The Surreal, the Spectacle, the Super Bowl
So I’m floating on the Hudson River with the Denver Broncos. The party boat borrowed from a late-‘90s rap video serves as a strange backdrop for a team that repeats variants of their coach’s assertion, “We’re on a business trip.” Sure. Most people visiting Jersey City don’t mistake it for Orlando. Why else, if not for a work-related project, would the Denver Broncos travel to the Garden State in February?
I ask Wes Welker about another coach, Bill Belichick, and the slot receiver’s preseason comments that he still speaks to the media as though his old coach is monitoring his words despite playing 2,000 miles from Foxboro. Is he over all that now? His face, normally boyish and kind, contorts into Belichickian form. “I’m with the Denver Broncos now,” Welichick tells me. “Moved on.” His icy glare and monotone cadence tell me the opposite.
The answer, in its word-tone contradiction, can be understood only if you speak Belichickese, a nearly sub-linguistic form of expression characterized by a mumbling of bromidic phrases (“It is what it is,” “going to do what’s best for the football team,” “three phases of the game,” “didn’t make enough plays”) that contrasts with the clearly spoken and plainly understood body language. And by continuing to speak this NFL dialect, Welker shows that he remains under the sway of his old coach as much as his teammates repeating John Fox’s “business trip” mantra remain under his.
Wes’s words said he’s over it. His answer nevertheless said he’s never left Foxboro—and that he’d like to make me leave the gaudy bark via telekinesis into the cold, polluted river just for asking the question. It’s Super Bowl week, when tiny exchanges like this one explode to inflated proportions and launch as many interpretations as New Jersey’s last major television event, The Sopranos finale. The Super Bowl remains super in part because of the build-up, the hype, the drama. And as a writer with a game-of-week pass to the Super Bowl’s many propaganda sessions but not the actual Super Bowl, it’s easy to forget that more than 5,000 journalists, and several times that number of fans, have traveled to the New York City-area not for the free Blondie concert Saturday night or the Times Square Toboggan Run Engineered by GMC (sneaky how the NFL inserts corporate names into children’s amusements), but for a football game.
I arrive Monday to multi-story Times Square advertisements of the game, a murderer’s-row radio row overflowing the hotel ballroom, and a press event on impact-sensitive helmet gizmos that former professional wrestler Chris Nowinski believes will help solve the concussion crisis. The real madness starts Tuesday when I board one in a caravan of fifteen buses, flanked by an escort of police from various agencies, which makes its way from the Times Square Sheraton to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey for Super Bowl Media Day. In case the dilapidated buildings or unkempt overgrowth had misled us, a video created by the local government informs the correspondents heading into Newark that it’s “a city on the rise.”
Met by an army of too-happy yellow-jacketed NFL greeters paid by the smile, hundreds of journalists voluntarily entered the arena to become what members of their profession dread most: the story. Long before the players arrived on the floor of the hockey arena, celebrity sports commentators held court as lesser-known sports scribes recorded their opinions. A mob, which would soon surround Peyton Manning, surrounded ESPN’s Chris Berman. Journalists interviewed journalists, took pictures of the crowd of journalists, and dreamed up questions to ask the players about the journalistic spectacle. Spectators, gathered to catch glimpses of Peyton Manning, instead watched reporters scramble around the arena floor for more than an hour prior to the arrival of the players. This is the media’s Super Bowl.
Or is it their Halloween? A Mexican television hostess dressed—barely—in a partially see-through piece of fabric valiantly fights the players for the cameras’ attention. A masked Nickelodeon super-villain named Pick Boy delivers a faux Denver Broncos playbook to a confused Russell Wilson. Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams finds a more enthusiastic gift recipient when she awards an Xbox to Richard Sherman. Alleged journalists attempt to upstage players by asking about strippers, Justin Bieber, and the weirdest question they’ve been asked—a question by the news media about questions by the news media.
Is it any wonder that the NFL forced such a motley crew to show papers, walk through an airport-style metal detector, and present bags for the approval of several scent-sensitive German Shepherds before they could come within shouting distance of athletes corralled into out-of-arms-length pens?
Marshawn Lynch, seeing enough after six minutes and twenty seconds, taps out on the event. He pulls the same disappearing act Wednesday, and by Friday his outrageous affront toward Super Bowl salesmanship would become a hot topic at the Pro Football Writers of America’s annual meeting. How dare he maintain his right to remain silent! The aforementioned Mr. Sherman, transformed into a transcendent football figure after deftly using reverse psychology on Erin Andrews and 56 million viewers (“Don’t you ever talk about me!”), eats it up. Other Seattle teammates rebel against their assigned standing spots and venture into the center of the arena floor. Indulging a monkey-see-monkey-do impulse, the players take pictures of those taking pictures of them.
The made-for-television event shows that the Seahawks have swagger—and the journalists have swag. At Super Bowl Media Day, which the NFL incessantly reminds us is “Fueled by Gatorade,” sixteen-ounce bottles of the electrolyte elixir can be had at the price of the letter “G” constantly occupying your line of sight. In appreciation, one team’s players will waste a bucket of the stuff on their coach as the game concludes. If you are a degenerate gambler, the Super Bowl awards you the opportunity to wager just what color of the beverage will become the bath (Green faces 10-1 odds). A goodie-bag parting gift includes such swag as a small Gatorade radio, Old Spice Re-Fresh body spray, an aluminum Pepsi Max mini-bottle (a can shaped as a bottle?), and a pack of Score football cards strangely labeled “Ages 9+.” So mesmerizing is Roger Goodell’s shield that it convinces companies to give it money just to give away the stuff they normally sell.
The buses to the Broncos’ Wednesday press conference require a police escort that spreads the joy of the NFL by spreading Chris Christie-like, government-approved traffic jams throughout the island of Manhattan. Instead of arriving in a hotel basement, the media make their way up a gangplank to the Cornucopia Destiny, a large boat whose stern faces the New York City skyline. Once inside, the league feeds the reporters danishes and melons but deprives them, as they have all week, of the thing they crave most: wi fi. Of course, they list a log-in name and a password. But nobody can connect, let alone log in. But with a $10 billion corporation, appearances matter. So, even if they hired Red Grange to configure their hookup, the league can still say they offered an internet connection to those covering their league.
At the Seahawks digs at the Jersey City Westin, fathead-style cutouts of players announce to passerby terrorists or fans of the opposing team that one half of the reason the world watches such places as Florham Park, Newark, and East Rutherford resides here. How do the Seahawks keep focus amid the distraction? “Keep it as normal as possible,” the bearded and burly Max Unger tells me. But how is that possible? Doug Baldwin does this by playing the video games Galaxy on Fire and Alliances “to step back and not be so stressed.” Russell Wilson does this by buying donuts for the team every Wednesday.
As he’s wont to do, Richard Sherman struck a discordant note. “I don’t think we’re loose,” the cornerback explained. “I think we’re the same as we’ve been all season. It’s because we’ve treated every game like a championship opportunity. So, us getting to the Super Bowl and playing this game is no different. We understand the moment. We understand the intensity, the sense of urgency. These are the moments we’re built for.”
Was the loquacious cornerback speaking of the game he plays Sunday or the games he’s played with the press all week?
Back at the Sheraton, a loathsome crowd of male camp followers assemble outside the entrance. Some have packed a supply of deflated official NFL footballs. Others display spiral notebooks full of mint-condition football cards inhabiting clear plastic sheets. All arm themselves with black Sharpies and hector any remotely famous individual who attempts to pass through their gauntlet. They are neither collectors nor fans but sports memorabilia merchants. And they’re aggressive. This is the only place on earth where Garo Yepremian gets a chance to feel like what it was like to be in the Backstreet Boys, only it’s fat, swarthy, sweaty men playing the role of the screaming, sobbing, grabbing girls. Other than that, it’s exactly the same.
Glimpsing these cretins outside the Sheraton is the price one pays for mixing amongst the beautiful people inside. I run into Woody Page, JT the Brick, Dan Shaughnessy, and other sports-media heavyweights. Hall of Famer Mike Haynes, Oscar-winner Kevin Costner, and former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir walk past. Jesse Jackson, as though playing the hitchhiker in the so named Twilight Zone episode, appears supernaturally mid-elevator ride, in the lobby where he wasn’t the moment before, in iPhone photos when no one remembers him in the original pose. Several stunning, high-heeled vixens work the hotel, as hookers or sportscasters I know not. I award them my stares. They ungratefully pay me back with their glares.
The league’s media hospitality lounge constantly reenacts the melee at the broken gumball machine in Caddyshack when the teenage loopers chaotically scramble for the chewable orbs as Lou Loomis struggles to maintain order. Writers mob hotel employees bearing gifts of fruit, stripping within seconds the trays bare of all signs of pears, apples, oranges, and bananas. Gatorade coolers lay empty and wrappers from complimentary white-chocolate lollipops lay strewn about. Given the hotel’s extortionate $20 hamburgers, offering slightly more sustenance than a Whopper, the writers face a dilemma to either accept the NFL’s charity or bestow charity upon Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide. Not just stomachs, but pockets, depart full.
Friday, the NFL’s buses chauffeured lazy reporters five blocks to Rose Hall to watch the highest-paid salary in sports speak to his people. There’s Jets owner Woody Johnson wearing a $5,000 suit and a $10 baseball cap. There’s Patriots owner Robert Kraft accompanied by a woman who appears to be his granddaughter or his girlfriend. Falcons owner Arthur Blank looks like he feels like a $100 bill. My hands can’t confirm what my eyes tell me since Blank and the other one percenters are cordoned off up front. Daring to extend my hand to his might provoke the NFL sharpshooters surely lurking in the balcony.
When Roger Goodell finally takes the podium, he laments that, contrary to popular belief, the NFL isn’t so powerful as to control the weather at Sunday’s game. The stagehands immediately cue the snow and white flakes surrealistically fall behind the commissioner ostensibly oblivious to the indoor meteorological phenomenon. He has a sense of humor about the wealth and power of an entity whose gross domestic product exceeds Nicaragua’s. The Nicaraguans don’t.
That morning, a USA Today piece outlined the NFL’s goal of a $25 billion league by sometime in the next decade. Goodell speaking favorably of playoff expansion and a London franchise, and his Obi Wan Kenobi-like dismissal of the notion that Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s 60-acre purchase in Los Angeles had anything to do with a plotted relocation to America’s second largest media market, suggests that he’s serious about arriving at the $25 billion destination. Old Spice, Pepsi, Visa, and Gatorade can’t get him there on their own.
Amidst Richard Sherman holding court as the heir to Deion Sanders, the football carnival covering thirteen blocks in Times Square, the Cornucopia Destiny docked on the Hudson River, and the fake blizzard engulfing Roger Goodell at the Rose Theater, it’s easy to forget the reason so many have chosen to vacation in the Arctic vortex. The much-maligned Marshawn Lynch, when he’s using his mouth to devour Skittles instead of using it to get devoured by voracious scribes, certainly grasps the purpose of this week better than anyone else. Let’s play the game already.
Daniel Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game (Regnery, 2013), covers Super Bowl week for Breitbart Sports.