The Super Bowl is the perfect American sports event: a hodge-podge of uncomfortable truths about a society obsessed with violence but unwilling to contemplate the price being paid until it is much too late.
This was not a good week, personally, for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. President Barack Obama said that if he had a son, he would have to think long and hard about whether he would want him to play football, which was a startling broadside to a sport that wraps itself in the flag and misses no chance, however tacky, to display over-the-top patriotism. Goodell is a man overseeing a league that continues to pile up profits on the back of shattered lives and broken bodies, taking refuge in the fact that NFL fans still seem comfortable with the physical toll his players are paying but unable to stake out a position on the moral high ground. He is blessed by the sycophantic coverage his sport receives in the mainstream media.
And it was those players who saved his reputation on Sunday night. It wasn’t the first power outage at a sports event and as anybody who has seen a World Series game rained or snowed out can tell you, stuff happens. Mother nature or the power company doesn’t always go along with your best-laid plans. But for a league that controls its message the way the NFL controls its message, a 35-minute delay in the third quarter is a monumental embarrassment. Unlike other championships that aren’t played at a pre-determined site, the NFL has months to get everything ready at the host site for its jewel event.
But the San Francisco 49ers saved Goodell. Even in losing 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens, they saved him. Led by their splendid second-year quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers came out of the stoppage with a 17-point outburst that took a lop-sided rout and turned it into a game that stands up with some of the most memorable Super Bowls of all-time. But with less than two minutes left to play, another inconvenient truth revealed itself, one specific to the game of football: It takes a special coach to fight against the natural instinct to become conservative when the game gets tight, and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh isn’t that special. Four times his team had a shot at the end-zone with time running down and the ball on the seven-yard line, a tailor-made setup for Kaepernick’s running abilities, which was a major reason the 49ers were there to begin with. But Kaepernick ran four pass plays, turning the ball over on downs with Harbaugh left to cry about a defensive holding penalty that went uncalled. Classic over-coaching.
Power outage aside, the Super Bowl offered up its usual over-the-top fare: preening, self-absorbed athletes and an over-produced half-time show. The good news is that Beyonce apparently didn’t lip-synch, settling this time for the more arduous task of holding the same note for 15 minutes. The better news is that the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player was Joe Flacco, the Ravens decidedly unsexy quarterback who beat two Hall of Famers (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady) this postseason as well as two of the prototypical young, stud quarterbacks that turned the NFL on its head in 2012: Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Kaepernick.
Flacco took some of the spotlight away from Ray Lewis, which is a good thing. This was Lewis’s final game and for once he didn’t seem to suck up all the oxygen. Barry Bonds’s name can’t get written without a comma followed by something about steroid use; but Lewis seldom sees his involvement in a double murder 13 years ago mentioned any more. We are all suckers for a tale of redemption, more so when it involves a football player. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was fined $250,000 and sentenced to 12 months probation and has since then used religious beliefs to confound any discussion of the matter.
In a taped interview that aired Sunday on CBS, Lewis was asked by Shannon Sharpe what he would say to a family member of the murdered men, whose families have long believed that Lewis skated away from the incident. “It’s simple,” Lewis responded. “God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is. You see? And if our system, this is the sad thing about our system – if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. To the family, if you knew – if you really knew – the way God works, He don’t use people who commits anything like that for His good. No way. It’s the total opposite.”
Boomer Esiason, one of Sharpe’s co-panelists on the CBS pre-game show, was surprisingly critical of the answer. “He was involved in a double murder and I’m not so sure he gave us all the answers we were looking for,” said Esiason. “He knows what went on there. He can obviously just come out and say it. He doesn’t want to say it. He paid off the families – I get all that, that’s fine … I’m not so sure I buy the answer.”
Not many people do. But then, what does being an NFL fan mean other than one continual search to make peace with the league and the damage wrought by the game. Like sausage, best not to know what’s gone into what you’re consuming.
Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story incorrectly identified San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a rookie. This online version has been corrected.