It can be done. We didn't quite make it all the way this time, but it can be done. We know it now.
The Super Bowl can be ignored.
Oh sure, we've known all along that it's possible to ignore the Super Bowl--possible for people who would rather read Henry James than watch sports, possible for researchers who are busy charting the incidence of spousal abuse before, during, and after the game. Yet we thought it important to determine once and for all whether a sports fan, a columnist even--admittedly one with a fondness for Henry James and an aversion to spousal abuse--might possibly ignore the biggest football game of the year, treat it as if it simply weren't happening. And like Dr. Henry Jekyll before us, we used ourself as a guinea pig.
We did this in the greater interest of science and the common good, but also because we felt we had to. We had reached an impasse with the Super Bowl. Once upon a time, before the cult of Super Sunday was constructed around the game, the Super Bowl was the great football event of the year, the ultimate contest of the season. Certainly even in its most vital era, the 70s, it was prone to boredom; quite simply, there have always been too many advertisers trying to seize too large a chunk of time from a single three-hour (now closer to four, if not more) football game. The pace has lagged even when the teams were equally matched. Yet even at its decadent worst, the Super Bowl at least meant something back in those days. It was the crowning achievement for the Miami Dolphins in their 17-0 campaign, the game that was sure to bring out the very best in the Pittsburgh Steelers, and of course the game in which "Broadway" Joe Namath and the New York Jets single-handedly established parity between the old National Football League and the upstart American Football League in 1969.
That was a crushing defeat suffered by a young fan of the Baltimore Colts who found himself newly landlocked in the midwest outside Chicago, and it was the beginning of a very bad year, as that fan would soon develop an attachment to the Chicago Cubs, who would choke in their pennant race with the New York Mets, who would in turn prove their legitimacy by vanquishing the Orioles from Baltimore that October. It was a tough year for anyone who favored anyone over New York City.
Do kids still suffer the same? Are there fans of the San Diego Chargers who even now are finding it difficult to get through the day? No doubt, but their anguish can't begin to approach that of Colts fans back then. If the Niners had lost last Sunday, perhaps San Francisco fans would have felt something similar. But like religious miracles and the manifestation of God, these things simply don't happen anymore. They're emblems of an earlier, simpler time.
The National Football Conference, which is what the National Football League teams--or most of them, anyway--became after the NFL merger with the AFL, has now won 11 straight Super Bowls. What's more, it has done so in an embarrassing fashion-- embarrassing, that is, to the American Football Conference. The NFC teams have won those games by a combined score of 428-181. Only 2 of those 11 games have been decided by a touchdown, only one by a field goal.
Bad as this is for the NFL's so-called parity, it has been especially brutal for old Baltimore football fans. When the NFL and AFL merged in the early 70s, the Colts were one of three NFL teams moved into the newly formed AFC to even out the conferences. We immediately became AFC fans, mainly because of our native ties with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who likewise moved from the NFL to the AFC. For the same reason of numerical superiority, we have always been American League baseball fans, because the Orioles and White Sox combined outweigh the Cubs.
Historically, the AFL featured a pass-oriented, razzle-dazzle style of play. The league went out of its way to attract attention, like a girl looking for a dance partner at a sock hop, and so in football parlance it became known as a pussy's league. Yet when the AFL, and then the AFC, established full parity in the 70s, it did so by establishing its ability to play football by the old rules, to run with the big dogs. The Namath-era Jets were a pass-oriented team, but they beat the Colts in the Super Bowl with a small but finely synchronized offensive line that controlled the line of scrimmage against the bigger, slower Colts. When coach Don Shula moved from the Colts to the Dolphins, he put together a big, finely synchronized offensive line that could control ball games a quarter at a time with ten-minute drives. When the Steelers established their dominance later in the 70s, twice winning back-to-back Super Bowls, they did so with a stern defense--the famed Steel Curtain--as well as with Terry Bradshaw's pretty spirals and Lynn Swann's graceful leaping catches. These were football teams that could play football.
Football fans and experts who claim the Super Bowl remains vital, even after 11 straight NFC victories, like to point out that the AFC enjoyed a similar period of dominance in the 70s. And it's true, of the 11 Super Bowls from 1970 through 1980 (the Steelers' last championship, which less than a month into the new decade deserves to be tossed in with the 70s), the AFL or AFC won nine. Yet look at the games. There are many more tight--even dramatic-- finishes in those 11 years than in the past 11 years. That earlier era featured the Kansas City Chiefs' upset of the Minnesota Vikings (the last nail in the coffin of the old NFL), the Colts' win over the Dallas Cowboys with a last-minute field goal, the finale in the Dolphins' perfect season (14-7 over the Washington Redskins, a squeaker by today's standards), as well as two tremendous shoot-outs between the Steelers and Cowboys that continue to rank among the greatest games in Super Bowl history.
Then, however, came the Reagan 80s and the reemergence of pure power as a football force. First came the Hogs, the immense offensive line of the Redskins; they won one Super Bowl and lost the next to the Los Angeles Raiders--the AFC's last victory. Then came the brutal defenses of the 1985 Bears and the 1986 New York Giants. The AFC, in response, was returning to its old personality as a speed and finesse league--only without the team speed on defense. Meanwhile, the Colts were being moved to Indianapolis--end of AFC allegiance for more than one old Baltimore fan. The AFC also put up little resistance to the resurgent Niners, Redskins, and Giants.
Oh, that win by the Giants in 1991 hurt most of all. Even we were enchanted with the Buffalo Bills at that point. Here again was an AFC team that could play football, with a tough, weather-tested defense and a high-powered, razzle-dazzle offense. When they choked at the end--their kicker missing a field goal in the only one-point defeat in Super Bowl history--against the already aging Giants, we should have known they weren't the team we thought. The measly competition offered by the AFC, however, allowed them three more passes to the Super Bowl, and they were embarrassed each time.
By the time the Bills came back for their third straight loss we were rooting for them to be smeared. Yes, give it to them, Cowboys, beat them so bad they'll not only be too embarrassed to show up next year but the AFC will be too humiliated to offer up another victim and this whole farcical pageant will be over. The Cowboys beat the Bills in 1993 by a score of 52-17--and still they kept coming back. The Cowboys whipped them again the year after that, and still they kept scheduling the game.
Clearly, rooting for slaughter like some old Roman is not a good state of affairs for sports fans who consider themselves refined and modern. And so we decided to take this Super Bowl off. If someone on the Niners were sure to be off to Disney World after the game, then what was to prevent us from going to Disneyland before the game--and scheduling a three-and-a-half-hour flight back to begin only slightly before the Super Bowl kickoff? Nothing, that's what. So while the savvy fan was calling his or her bookie on Friday to place a final wager on the Niners ("Twenty-two and a half points? Sure, what the fuck, why not?"), we were out on the ocean spotting whales. While football fans were getting their last full dose of hype Saturday, we were watching the Lion King parade. While the Niners were scoring two touchdowns in the first five minutes of the Super Bowl, we were watching The Scout on a tiny airplane TV with a tinny set of armrest headphones.
When the movie ended, it's true, we did try to tune in the game on the plane's sports channel, but the satellite reception faded in and out, and when it got to be 28-7 before the half we stopped checking in on the game every five or ten minutes. When we marched through O'Hare and the guy standing in the corridor outside a bar didn't know the score, we didn't bother to check with anybody else. When we got home in time to see Deion Sanders rolling his tummy while grooving between plays in the final two minutes, we knew we had made the right decision.
And when on Monday we told people who normally regard us as sane what we had done, they understood about the game but were confounded by how we'd missed the new advertisements. There it is: the championship game of the NFL no longer matters. It is utterly irrelevant to the mass-media carnival that has grown up around it. If the Super Bowl is irrelevant the sport is irrelevant. Next year, money permitting, Rome and the Colosseum on Super Sunday. At least there we'll be able to imagine contests that meant something.