The NFL hung out a sign this season – “Wanted: Crossover star needed to unite one nation under football.”
Tom Brady is slowly exiting stage left. On Sunday, Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes juked his way through a few ushers on stage right.
Mahomes was already the most marketable new star in the league. After winning a Super Bowl, he now has the pedigree to go along with the shampoo commercials. Kansas City was down 20-10 with seven minutes to play. Mahomes engineered two lengthy scoring drives that put you in mind of Joe Montana or John Elway (if Montana or Elway could run in anything other than a straight line). There was one more score to cap it late.
Kansas City won 31-20. It’s the team’s first Super Bowl championship in 50 years.
The real winner here is the league. On a night in which Brady toyed with the idea of retirement on behalf of a streaming service, the NFL badly needed a successor. The 24-year-old Mahomes is it. With Kansas City’s quality this franchise could be on the verge of a dynasty.
The team’s folksy roots in the Midwest make it a 21st-century reboot of the Green Bay Packers. You can imagine the professional nostalgists at NFL Films licking their chops at the idea of a decade’s worth of cringing references to barbecue and jazz.
As Super Bowls go, the 2020 version was decent. High production value. Free of obvious errors. Delivered with the ending.
It was the Marvel movie of football championships.
But once we reach this day on the NFL calendar, football becomes beside the point. The Super Bowl now stands alone as the one thing Americans can agree on. Everybody likes it, pretends they like it or doesn’t feel the need to scream at other people for liking it. In America, that’s consensus.
Knowing this – that you just have this one day to bring a fractured nation together for worship – creates a perverse need in broadcasters. They cannot resist jamming every component of American pop culture into the roughly 10-hour broadcast. It’s hard to say exactly how long the pre-game lasts, since it is forever.
You want jingoism? You got it, baby. You want fighter jets and 100-year-old Second World War vets book-ended around an endless stream of product placement? Roger that.
How about Brady doing an ad for Hulu in which he momentarily appears to retire, thereby upstaging the NFL’s premier brand while it is on? That is for sale, too.
You want a Jimmy Johnson dance party (which has something to do with wrestlers and pizza) and The Rock introducing teams on an Yves Saint-Laurent catwalk? Yes and yes.
Once merely cheesy, the Super Bowl has become the purest expression of American kitsch. Or maybe it’s camp. The line is blurring. If Susan Sontag were alive today, she’d make a seminal TikTok video about it.
The broadcast quite literally contains everything – a variety show, a talkshow, a docudrama, a comedy special, an awards show. It’s even got a news segment, because in contemporary America, the news is the lowest and most accessible form of entertainment.
The early highlight of the FOX broadcast was an interview with U.S. president Donald Trump that played like a Saturday Night Live cold open.
Host Sean Hannity’s first line: “Mr. President, happy Super Bowl day.”
That’s not a thing.
Trump did a semi-decent Trump impression for 10 minutes. There was a “lightning round” – Hannity’s term – wherein the host lobbed names of political opponents at the leader of the world’s most powerful nation so that they could be made fun of.
For instance, Bernie Sanders.
“I think’s he’s a communist,” Trump said. “Didn’t he get married in Moscow? And that’s wonderful. Moscow’s wonderful.”
If you’d showed those 100-year-old vets this bit before they agreed to appear on the field, they might’ve got in a time machine so that they could go back and surrender.
The halftime show – the only reason the Super Bowl is a thing outside North America – has now assumed primacy over proceedings. More lavish than a Roman orgy and attempting to seem as revealing. Jennifer Lopez, God love her, did the first bit of her act in backless chaps.
But none of this feels in any way daring or dangerous. Janet Jackson’s accidental reveal would play as a laugh line these days. Hulu would make an ad about it.
The concussion crisis of the 2010s is over. It’s 2020. So let’s talk about Moscow as a wedding destination.
This is the NFL’s true genius. It’s not football (since the league didn’t invent it). The league’s real skill is taking things that seem edgy and rounding them into easily digestible spheres.
The NFL co-opts everything that’s popular, fun and inoffensive, then stands it up beside large men bashing each other’s skulls in. The end result is that all those things feel the same.
Amidst the hours and hours of blather, the one line that really stuck out from one of the bajillion reporters on the FOX broadcast: “America is the Super Bowl.”
It didn’t occur to anyone that that sentence should be the other way around. Or maybe they really think that – that America is now a capitalist telethon framed around a football game. They certainly program it that way.
You know how we used to look back on 1970s TV and sneer at the clothes, the hair, the preposterous loucheness. We’d wonder, “What were they thinking?”
Future generations will look at Super Bowl 54 and think the same thing. The NFL has turned its championship contest into Hollywood Squares.
They won’t remember the game, which is a shame. It was a tight contest between well-organized teams who lacked anything approaching a crossover star.
Because in the modern Super Bowl, the football players take care of the Bowl bit of the equation. Kansas City managed that part. The ‘20s could be its decade.
Everyone else gets wrapped up in a bedazzled Stars ’n’ Stripes and takes care of the Super part. It is difficult to say who won that.