A Fumble for American Democracy – Andrew D. Carico

Is the future of the National Football League’s Super Bowl linked with the future of American democracy? The Super Bowl may seem to some like an overly commercialized sports championship game, but it holds considerable cultural significance. It has emerged as an annual American celebration—for die-hard football fans and casual observers alike. Thus, whether or not they enjoy football, Americans should take the Super Bowl seriously as a uniquely American form of association, a key distinctive of American democracy. 

From its unique placement on the NFL schedule (traditionally two weeks after the two conference championship games), its now-famous halftime shows, its use of Roman numerals, and the expensive and sensational commercials, the Super Bowl has emerged as a quasi-holiday on the American calendar. Not for nothing did Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times write in 2011 that “the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day have nothing on the Super Bowl. Without being an official holiday, the gonzo game has flags, food, friends, and drink aplenty—and can claim the largest national TV audiences ever.” 

This year, Americans from all walks of life will gather in homes, bars, churches, clubs, community centers, and military bases around the world to watch the big game. Indeed, it is noteworthy that (1) a recent report shows that more food is consumed by Americans on Super Bowl Sunday than on any other day except for Thanksgiving, and (2) that the Monday after the Super Bowl is one of the most often missed days of work all year, leading many to say that the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. Yet, it was not always this way. 

The Evolution of the Game

The Super Bowl as we know it today has rather humble beginnings. Flash back to 1960. Texas business owner Lamar Hunt, who failed in his attempt to own a National Football League (NFL) franchise, grouped with other like-minded entrepreneurs to start their own, rival league: the American Football League (AFL). The AFL, though fledging at first, grew in prominence, and by 1966 the leagues agreed to merge. Beginning in 1967, the leagues would have their respective champions face off in a single, season-ending championship match. 

On January 15, 1967, the Green Bay Packers faced the Kansas City Chiefs at the Los Angeles Coliseum in what was then called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The price for tickets spanned between $6.00-12.00, and the stadium was only about 2/3 full that day. Vince Lombardi’s Packers won (the first of their back-to-back titles), cementing Lombardi in football lore with the championship trophy itself being re-named after him in 1971 following his death. 

The game was not initially called the “Super Bowl.” While other ideas were considered, it was the aforementioned Lamar Hunt who suggested the title. Although the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” was used for the first two title games, the title “Super Bowl” gained popular notoriety, and by Super Bowl III between the Baltimore Colts and New York Jets, the name stuck. It was in that Super Bowl where the AFL’s New York Jets—quarterbacked by “Broadway” Joe Namath—defeated the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in one of the largest upsets in NFL history, fulfilling Namath’s famous pre-game “guarantee” for a victory. Beginning in 1970, the merger between the AFL and NFL was complete, now collectively under the name “National Football League.”

The game has continued to rise in popularity since the 1960s. Not only is it the defining championship game in all of football, but it has also become the key identifier of football dynasties—the Packers of the 1960s, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s, the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s, and the New England Patriots of the 2000s. All achieved their dynastic status in large part due to their Super Bowl championships. 

Moreover, it has served as a point of contention in debating some of football’s greatest teams. For example, when assessing the all-time greatest single-season teams, can the 2007 New England Patriots, who were undefeated until losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants, be considered better than the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went undefeated in a different era of football but did win Super Bowl VII, completing the only perfect season in NFL history? Winning or losing the Super Bowl creates opportunities for such debates, and many more. 

The Super Bowl has also supplied iconic sports moments, such as Joe Montana’s two-minute drill to defeat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII; Tom Brady’s heroics to defeat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, taking place in the shadow of 9/11; and, David Tyree’s “helmet catch” that helped the New York Giants emerge victorious in Super Bowl XLII, amongst others. NFL fans are indebted to Ed and Steve Sabol who founded NFL Films to ensure both individual and team performances are beautifully preserved for future generations. 

Additionally, Super Bowl XXV—where the New York Giants defeated the Buffalo Bills due to Scott Norwood’s last-second missed field goal—and Super Bowl XLIII—where Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers threw a touchdown in the final seconds to defeat the Arizona Cardinals—are not only two of the greatest Super Bowl games ever played, but arguably two of the best games in all of NFL history. Super Bowl XLVII, in 2013, not only included the only time two brothers faced off against each other as Head Coaches (John and Jim Harbaugh), it also included the only power outage in Super Bowl history, a 34-minute delay after halftime in the New Orleans Superdome. 

The Super Bowl is now broadcast all over the world, and it is the most-watched annual sporting event in the United States. In fact, the Super Bowl takes the top spot in the list of most watched broadcast events in United States history, with over 115 million viewing Super Bowl LVII in 2023. This year’s game will likely attract over 100 million viewers again, but how and why does it hold such cultural significance—significance related to the very success of American Democracy itself? 

Civil Associations

When Americans assemble to watch the Super Bowl, they are exercising a very American activity. In the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville identified the very act of associating as a unique characteristic within the American democratic experience. He commented on the proclivity of free and equal citizens to combat individualism and despotism by forming free associations to address a variety of issues. While many associations can address political concerns, that is not the case for all of them. As Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small” (II.ii.5 [489]). Thus, for Tocqueville, the art of associating with others represents a true distinctive in the American democratic experience. Through these experiences, Americans learn how to exercise their liberty and engage in cooperative relations with others. As a result of these associations, claims Tocqueville, “the heart is enlarged, and the human mind is developed” (II.ii.5 [491]).

If Tocqueville were to come again to America in 2024, he would likely note the decline of associations compared to what he observed in the 1830s. Yet, he may be intrigued by the desire for Americans of different backgrounds, political affiliations, religions, races, etc. to still congregate in good cheer once a year on Super Bowl Sunday. 

As Tocqueville put it, “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all others depends on the progress of that one.” In America in particular, there exists an immense “sum of associations” (II.ii.5 [492, 489]). He provides the contrast with other regimes clearly: “Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.” (II.ii.5 [489]). At the heart of Tocqueville’s analysis is an important truth about the human desire to communicate and collaborate with others. Americans, he contended, had elevated that art above other democratic countries. 

Can Americans still claim such high levels of association? Political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone suggests that Tocqueville’s assessment may no longer apply. Whereas Americans once associated to address all sorts of issues, Putnam documents how such associations wilted in the modern era, using the decline of organized bowling leagues as an example of this decay. 

If we combine this documented downturn in organized civic associations with (1) the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down businesses and isolated many individuals and families from their broader communities, and (2) a growing political polarization in recent years that has resulted in what some call a “Cold Civil War,” we get a powerful elixir that threatens the community-engaging uniqueness of American democracy itself. 

While Super Bowl parties are not necessarily the same as the associations that Tocqueville (or Putnam) praise, they are still reflective of the unique American tendency to gather in liberty and pursue a like-minded endeavor. In this case, you have thousands of localized groups across the country uniting around one common, national interest. The Super Bowl provides a distinct experience for national unity to express itself despite vast geographical and cultural differences. Thus, if Tocqueville were to come again to America in 2024, he would likely note the decline of associations compared to what he observed in the 1830s. Yet, he may be intrigued by the desire for Americans of different backgrounds, political affiliations, religions, races, etc. to still congregate in good cheer—even if just over a game—once a year on Super Bowl Sunday. 

The Super Bowl, Rightly Understood

When Americans assemble to focus on a single event such as the Super Bowl, we must take seriously what the Super Bowl is presenting, and therefore teaching, the citizenry. Rightly understood, the Super Bowl is historically reflective of some of the greatest pillars of the American democratic experiment: community, tradition, sportsmanship, competition, capitalism, and patriotism. Yet, as the game has evolved, one might question whether it still truly reflects such pillars. 

Perhaps the highwater mark of the Super Bowl as a galvanizing force in American culture came at Super Bowl XXV in January of 1991. The first Gulf War had just commenced, and patriotic sentiments ran high. The late Whitney Houston delivered perhaps the greatest rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner ever performed, and flags were waved while grown men cried. Not only was the game that evening one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played, but it was a great moment for the country. That year, the Super Bowl served as a true cultural unifier. 

While millions of Americans still gather to watch the Super Bowl, the game itself as a positive force for building American culture, and supporting American democracy, has certainly waned. Consider the commercials. What are at times humorous (think of the common Doritos ads) and creative (the Budweiser Clydesdales are a common theme in their commercials), the commercials in general have devolved into what seems to be a competition for the most sensational. In the past, there have been some truly iconic ads—the “Hey Kid, Catch” ad by Coca-Cola from Super Bowl XIV in 1980 featuring Pittsburgh Steeler’s star “Mean Jo Green,” or the Macintosh “1984” ad from Super Bowl XVIII in 1984. But most of the ads in the modern era fail to be truly creative, humorous, or informative. The GoDaddy.com commercials from recent years have involved risqué content that could make grown men blush. For a cool 5–6 million dollars, one can now buy 30 seconds on the television networks during the Super Bowl. 

Then there are the halftime shows. Originally, the halftime shows encompassed great marching band performances, but—beginning in the 1980s and 1990s—the NFL recognized the commercial value in high-profile entertainment. Perhaps the best marker of this transition occurred at Super Bowl XXVII in 1993 with the performance by Michael Jackson. This led to years of increasingly high-profile and scandalous shows, culminating in the now famous “wardrobe malfunction” by Janet Jackson at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. The backlash from that incident led to a few safer performances, but the power of the purse, along with desired cultural relevance, proved strong, and the NFL reverted back to entertainment with vulgar lyrics and racy dress and dancing (such as the Jennifer Lopez and Shakira performance in 2020) that go well beyond traditional family-friendly content. Slated for this year’s show is pop artist Usher, who states his performance is “30 years in the making.” 

Finally, the NFL itself has made controversial decisions that not only impact the Super Bowl but also the game of football generally. The league hosts a webpage where they describe their support of social justice causes, such as criminal justice reform and community-police relations. In recent years, the league has also publicly supported kneeling during the National Anthem and the use of social justice slogans on helmet decals and in the End Zones. The NFL has even started its own line of social justice-inspired team hats. At its best, this wading into the larger culture wars could create an opportunity for a healthy public deliberation on these topics. At its worst, it creates friction amongst owners, players, and fans—alienating fans not only from the game of football but perhaps from each other as fellow citizens. 

In a time with increased political polarization and social isolation, the Super Bowl still serves as a unique event that brings Americans together—a remnant of a robust, connected American culture. Yet, the game itself could actually increase separation and division through controversial commercials, sensational halftime shows, or political causes. As a result, not only is the NFL gambling with its largest commodity, but it is also potentially alienating many Americans from one of the few remaining unifying forces still at work in American culture.

Ideally, the Super Bowl provides an opportunity for Americans from diverse walks of life to come together, partake in community, celebrate competition and patriotism, and engage in true leisure surrounding a national event. It is thus the Super Bowl rightly understood that America still needs. Let’s hope the NFL can realize that need, then act on it, for the big game specifically, and American democracy generally, may be weakened further if they do not. 

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