[Did you watch the Super Bowl?]
I did. Only in recent years has it become a tradition for me. I think I watched two Super Bowls in their entirety before I turned twenty-three, but since then, I’ve been a consistent viewer.
[You didn’t grow up watching sports?]
No. It wasn’t a big thing in my family. I didn’t really play them in school, either, not since I gave up on soccer in fifth or sixth grade. I remember trying out for basketball in seventh grade, but my hand-eye coordination is incredibly inept. I didn’t become physically active until a year after I graduated from high school: I started roaming the city of Laconia at all hours of the night, going down so many sinuous back streets and wandering down so many dead ends that, eventually, it was hard to tell where the hills ascended and where they started to plateau.
[That isn’t what most people have in mind when they speak of a physically active lifestyle.]
As I said, that was only the beginning. Within a year, I started running—only for a couple of miles at a time, initially, but a few years later, I was running five miles a day, six days a week.
[And what kind of running do you perform today?]
Prior to the last few snowfalls, I was running six miles a day, three or four days a week, but with the sidewalks being impenetrable and the streets being blanketed by uneven sheets of ice, I’ve been taking a bit of a break. It’s probably for the best that Mother Nature forces an offseason on me: I was experiencing some serious tension in my knees and thighs at the height of running season last year, and my legs could use some time for convalescence.
[You’re just gonna take it easy until the snow melts?]
Not exactly: I’ve been lifting weights pretty consistently this month. Nothing too exciting; just trying to reestablish foundational muscle. I actually took up weightlifting originally at around the same time I became a runner, but I gave up on it so quickly.
Because weightlifting is tedious. Running is a state of constant action, especially outdoors, with the flowing scenery. Weightlifting is much narrower in scope, and as such, it requires a lot more focus than running. If only human beings could run on their hands.
[Yes, if only we hadn’t been denied such a blessing, although I suspect you would still need a pretty good pair of gloves if the sidewalks are really as bad as you say.]
Then again, you can always do push-ups—
[So, it sounds like you started watching the Super Bowl at around the same time you got your body into shape. You took a stronger interest in athletics generally.]
It didn’t hurt that the Patriots began a kind of cultural renaissance at the same moment. People in New England tend to forget how frustrated they were with the Patriots during their decade-long championship drought. In 2014, when I was running and lifting, the Patriots were still searching for their first championship post-scandal: you may recall that they were caught breaking the rules in 2007, and they have never overcome that lethal injury to their reputation. The fans wanted them to win again, to prove that they hadn’t won in the past by cheating, and their impatience for such vindication had become intense heading into the 2014 season.
Absolutely. The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl at the end of the 2014 season, though not without becoming entangled in a second controversy, this one involving deflated footballs. After that victory, and after another championship two years later, there was a lot of historical revisionism on the part of Patriots fans. They convinced themselves that they had never lost faith in the team, not even temporarily, and that they always knew the team would win championships again—that is championships, plural. You see, they always knew that the Patriots would win at least three more, even in the midst of the ten-year drought.
[Are you suggesting they did not believe in the team?]
No, but I am saying that there was a lot of anxiety on the part of Patriots fans. They didn’t know how much longer Tom Brady would be playing, and in 2014, the end of his playing career seemed to be much closer than it actually was—not because he was playing poorly, but because, previously, no quarterback had ever played exceptionally well beyond the age of forty. In that sense, the uncertainty among New Englanders was understandable, hence the eagerness to win a championship as soon as possible.
[And you were a fan?]
Yeah, I took an active interest in the team’s success, and I wasn’t alone: the Super Bowl victory against the Seattle Seahawks in 2014 revitalized New England’s interest in the Patriots. A lot of people went out to buy Patriots merchandise after that, in large part because it had been so long, relatively speaking, since the last championship. And it became increasingly easy to root for them during the following season, when Brady was accused of masterminding a cheating scandal of his own and the team won their first ten games of the year. Personally, I became emotionally invested in the team as an antidote to an existential depression that had taken hold of me a few months before the start of the season.
It isn’t relevant. Suffice to say, I went through the worst time of my entire life, and I found emotional refuge in the Patriots’ success. Back in the day, people would cope with their misery by watching soap operas; I preferred a more physical form of catharsis.
[And has your depression been lifted?]
As much as it can be.
[And has your interest in football receded in kind?]
Yes, though not without the emergence of a secondary depression.
[What do you mean?]
I’m not the first person to write about the malignancy of the culture of spectator sports. Everyone understands that sports spectatorship is ultimately brainless, deriving its psychic power almost exclusively from a bacchanalia that is so puerile as to be infantile—which is a pretentious way of saying that we could probably find more intellectually rewarding activities than getting liquored up and watching large man crash into each other. Then there are a number of unsettling political issues pertaining to the industry of sports, with public schools enduring budget cuts because our government believes that taxpayer dollars would be spent more appropriately on repairing arenas and stadiums, luxurious buildings owned by multibillionaires who should probably finance these projects on their own. This is especially relevant to cities like Detroit, whose politicians have done some truly unconscionable things to their school districts.
[Were you unaware of this before you became a fan in 2014?]
Obviously, I knew it was unbecoming to scream at a television and release a spray of chewed-up tacos, but I didn’t fully understand the problem of involuntary taxpayer subsidization of the NFL, NBA, etc. The scope of that issue, which actually has nothing to do with the intellectual value of the game, didn’t become apparent to me until a new arena was built for the Detroit Pistons this past year, even though the Pistons haven’t been a good team in years. That arena, built in the middle of a bankrupted, rust-eaten symbol of governmental incompetence, struggles to sell tickets. I saw part of a game in the fall, and there were entire rows of seats with no one sitting in them.
[Gluttony illustrated by starvation, maybe? I assume you, too, had your fill of this grotesquerie before long and decided to move on to something more fulfilling.]
You’re correct. The irony is that the same vainglorious feeling that swept me aboard the Patriots bandwagon eventually forced me off the same: in the aftermath of the championship victory over the Atlanta Falcons in February of 2017, a kind of massive cult developed around the team, with Tom Brady having more and more in common with L. Ron Hubbard than an athlete. I know that the term “cult” is employed all too frequently today, but Patriots fanaticism approximated an organized religion after Brady won his fifth title.
[As Nietzsche said, one should not go to church in search of pure air.]
The popular zeal, coupled with the disheartening process by which the NFL makes its sausage, led to me departure from the Patriots cult and, by extension, spectator sports at large. Facilitating this exodus was my declining interest in the NBA, due to the formation of the Golden State Warriors super-team.
[Do you maintain any interest in football independent of the Patriots?]
Not really. A lot of people who have no interest in football enjoy watching the Super Bowl, but it’s really hard to maintain that ambiguous investment over a full season. This autumn, I expect to watch fewer than five games in their entirety, not including the Super Bowl.
[So, you don’t see yourself becoming so disinterested in football as to revert to your prior habits and forego the Super Bowl?]
Well, I have to be honest: if future installments of “the big game” are as cursory as last night’s, it might not be long before the Super Bowl becomes an afterthought for Americans in general.
[Oh, come on: that’s unrealistic and you know it. The NFL is in decline, but the Super Bowl will remain a national pastime for many years to come. In fact, I predict it will still be a bonanza by the time your life is over.]
Twenty-four hours ago, I would have agreed with you completely, but did you watch last night’s game? The presentation was sloppier than I would have ever imagined, and I’m not even talking about the game itself, which was defined by incoherence and dysfunction: I’m talking about the spectacle that was orchestrated by CBS, who had the very expensive honor of broadcasting the game to the nation.
The Super Bowl is not just about the game being played on the field. For years, it has had all too much to do with the halftime show and, of course, the star-studded, surrealist advertisements. However, the halftime show has been an embarrassment for as long as I’ve been watching, and this year’s was no exception: it was pop concert boilerplate, complete with a tepid light show that was utterly indistinct from last year’s cookie cutter performance. Clearly, no one is going to be devastated by a lackluster halftime show, but the lifeless display raises at least one imperative question: why should anybody pay millions of dollars to advertise during the Super Bowl if there is no defensible reason to watch?
[Which brings us, of course, to the issue of the advertisements.]
I don’t know when the Super Bowl embraced the idea of bizarre commercials. It makes plenty of sense for advertisers to try to make their products memorable and gripping—such, after all, is the nature of marketing—but somewhere along the line, it was determined by an unseen panel that the commercials for the Super Bowl should be ironic, self-aware, and as bizarre as can be. It was actually a pretty cool system until the dawn of YouTube, which provided a venue for content that is far more experimental, cerebral, and, ultimately, memorable than anything that could make it past the censors at the FCC. Accordingly, every Super Bowl commercial over the last several years has felt like an imitation of the best of YouTube, but even the best imitation is not the best, period.
[You believe that the concept of the quirky Super Bowl commercial is outdated.]
Oh, absolutely. You can actually watch several of the commercials on YouTube several days in advance of the game, which negates the surprise of the presentation during the actual game! As a matter of fact, last night’s broadcast degraded the condition of the commercials even further, as a large number of them had been running on cable television for months. The Super Bowl felt like a random game in the middle of October. It was not the grand climacteric everyone expected. It was not the must-watch television event that the NFL promises, and again: we haven’t even touched on the sloppy performances by the teams themselves. It was the anti-Super Bowl, a cover song presented as original content.
[How much do you have to pay for a Super Bowl advertisement, anyway? $5 million a pop?]
Something like that. The Super Bowl is incredibly expensive, as was the stadium in which it was played last night: that monstrosity of corporate engineering, which cost more than $1.5 billion to build, was assembled for the Atlanta Falcons, a team that has been irrelevant for most of its history, and who played in their new stadium for the first time in September of 2017, seven months after they had surrendered a 28-3 lead against the Patriots in Super Bowl LI.
[Wow, you have nothing positive to say about the Super Bowl, do you?]
The nicest thing I can say to the NFL today is that I watched it.
[I see. Anything else?]
Yeah: throughout the game, I kept asking myself, “Has anyone earned the right to be the MVP of this anti-game?”