Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reflections on the Superbowl

The United States may be more divided now than at any time since the Civil War; red and blue, rich and poor, hawk and dove, etc, but the division isn’t all that simple.  Oligarchs have recruited unemployed former members of the middle class to promote campaigns against public services while well-off academics try to mobilize the inert masses to speak up for their own interests.  In a break from this life and death struggle, we’ve just witnessed Superbowl Sunday, the National Football League’s main event, an update on the old Roman tradition of bread and circuses to keep the unruly plebes under control.

President Obama, vilified as a foreign-born, fascistic communist Muslim by the right, and dismissed as the second coming of Neville Chamberlain by some of us on the left, perseveres in trying to bring harmony to his divided constituency.  Prior to the game on Superbowl Sunday, in a move as dramatic as Nixon’s going to China, he went to Fox News, to be interviewed by arch-nemesis Bill O’Reilly.  Throughout the interview Obama remained supernaturally affable while Mr. O’Reilly managed to suppress his bile.  If the President can tame O’Reilly, perhaps he really can unite the country after all.

 The image of the NFL took a few hits, starting some days before the game when Denver running back Lawrence Maloney got his mug shot posted all over the internet following his arrest for carrying a gun while high on drugs.  Then came the problems at the game, which was played this year at Jerry Jones’ new $1.2 billion plutocrats’ pleasure palace in Arlington, Texas, where the city fathers were persuaded to finance $325M of the cost through bond issues and local sales tax increases.  The stadium has all the electronic bells and whistles imaginable but it just lacked seats for 1250 people who had paid $800. per ticket to get in.  A class action suit has been filed by some of these people for $5 million, proving that indeed, this is America’s game.  During the game, the artificial turf turned out to be abnormally slippery, leading to a few injuries, but there’s still no word on any possible legal action in that regard.

While I didn’t miss a single playoff game, here in Italy we were mostly spared the hype leading up to the big game.  The PR may have been scripted by Linda McMahon, formerly of World Wrestling Entertainment and the Connecticut gubernatorial race, since a clear division emerged between the good guys and the bad guys.  We Americans prefer to keep those distinctions sharp.  Some even prefer to cheer on the villains, proof of which lies in the large fan base of the Oakland Raiders.  In this contest, Pittsburgh wore the black hats.  Their role was established by two factors; their non-acceptance of the new NFL campaign to limit head injuries, and their quarterback.  Green Bay has embraced the policy and their players reportedly urged their QB, the ever patient Aaron Rogers, to take care of his health first and foremost.  James Harrison, a much larger Sonny Liston clone who leads the league in fines for illegal helmet to helmet hits, anchors the Steelers’ defense.  He wondered aloud if he was supposed to provide pillows for QBs and wide receivers that he was about to smash to the ground. Both quarterbacks have missed games due to concussions, but Ben Roethesberger of the Steelers also sat out a four game suspension for conduct deemed unbecoming to the NFL.  Although all charges were dropped by the civil authorities, he was alleged to have sexually assaulted women in Nevada and Georgia.  I admit to confusion about terminology these days.  When female employees of defense contractors in Iraq are physically forced to submit to sexual acts by their bosses or co-workers, the term used by the media is “sexual assault”, but when a Julian Assange has sex with a half asleep woman who has invited him to her bed, he is charged with “rape”.  Maybe Ben was just telling off-color jokes.  In any case, the Steelers, or the NFL, decided that they just couldn’t let him play on as if nothing had happened.

American jails and prisons hold a larger percentage of the nation’s population than any other country and they are disproportionately occupied by black and Hispanic people.  NFL players are now 70% or more non-white and, ironically, many of them, of whatever race, are decorated with gangland tattoos and grotesque haircuts, making them virtually indistinguishable from inmates of our high security prisons.  I suppose a ferocious image is considered helpful, given the nature of their work, but I say ironically because these young men are our elite, the perfect exemplars of the natural selection advocated by the Objectivist Social Darwinism of our leaders, under the thrall of Ayn Rand over the past three decades.  The players are among the nation’s wealthiest young men, and deservedly so.  Just as the US has its current minimum wage of $7.25/hour, which yields $15,080 per year over fifty-two forty-hour weeks, the NFL has a minimum wage for players of $310,000.  That’s for rookies.  The scale slides up over ten years to about double that.  Of course the stars get more.  A good cornerback can make $10M/year.  Still, the minimum is only a little over twenty times the national minimum wage, on the low side compared to the ratio of average corporate CEO remuneration to that of the average worker, a factor currently pegged at 263 or 300, depending on where you get your figures.  How many CEOs go through the years of competition and elaborate natural selection that these players survive?

The big game eventually got started, but not before a painfully long pre-game show.  Lea Michel from the popular TV show Glee, the one in which high school outsiders are empowered by singing updated Abba style pop, wailed an overwrought version of America the Beautiful.  Some of the players looked pained, while others, perhaps unaware that this wasn’t the National Anthem, held their hands over their hearts, just as Coach had told them to.  They didn’t have to wait long.  As soon as Lea Michel had declared America beautiful, Christina Aguilera came out and assassinated the National Anthem.  Had she nailed it, it might have been tabbed a crucifixion, but she flubbed the words.  Anyway, The Star Spangled Banner is a political, not a religious song, so this was no ordinary killing, but rather an assassination of a national symbol.  Nobody died here but her act was witnessed by more people than Jared Loughner’s attack on a flesh and blood representative of the government and none of those present even tried to subdue her.  Perhaps they were all still busy looking for those missing seats.  The end of the song was almost drowned out by the flyover of four F-16 fighter jets.  Perhaps the pilots could have taken her out with napalm but it all happened so fast, and the collateral damage would have been on a par with nine years’ efforts in Iraq.  Besides, the roof was closed.  The crowd inside could see the flyover, estimated to cost the Navy $450,000, only on the giant TV monitors.

The game eventually got started, but after battling through the earlier play-off games with brilliant performances, both teams played below form.  Big Bad Ben threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.  Green Bay took a big early lead, which could have turned into a rout, except that GB receivers kept dropping passes.  Pittsburgh would make a comeback but not until I broke a tooth on unpopped popcorn and the interminable halftime show had ended.

This year’s halftime show, the first of the post-literate generation, featured The Black Eyed Peas singing numbers such as Boom Boom Pow and Pump it.  Tricked out in enough black leather to start an S&M emporium, they had the difficult task of merging the super patriot militaristic spirit of the day with the feel of gangsta rap.  The voluptuous blond in the group, Fergie, sounded as if this was the first time she’d ever ventured out of a very isolated inner-city black ghetto.  Her affectation was hardly a new gimmick.  White singers and instrumentalists have been imitating black musicians more talented than themselves for at least a century.  In fairness, I should also note that legions of singers, from Minnesota to Liverpool, have spent their lives trying to sound like they grew up somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.  Both of these trends should have run their course by now.  Given that we’re living through a painfully reactionary era, one reasonable consolation might be to have singers trying to imitate Noel Coward or Cole Porter, i.e. going back in history seven decades rather than seven millennia.

When the game resumed, Pittsburgh’s third quarter resurgence got moving but petered out late in the game and the good guys from Green Bay held on to win by a touchdown.

All in all, it’s been a good year for the NFL.  Close races and lots of tight games, and more importantly, good play-off games with the exception of the finale.  Next year remains behind a cloud.  The owners and the players go into the off-season without a labor agreement and a showdown between the billionaires and the millionaires is shaping up.  The players may follow John Galt’s example and withhold their services with a strike, but at the moment the more likely scenario is a lock-out by the owners who are keen to get a larger slice of the expanding pie.  Who will win this epic struggle of elites?  We don’t know.  Both groups have a lot to lose.  Meanwhile, the third element in the picture, we the audience, i.e. the drones, may just have to watch hockey next season, or take up bocce.