Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images. Image by Elizabeth Renstrom
When I was a kid, on the morning of the big game, my father used to open the front door of our house in his underwear and scream “SUPER BOWL” as loud as he could. I’m not sure what this accomplished other than alarming the neighbors, but he did it, without fail, every single year. I’m older now, and care even less about any of this than I did as a child, but those moments have stuck with me: a semi-naked, middle-aged man, the most excited he’d be all year, indecipherably shouting about a sporting event in his unsuspecting New Jersey suburb. It never felt, however, entirely sincere; I always believed he recognized how absurd and exaggerated his screaming was. Because, at the end of the day, it was yet another form of entertainment to distract himself, and everybody around him, from mortality.
For the 100 million of us who turn on the Super Bowl every season, I believe this is why we do it, although it’s rarely acknowledged. I, for one, had never heard a player reference it, until last night: When asked at a post-game press conference in Atlanta about the New England Patriots having beaten his Los Angeles Rams, the right tackle Andrew Whitworth looked at the camera and said, with complete sincerity:
“I realize what this game means. I cherish the crap out of it. I don’t give a crap if you have a Hall of Fame bust, if you’ve been a Pro Bowler or win 20 Super Bowls. At the end of the day, we’re all gonna die.”
His response was so out of the ordinary that it became news, and the sports reporter who originally tweeted it went viral. In a fleeting moment, Whitworth captured what we all collectively ignore: Nobody is tuning into this broadcast to remind themselves that they, and everyone they have ever known, will one day perish—that the 4.5-billion-year-old Earth has, and will, out live us all, that 99.9 percent of the species to ever exist have gone extinct, that nature is essentially chaos and doesn’t care about our well-being. We’ll all be forgotten, every trace of us—our literature, our technology, our Tom Brady sacks—entirely wiped away when Earth gets swallowed by the sun (if we don’t destroy it beforehand).
But until then—what the hell else are we supposed to do? Let’s eat chicken wings, and make fun of the lead singer of Maroon 5 taking his shirt off, and listen as two old men provide sports commentary almost exclusively in hypothetical scenarios. We can also log onto Twitter, or whisper one-liners to our friends, or mock that FOX News lady’s disastrous queso. We can read about Gronk’s girlfriend, too, and how she believes her boyfriend “tastes like a champion.” And for those with really no other conceivable options: There’s now a show titled The World’s Best, which is partly judged by Drew Barrymore.
While Whitworth wasn’t explicitly critiquing our society, his nihilist tirade nonetheless snapped us out of our dazed viewing, made us forget for a moment that we have a reality TV show president who buys fast food for championship athletes, who shuts down the government because he doesn’t get what he wants, who tweets out policy decisions seemingly off the cuff. And that’s what he’s supposed to do. He’s supposed to offer us a fantasy. He’s supposed to be a willing participant in one of the most-viewed events, annually, across the globe. When questioned about his dwindling career, and his repeated failures to be a national champion, he’s supposed to utter what we expect him to: that he and the Rams tried their best, that the Patriots were a formidable opponent, that it was a great match all around. He’s not supposed to be providing us with a hard dose of reality, as if he’s some Camus character contemplating the meaning of existence. It’s as if he was explaining the premise of a joke. Of course he’s right: The Budweiser horses are meaningless, as are the illegal shifts in the backfield, as is the overproduced and nonsensical halftime show. Even all 400 commercials featuring robots. Meaningless.
But that’s the whole point. There’s nothing—or at least there shouldn’t be—anything quite as meaningless as the Super Bowl. Its purpose is its utter frivolity.
Today, my dad lives outside Atlanta, not far from where the game was held this year. We don’t talk that much, and I’ve seen him only a handful of times in the past decade. We text, occasionally, when there’s enough of an excuse to do so, and never address anything remotely serious: The Super Bowl, naturally, is one of those times. On Saturday, he sent me a photo of himself next to some kind of statue with a Vince Lombardi quote etched into the rock. I didn’t respond. The following morning, he messaged me, “SUPER BOWL,” in all caps. Because, you know, he’s not anywhere close enough for me to hear him yell it. And I did what I always do. I texted “SUPER BOWL” right back. Really, I don’t know what it’s going to take me to ever stop.
Unless I die.
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