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Finding America in Super Sunday

The Pope couldn't do it; the imminent war in the Gulf is struggling; only the Super Bowl has been able to wrest the attention of the American public, however temporarily, away from Monicagate. But the Super Bowl seemed in some ways, to this first-time viewer at least, to be less a distraction from the presidential crisis than a reflection of many of its themes, and a microcosm of American life generally.

Terrell Davis won the game's Most Valuable Player award, but he must have been run pretty close by the ferret in the Budweiser adverts. As the Washington news media turned cannibal and began to cover the coverage, its accelerating self-referentiality was matched by the Bud commercials, picking up the plot of reptilian strife from where it left off last year. For some viewers, this was less a case of the media dominating sport, or consumerism conquering the media, than of football intruding on the advertising drama.

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The ads, however, shared a basic theme with the game they rivaled: violence. Whatever it was that the iguanas had done to the frogs, it was nothing on what Gilbert Brown wanted to do to John Elway. When the political scientist Max Weber defined the state as that organization which has a monopoly on legitimate violence, he clearly hadn't seen a Super Bowl. Football is an odd sort of violence, though: every aggressive basic instinct is enlisted, but those instincts are also strongly sanitized, wrapped in protective headgear and pre-match handshakes and regimented by timeouts.

The result is ruthlessness with a nice delusion of security – a combination which might be said to characterize civilian America's mix of have-a-nice-day-ism and danger, both criminal and corporate. And with a neat symbolism, the fly-past by the stealth bomber before the kickoff confirmed any suspicions about the corollaries between this celebration of athletic might, and the nuclear and military might in which America also likes to revel.

Perhaps only in America does the winning team's owner collect the prize; but then both in the ways it's played and the way it's discussed, pro-football offers a glimpse of life after the final victory of capitalism. There's nowhere to run on a football field in more senses than one. Every individual error and achievement is unforgiveably catalogued; your team may win the war, but that fumble cost you your personal salvation. It's every man for himself in this team game.

On the other hand, football has elevated division of labor to an art form. Why does the kicker have to dress up in all that uncomfortable equipment, instead of sitting in the stands and putting on his sneakers when it's time for a field goal? Aside from the special teams, with their incredibly specific roles, there's a whole legion of supporting cameos: the coach whose job it is to whisper encouragingly to the dejected; the giver of consolatory hugs; the guy who pokes players who make mistakes.

But whilst football generates massive individual celebrity, it's a fame accompanied by an equal anonymity; for all the intimacy the camera can manage, like other celebrities the Super Bowl heroes are distanced by layers of obscuring accessories – only in their cases their visages are literally plastic.

Finally, there's the Roman numerals. That stately 'XXXII' is more than just a marketing man's bright idea. It responds to a need as much as it manufactures solemnity. Compared to other countries, America may define itself by its future rather than its past, but Americans need their own mythology as much as the next guy. Those Roman numerals help to supply one, conjuring an imaginary tradition with its own pantheon of heroes.

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The question "what are you doing for the Super Bowl" seems to have become as loaded as "what are you doing for Thanksgiving" – and rightly so. Few spectacles so concisely illustrate so many aspects of modern America: violence in the media and by the media; capitalism with community; proud independence nurturing historical anxieties. For its millions of foreign viewers, the Super Bowl is more than entertainment; it's an education.

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