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The Ritual Begins
DAVID HALBERSTAM
February 05, 2007
It was always a big game, but in its early days it was still just a game. Then the convergence of TV, football and American commerce turned the Super Bowl into a national holiday, religiously observed by devoted fans and pigskin agnostics alike
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February 05, 2007

The Ritual Begins

It was always a big game, but in its early days it was still just a game. Then the convergence of TV, football and American commerce turned the Super Bowl into a national holiday, religiously observed by devoted fans and pigskin agnostics alike

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When I was much younger, some XXXVII years ago, I did something that was either un-American or very American--I am still not sure which. Even though I was a moderately obsessed football fan, I turned down a chance to go to Super Bowl III. I was in Miami that weekend in 1969 when the Jets were to play the Colts. I had lectured there on Saturday, and one of the members of the lecture committee offered me a free ticket to the game. A very good seat, he assured me. I did not doubt his word, but I turned him down because I wanted to fly back to New York early Sunday morning and watch the game with my pals Gay Talese, Michael Arlen and the other regulars at our weekly football sessions.

All of us, given the era and our ages, were nominally Giants fans, but in this new age of more flexible loyalties (an outgrowth of the sudden expansion of televised sports) we had committed to the Jets in that season of their remarkable ascent, which coincided with the continued, almost tragic, descent of our Giants. We always convened at Talese's apartment for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he was the first in our group to get a color television, and he had the largest set, maybe 30 inches across. For every game during that season, we each took what had become in effect our assigned seat in the den, the same seat we'd sat in all season. I sat on the main couch, to the far right. I used to call the den Talese Stadium, befitting a sports gathering place in this modern era when television was still so new and so important and where the game came to us, rather than our having to go to the game. For the Super Bowl that day we were going to have chili and beer. We were, in other words, like millions of other American men--football-centric, beer-centric, pals-centric--depicted in those regular-guy commercials of the era; you know, the one in which you only go around once.

The great new American age of home entertainment, when we no longer had to seek entertainment but entertainment sought us, had just begun. Instant replay was available only in your mind, as you re-ran critical plays from memory alone. ESPN did not exist, and a satellite was still a small East European country controlled by the Soviet Union. Sports hype was also in its infancy-- Vince Lombardi was still just a coach, not a demigod or a trophy, and Chris Berman had not yet made Howard Cosell look shy and modest by comparison. Nor was the Super Bowl yet all that super. Though it was the last game of the season, it was still considered somewhat anticlimactic by many fans and by the players themselves. A Green Bay team that had no identifiable weaknesses, or at least none discovered as yet by its opponents, won the first two Super Bowls by methodically grinding down anybody in its way. After their second victory, over the Raiders, several Packers said the game had been something of a disappointment, that beating Dallas for the NFC title--one of the very best title games in the history of the league--had felt more like the real championship game. The idea of the Super Bowl as the ultimate contest had not yet taken hold.

Then came Super Bowl III, the Namath Game. On that Sunday back in '69, the Colts were an 18-point favorite, primarily because they were the NFL champions. When Joe Namath guaranteed a Jets victory, the press was appalled--it was a violation of the league and the media's unwritten modesty rules under which a quarterback's ego was supposed to exist but was never to be evident. Namath, as brash as he was talented, not only promised to deliver a victory but had the audacity to say that there were five or six quarterbacks in the AFL better than the Colts' starter, Earl Morrall. This was the kind of thing you were never supposed to say, even though it was obviously true. I agreed: I thought the betting line was way off--dumb, really. Accordingly, I have never thought of the game as such a stunning upset. I believed then as I believe now that in a big game one should never bet against the team with the demonstrably better quarterback, and the immensely talented Namath was just reaching the peak of his powers. Morrall--though he'd been the NFL's MVP that season--was, at best, a high-end journeyman, and his backup was the estimable but now greatly diminished Johnny Unitas, the quarterback against whom I still measure all others. It is hard now, all these years later, to remember how good Namath was before his body betrayed him. He was at his best when the game was on the line--probably the closest thing at that time to a direct lineal descendant of Unitas, with the same kind of I've-come-to-clean-up-this-town-even-if-I-have-only-two-minutes-left-on-the-clock iciness. Namath read defenses well, could throw deep and had so much arm strength that he could throw off his back foot if need be, and he was good at picking up blitzes. He also had very good receivers, and the speed of flanker Don Maynard meant that the Jets would be able to stretch the field against the Colts.

That day the Super Bowl as we know it was born. The Jets were well-coached, they had a sound (if conservative) game plan, and they carried it out with a kind of surgical precision. Namath took exactly what the Colts' defense gave him--a lot of short passes to his receivers and quick drop-offs to his backs. On defense the Jets secondary cheated, packed in close to the line, dared Morrall to go deep and intercepted him three times in the first half. The game was something of an execution: The final score was 16--7, but the Jets had been in complete control. What Namath and the Jets proved was that there was now enough parity between the leagues to make this game entertaining. That Sunday the game started the long journey to becoming what it is today, the Event, not just in American sports, but in American life, where anyone who seeks society's measure of his importance can have it confirmed, can go To See and, even more important, To Be Seen.

That alone puts the Super Bowl somewhere up on the level of soccer's World Cup (held once every four years) as the ultimate sporting event on Earth, because we Americans have such a powerful hold on the world of entertainment: We do not seek merely to entertain ourselves, we seek to entertain the world. In the global village that television created, we do not do it just for fun, it's our real day job; and that's why young people everywhere tend to envy our culture--we appear to be having more fun than anyone else--and why their parents, more dour about the balance between work and play, often despise us. We look as if we are at play, even as we work harder and put ourselves under more pressure than ever before. Our greatest export is not cars or machine tools or software but our popular culture. As a nation we live to be entertained, and in the process we have ended up entertaining the world.

The natural, almost inevitable corollary is that, in the process, we have become the world's experts in marketing, and it stands to reason that our ultimate sporting event is also the ultimate marketing event. If anyone is foolish enough to do a remake of The Graduate, the man at the cocktail party buttonholing the young Dustin Hoffman character should advise him to think "marketing" not "plastics." In this age even the coaches, who at the beginning of the Entertainment Era made perhaps $100,000 a year and were almost anonymous outside their own zip code (and often within it), can now make $5 million a year or more and are more often recognizable (and more popular) than their state's senators.

It makes sense that America's ultimate event for spectators is a game, and it's no surprise that it's a football game. Politics won't do: It's allegedly a noncontact sport and certainly no longer much of a spectator sport--our political conventions are, by and large, devoid of drama and suspense, the outcome decided long in advance, the balloons released at exactly 8:49 p.m., just after the network returns from a commercial break. Besides, while it's all right to go there to peddle influence, you don't want to peddle it too openly.

The Oscars won't do: It's not really a Guy kind of event, and the resident egos out in Hollywood are too big for their own good, even bigger than those in the corporate world. A good, true-blue CEO, even if he could score the right number of good tickets for Oscar night, does not want to stand around essentially on the outside looking in on people whose work he does not necessarily admire, whose films he probably has not seen, whose lives he does not emulate and, worst of all, who have no interest in him and what he represents. Nor--and this is important--do many of his most significant customers admire Hollywood people that much. Besides, what happens that night is all too predictable: It is not the land of the upset.

Baseball won't do either: It's a great sport, but there are as many as seven games in a World Series, and the league does not control the venue for the event. Ditto basketball, still something of an arriviste sport in terms of big-brand commercial labeling and magnetic pull for CEOs. Boxing long ago lost its magic, in no small part because the men who might have been the great heavyweights of today--the men with speed, power, exquisite reflexes and ferocity of purpose--are instead the NFL's great middle linebackers.

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