967 game between the Green Bay Packers and the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field. Game temperature was 13 degrees below zero--and the wind chill, 46 below--but the stadium was filled. Even casual football fans can recall Packer coach Vince Lombardi nervously pacing the sidelines, each exhalation as visible as a thick puff of cigar smoke. And ask anyone to name the most memorable game from last year's playoffs, and most will tell you it was the Patriots-Raiders affair that took place in a near-blizzard in New England.

Both New York and Washington made formal proposals at the recent owners' meeting to win the 2008 Super Bowl. The rule will be revisited next spring. So far, only one NFL owner has been bold enough to challenge publicly the notion of cold-weather Super Bowls. "I think the Super Bowl should be played in championship conditions," said Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills.

And what, exactly, are "championship conditions?" Astro-turf? Sunshine? A domed stadium? Wilson didn't specify, saying only, "I'm a little uneasy about playing it in an area where there might be a lot of bad weather."

That excludes Buffalo, home to some of the NFL's greatest fans. But it's not just Buffalo. The teams with the most enthusiastic fans are all in the north, and they all play their games outdoors. New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver, and, of course, Green Bay. No one thinks of New Orleans or Miami or Arizona. (The Arizona Cardinals filled just 29,000 of their 73,000 seats for a recent game against Seattle. The Green Bay Packers, by contrast, have a season-ticket waiting list that spans decades.)