I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach.
Last summer, while Nancy and I were in Ireland, traveling and sightseeing before WorldCon, we discovered the Irish national sport. We had just reached the Midlands city of Birr and were getting a Guinness before dinner. (A lot of our sightseeing resulted in us seeing the inside of a pub…) While we were enjoying our stouts and chatting with the locals in the bar, we noticed that the game on the small, wall-mounted television was not anything we’d seen before.
Ireland’s national sport is not Gaelic football, as one might think, nor is it soccer. It is a sport called hurling, which, along with its sibling sport, played by women, called camogie (and actually that night we were watching a camogie match) has a history dating back approximataely four thousand years. As an organized sport it is some 800 years old.
Hurling/camogie is called by many the fastest game on grass. To the untrained American eye it appears to be a blend of lacrosse (it is played with a stick – the hurley – and a small hard ball – the sliotar) and Gaelic rules football (the pitch is set up much the same way, with goals and goalposts at either end). The action in hurling/camogie is breakneck and non-stop, the game is rough and dangerous, and the skill required of its players is mind-boggling. The wooden hurley ends in a flat blade on which players catch the sliotar and then cradle the ball as they run. Read that sentence again. The stick is bladed. There is no net in which to catch the ball as there is in lacrosse. Players catch and carry this hard, slightly rubbery ball on a slat of wood no bigger than the palm of one’s hand at the end of a stick 30 inches long.
Hurling/camogie is as fantastical as Quidditch, except it’s real. And, in Ireland, the fanfare surrounding the hurling championship is no less frenzied than that surrounding our Superbowl. Sure, there is less money involved. Companies don’t spend millions for a single advertisement during the match. But for the duration of that championship game, the nation slows down to watch. Other concerns are briefly set aside and a huge swath of the population is caught up in the immediacy of the moment.
This seems a good day (I’m writing this on Sunday) to reflect on the power of sport in culture. I am a huge sports fan. I love just about any sport, although, I will admit on this Superbowl Sunday, American football might well be my least favorite of all the major league sports, not just in the U.S., but anywhere (and not just because I’m a New York Giants fan). I much prefer baseball (even with all my complaints about the way it’s played today) and soccer and basketball and even hurling. I won’t take much time to explain why – I’m not looking for an argument. But I will say that I prefer games that rely more heavily on finesse and refined skills (like basketball and soccer and baseball) to the brute force of football. (Before you get on me for this, I fully acknowledge that players like Pat Mahomes and Raheem Mostert, Tyreek Hill and George Kittle have incredible skill and talent. But to my mind, as someone who has been watching for literally 50 years, the game itself is one that emphasizes brute power and violence.) And for all the talk about how exciting football is supposed to be, the ball is actually only in play for about 12 minutes per game (the figure is only 18 minutes for baseball, so I realize that I’m not being entirely consistent here).
That said, I will watch today’s game. Because it’s an Event, and even the commercials will be talked about for days to come. Because even the dullest sporting event can have moments of unbelievable excitement, suspense, and surprise. And not least because the vast majority of the rest of the country will be watching as well. That might seem like an odd reason – conformity for conformity’s sake. But we live in a country of 330 million people. We live in cities and tiny towns, blue states and red states, mansions and cramped apartments. We come from different nations, different religious backgrounds, different races, different gender identities. Even with the power of today’s media and popular culture and technology, how many experiences do we as a country actually share in real time?
The Superbowl is big business. It’s glitzy and crass and ridiculously over-hyped. I find the entire spectacle obscene. The money spent on those television ads alone, if put to different purpose, could improve the lives of millions who desperately need to have their worlds made better. And yet, it is as American a moment as any annual event on our nation’s calendar. It is a shared experience of unparalleled reach. Viewership of the game is actually on the wane, and still we can expect that close to 100 million Americans will watch tonight’s game. That is as significant and telling as it is insane.
So I’ll watch, tolerating the hype and the flash, hoping for an exciting game filled with twists and turns. I’ll marvel at Mahomes’s feathery touch and Mostert’s ungodly agility. I’ll enjoy the big plays and get caught up in the inevitable controversies. I’ll even watch the commercials with interest. In other words, for this one evening, I’ll be a typical American. And I’m okay with that.