The One That Got Away

Some people meditate on holy texts, and some people try to clear their minds of language. Some write, some run, some garden or knit or walk, some just sit or doodle or smoke as their way to reflect. Many people, of course, never allow their minds the luxury of slowing down (a little), of reducing the stream of incoming information (for a moment) so they can think. I build contemplation into my life in various ways, writing being one of them, and this week I have spent many hours reflecting on the Super Bowl, the championship game of the National Football League in the United States.  Some of this was intentional.

A monumental event, a cultural festival.

I sat down with friends to watch this game, which is an annual cultural earthquake that rattles every corner of American life. For football fans, including Canadians, it’s an important game,  but it goes 20,000 leagues past a simple sports championship. Some people seriously argue that there should be a week’s holiday surrounding Game Day, or perhaps following it. Consider: the last three Super Bowls (XLV through XLVII, and don’t leave out the Roman numerals!) have been the three most-watched TV events in American history. Nearly 50% of all U.S. households tuned in, 60% in Baltimore, home of the champion Ravens. By the tense conclusion, about 115 million Americans were watching. Every year, the size of the advertising bonanza grows, with companies shelling out nearly four million dollars to CBS, the broadcaster, for each 30-second slot. People all over North America are still chattering about the ads, which have become a spectacle in themselves, attracting excited interest even from those who wouldn’t cross the street to watch the game. Millions of dollars and months of preparation went into the super-diva Beyonce’s half-time show. It’s kind of a big deal.

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Super Bowl Monday II

A guided tour of America…

This is PART TWO of my extended riff on watching Super Bowl XLVII. Please click HERE to read Part One.  

11:25 a.m., Dalian, China. Jimmy, get out of the bathroom! Jimmy! JIMMY! 109 yards in 11 clock seconds, according to The Heads, went Jacoby Jones with the 2nd half kickoff. In the pantheon forever. the unbreakable record. Rayvens 28, Forty-winkers 6. (Cheap shot. Sorry. Also, the return was recalibrated at 108 yards. So there’s room for improvement. Whew.)

Off to the races from the 2nd half kick-off, Jacoby Jones gallops.

11:30. The lights go down in the Superdome, and the Three Wise Men and I share a collective Uh-oh! Talk turns to jihadists and fear-mongering possibility and Black Sunday – the movie – and this is the way the world goes.

11:32. The realtor as hero: the Century 21 Man saves the wedding. (We are all heroes, insofar as we support the consumer economy.) Blah. I’m getting tired of this. The thrill is gone. But the Blackberry commercial got my attention: “In 30 seconds, it’s easier to show you what it can’t do.” Great song, easy-going, in the background. Jimmy thinks it was Pitbull. I don’t know what that means. (Matters not, as the song was “Who Knows” by Marion Black; the Wise Men and Me ain’t got no soul.) Oh, my goodness, and Air Force One has been de-tailed! People have been sucked out of a plane at high altitude and we are all to believe that they are still alive! (How can fact and science and logic match up to Marvel-at-the-Movies?) It’s Iron Man 3. Coming May 3, coming to save the POTUS and his high flyers and redeem our boredom. (I was quite surprised to have had a good time at Iron Man, before it needed a ‘1’ behind it: good acting, and snappy dialogue along with the CGI. I’m not sure there are enough new ideas, in the same way that the Star Trek reboot will suffer the inevitable sequel Scarecrow disease: no brain.)

11:33. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, CBS’s voices of choice, can’t be heard because of the blackout. Sideline reporter Steve Tasker doesn’t know WHAT the hell to say. Thank goodness for commercials.

11:35. “It’s Febberary…Febuary…Febwuary.” Isn’t it funny how nobody can actually pronounce that month? A little, I guess. Out-takes are always fun. Subway’s is doing something in February that we should all be very excited about. (No mention, then, of restoring the lost inch to their alleged footlongs. Scandal.). Oh, and earlier, various stars (largely unrecognized by me) congratulated the famous Jared on the 15th anniversary of his sub-inspired weight loss. An iconic tale of modern America: man beats obesity and keeps it beat. Heroes are everywhere. (Jared did not look well to me, when I replayed the spot next day.)

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Super Bowl Monday

A guided tour of America via televisual sport.

Think of it as cultural introspection. Football for fun and insight. 

Don’t be afraid.

A Tale of Two Harbaughs, Two QBs, & Two Linebackers

9:01 a.m. Monday. This is when you watch Super Bowl XLVII if you’re in China and you live two bus stops from Jimmy D’s place, where this wild-eyed NFL evangelist subscribes to Game Pass. (The game started at 7:30 our time, but we’re not crazy.) While Mad Jim puts the final touches on his breakfast burritos, we wait for the alleged gang to arrive. (Brackets like this, in this tangled story, usually mean that I got thinking more about this stuff once the Super Bowl had settled a bit in my mind. It has taken a few days. There’s a lot to think about. Note: this post gets long. Sit back. Relax.)

9:11 a.m. Bad Jim just burst my bubble. This telecast is likely pre-cut. There’ll be no pre-game, but then I’ve had enough in my ill-spent past of talking heads and pre-game hype, and Grantland’s Bill Barnwell and crew have given me all I need of pre-apocalyptic analysis. (If you promise to come back, I will link you to this great sports and pop culture site. But no pride-of-America national-anthem-as-sacrament? No over-indulgent commercials, no insert-hyphenated-adjective-here  half-time show?!) I wanted the whole experience. I wanted to see what the brightest, most creative minds in the Excited States of America have made to mould and incite our consumer purpose. Bring it to me, TV!!

9:15. Burritos chewing, game on. I’ve read much more – he’s been an introverted flashpoint for pigskin opinionating – about the Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco than I’ve seen, which basically amounts to their AFC championship beating of the New England Bradys, and this opening series. He throws beautiful balls, so fluid, so confidently commanding. Baltimore is off and throwing. It doesn’t look like the constipated, conservative, No Fun League Super Bowls that I got tired of in the 90s and early 2000s. (Our little-brother Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup championship was routinely a better game than the Hyper Bowl. But enough of Canuck chauvinism.) But it’s going to be all football, which I’m adjusting to. I guess I can watch the commercials later if I really want to. Nearly $4 million to buy 30 seconds, I’ve read. What a world.

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Super Stuff

Artie’s Megtastic Brontoplasm Heavy Definition MonsterScreen (not its real name) loomed at the end of the den. TechBoy was racing around fitting his EarPiercer MaxVol Screamers — these were not your dad’s stereo speakers — the better to further stun the cerebral nerve endings of the only geezer invited to the Super Party. (That would be me.) Eight trays of wings were on the table – one for each of us, as it groaningly turned out – along with crunchies, chewies and slurpies. We weren’t a beer-swilling crowd, but we were ready to assert our North American manhood in every other way we could. After all, da Colts wuz playin’ da Bears for the World Championship of the Excited States of American Football. Hooting and hollering ensued, especially during that wacky first quarter, and Sparky, one stressed-out and neurotic little pup, went canine straitjacket on us. Ya gotta love living room sports.

The commercials. I soon realized I was with a crowd that was at least as interested in the ads as the third-down conversion rates, and I’m not just talking about Artie’s wonderfully excitable Mom. (These guys were more into the technical aspects of the telecast reception than in any Manning-to-Harrison connection. Vafa meditated at length on how the virtual first-down line was generated). Somehow, we were able to get the American commercials – including a stunningly amateur one from Detroit replacement window installers who take fibreglass very seriously – instead of the Global Canuck substitutes. (Take that, CRTC!!) There was a busy and amusing series of Lord of the Flies work-is-a-jungle-riot ads for a job-search company. There was an uncomfortably homoerotic and homophobic (tough double!) spot that I can’t imagine will sell a lot of Snickers bars. As usual, Bud Light has some of the best creative minds in America helping it to sell insipid and slightly poisonous beverages. (Best line of the night: But he’s got a chainsaw!)

And Coke poured more megabucks into helping us to associate sugar, caffeine and gas with our psychological well-being. The incredibly expensive video-game styled ad, in which Joe Cool rights all the wrongs of the street and inspires a giddy festival of urban happiness, was one that I quite liked. It’s a 2007, hyperactive version of the old I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony / I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. (I know it’s a tooth-rotting soft drink, but I’m a sucker for brotherhood and global harmony.) The chiselled young men I was with didn’t appreciate the “Wonderland in the Coke Machine” ad much, but I could see it through the eyes of the little boys that have lived in my house for so long. It was imaginative, incredibly expensive, and pretty darned cute. I waved a sourpuss white flag, though, for the salute to Black History Month, which appeared to link Holy Coca-Cola with all the most heroic moments and characters in the African American story. Yecch. That was but one expression of the Dungy/Lovie factor, the aren’t we a wonderful country to have black coaches for the all the dark young men that we pay so well to entertain us sentiment. Not to mention that CBS Cares, apparently, about much more than ratings, although the accompanying series of images of beautiful black children and noble black elders seemed, well, just a little too self-congratulatory. But maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh: even clumsily celebrated racial progress is racial progress. (I think.)

The game. I like football. My playing days are a foggy image in a cracked rear-view mirror. (The older I get, the better I was. What a great line. Wish I’d written it, wonder who did.) I don’t even watch it that much anymore, though I read more pigskin commentary than is healthy. It was my first time seeing the Lovie Smith Bears, but I’ve seen the Colts several times over the last few years. I’m a great admirer of Tony Dungy, and was anxious to have all the call-in sports radio meatheads stop braying about Peyton Manning being over-rated. (Envy grows like a titanic and atom-powered cancer among low self-esteem sports fanatics.) I was pulling for the Colts.

Early on, it looked like I was rooting for the white-hatted cowboys who were about to be chewed up by the baddies. What a crazy, sloppy, interesting first quarter, so unlike the usual tense blandness. By halftime, though, a Colts victory was looking pretty inevitable, as long as they refused to kick to Devin Hester. I stayed tuned in to the play, though most of my younger brothers had gone to cyber-geek guy talk that I can barely understand. I was a little disappointed (how greedy can I be?) that the Horseshoes couldn’t translate their skill and power into a more dominating final score. It’s a bit mean-spirited, I admit, but I was pleased to think of Edgerrin James – the former star runner for the Colts who left them for extra millions – watching the SB in a football desert. I loved the cleverness of Joseph Addai, James’s replacement, with his quickness and subtle spins and shifts. I was thrilled by that gorgeous toe-dragging sideline catch by Marvin Harrison; one of the unfilmed highlights of my football “career” was an eleventh-grade grab a little bit like that. (In my mental video library, anyway.) The Sanders interception of a one-winged duck thrown by Bears QB “Bad Rex” Grossman reminded me painfully of the worst ball I ever threw to a wide-open, touchdown-ready teammate. (It was grade 12, and that quacking attempt at a long pass was in the air so long I could’ve almost run and caught it myself. The coach switched me to linebacker soon afterward). And I was grateful that the deeply Christian Dungy didn’t echo the Colts’ owner’s proclamation — did you hear it? — of the Universal Creator’s undivided interest in the gridiron success of the Colts. (Such a little God! No wonder so many people find it hard to believe.)

When I was a kid, the ferocity of football was attractive, though it was always the sweet catch, the nimble cut, the tightly spiralling throw or punt that really thrilled me. As an adult, I came to see that football is the best TEAM game there is. In a high school, say, it has the potential to do more for the spirit of a large group of (possibly) undermotivated and emotionally isolated young men than anything short of wars and revolutions. Sorry to go all socio-political on you, but I guess I’m glad that the Colts won without the worst of the in-your-face, look-at-me macho freakshow posturing that takes so much away from the team feeling of football played well. And despite all those fumbles, there was some good football to watch last night, in between the main attractions. Thanks for the High Def, Mr. B. It was good to pretend I was 22 for awhile.

The Athletic is Political

I wonder if you’ve heard of Dave Zirin. I hadn’t until a couple of months ago, though I pay absurd levels of attention to life in the lucrative sandbox of professional sport. This guy is on fire. Apparently, he’s written on pro basketball for quite a while — I guess Slam is a bit too hiphophappenin’ for me — but what I’ve come across is his weekly email column “The Edge of Sports”, in which he writes on marginalized issues beyond the scores and the winning streaks and the all-star teams: racism, social justice, athletic fame and influence, the meaning of these gladiatorial entertainments. (He loves the games and many of the athletes, the more contrarian and individualistic the better.)

He’s written a book – it awaits me on my bedside table – called What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States. For those of you with good memories and long-ago birthdates, you might recognize the title as Muhammad Ali’s early insistence on having his abandonment of his “slave name” respected. Zirin is sometimes a bit strident for my taste, but he’s definitely every radical activist’s favourite sportswriter. He has the Michael Jordans of the world in his sights; MJ’s famous “Hey, Republicans buy shoes, too!” as his reason to avoid political involvement is a target of considerable contempt.

Dave Zirini has been powerfully angry on the Tookie Williams execution, wistful about Carlos Delgado’s on-again, off-again protest of the war in Iraq, and insistent about applying the simple standards of the common good to the uncommon world of big-money athletics. Today, his rant on the cosmetics of a Super Bowl hosted by Detroit, by most accounts a smoking hulk of a city, is RIGHT ON. He picks on the way in which sports have come to embody and emphasize one of the greatest obstacles to justice that we face. He zooms in on the extremes of wealth and poverty, as they are seen amid the glitz of the biggest single sporting event in the world. The Super Bowl has long been an example of gleeful and sometimes cringe-worthy excess, and here’s another take. Zirin quotes some sports writers, especially the great Mitch Albom (yes, he’s also the guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, a wonderful book, and The Seven People You Meet in Heaven, which I’m not so sure about, but he’s probably the best sports columnist in North America), who are also not afraid to bite the hand the feeds them. And aware enough. And outraged enough. Leonard Cohen wrote it this way: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, and the rich get rich / That’s how it goes…”

Dave Zirin’s column is called “Detroit: Super Bowl City on the Brink” and it can be found here.  And yes, I will be watching the SB. It’s research. I’m a Man of the People. (And Troy Polamalu rocks.)

Grey Cup Sunday: Football, Canadian Style

I’m not the CFL fan I was in the days of Garney Henley and Joe Zuger, Ben Zambiasi and Chuck Ealey. (Does anyone out there know what I’m talking about?) I’ve seen some highlights from the Canadian and National Football Leagues (interesting how the “national” league claims it plays for the “world championship”, isn’t it?), but I haven’t actually watched a game this year. I was determined to at least see the Cup. (I make the same general rule for the Super Bowl, which usually has ten times the hype and half the excitement.) Anyhow, I apparently don’t move in the right circles to wangle an invitation to a Grey Cup party with a decent television, so I ended up working my magic on the rabbit ears and the mighty CBC telecast came through fairly well. Had the living room all to myself. (Sigh.)

The first half was like a lot of Super Bowls, filled with tense athletes and careful coaches and defences preying on the timidity of both. 10-1 at half, a bit of a yawner. Halftime was one of those weird spectacles, where dancing girls and extras are brought around a stage – tiny in the midst of a football field – and the camera operators keep a tight focus so that we at home can’t see what they can: stick figures on a stage playing to a hundred people, acres of turf and half-empty stands (there are more beers and goodies to be inhaled, and incredible quantities of urine to be leaked).

So home’s the best seat in the house, which matters not a whit if you have to watch the Black Eyed Peas. This was my second BEP sighting, and I don’t get it at all. Sure, I’m a forty-something guy who had a James Taylor phase, but I can get hippity every once in a while. Eminem’s a bit toxic, but he’s a talent. I’m getting to know dear old Public Enemy a little, and I actually dig Buck Sixty-Five with a fairly large shovel. But the Peas? Please. Somebody has to explain this to me. (Unless it’s all about a blonde singer grinding with men of colour. Nah. Couldn’t be.)

Anyhow, the second half made me pay attention again: play upon play, lead change after lead change, overtime thrills, a bonehead play by a brainy quarterback. My joint was jumping and I  was the only one there. So I may not get the halftime show, if I ever did, but I still get football, Lord help me, and nothing beats the big-balled Canadian version (with its imported American stallions) when it’s at its best.

(Just one more thing: Madame Jean, nice to see you there for the presentation of your predecessor’s famous gift to Canadian football. But if the Governor General is going to honour the champs with Lord Grey’s famous mug, she shouldn’t do it while playing Vanna White — is she still alive and flipping? — to the CFL Commissioner’s Pat Sajak. I’m just saying.)