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General News    H4'ed 1/30/11

Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, The Empire Bowl is Super!

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My father took me to Ebbets Field for my first football game -- in the snow -- in perhaps 1950.  The Brooklyn Brooks of the old American Football League were playing some team I no longer remember.  In fact, I have only the haziest memory of that moment.  Still, I was hooked.  The Brooks weren't long for this planet, but football's New York Giants and baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers pretty much sum up my childhood fantasy world.  (My Dad came from Brooklyn, I lived in Manhattan, and in the 1950s, sports still had a neighborhood quality to it, which is undoubtedly why, to this day, events like the Super Bowl have no meaning to me once New York teams are no longer involved.)

Of course, between the 1950s and today, between the Brooklyn Brooks and the New York Jets, an awful lot has changed, especially the nature of spectatorship itself and the "menu" available.  Sunday afternoon football, Sunday night football, Monday night football, Thursday night football in a preseason, season, and post-season that stretches from the dog days of summer to deepest winter, from one year to the next.  That's the juggernaut of professional football today -- and that, of course, is just the beginning of modern spectatorship.

It's hardly news that we've become a spectator society.  At home, on the street, in a restaurant, in a meeting -- no matter where, in fact -- we can hardly bear to stop looking at one screen or another.  Never has the idea of "bread and circuses" (or perhaps "ads and circuses") been so all-encompassing.  After all, what were the ten days of the Tucson massacre and its aftermath but a spectator event on a gargantuan scale, something that came perilously close to entertainment while masquerading piously as "national grieving"?  It's hard even to grasp what spectatorship means when it can command our attention, our lives, 24/7 and still be called "the news."  Consider it less than an irony that media outfits, discovering an event that will glue us to the screen for days, pour resources into it and refer to that act using the football term "flooding the zone." 

Why, then, should we be surprised that the latest, sexiest American wonder weapon is a plane that can be "piloted" from thousands of miles away, turning even war-fighters into spectators with video screens and joy sticks?  Consider, then, the nature of that ultimate American spectacle, the Super Bowl, as seen through the eyes of TomDispatch Jock Culture correspondent Robert Lipsyte, whose memoir An Accidental Sportswriter will be heading our way in May.  (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast video interview in which Lipsyte discusses what makes football all-American, click here, or download it to your iPod here.)  Tom 

You Must Watch the Empire Bowl 
It's Our Last Super Thing
By Robert Lipsyte

If you are still passionately following football or, worse, allowing your kid to play, you may just be an old-fashioned imperialist running dog. Not that all football fans are bloodthirsty hounds feeding off the crippled hindquarters of the dying animal of empire. Some are in a vain search for a crucible of manhood that no longer exists. Others are in pursuit of a ticket out of a dead-end life.

Whatever your reason, this is the Super Bowl to watch, even if you are among those who have made an effort to disregard the game since high school jocks shouldered you in the halls.

This is the Big One. Maybe the Last Big One. Never before have so many loose strands of an unraveling empire come together in a single event accessible to those who mourn or cheer America.

Let's start with the conceit that this game is the only super thing we have left. Super power, super economy, super you-name-it" gone. You can beat the Bushes for that, but we're all out of super -- except for the Super Bowl.  That celebration of an all-American $9 billion industry (estimated because the National Football League has never opened its books), not to mention millions more in subsidiary and dependent businesses, offers us a national holiday that has arguably superseded Thanksgiving (thanks for what?) and Christmas (electronic excess and obsolescence).

Even little Everytrader has a shot here.  Without insider connections, you undoubtedly have a far better shot at winning a football wager than gambling in the stock market.

The Big Four

Here are the four biggest reasons to watch this Super Bowl.

1. It's Not Soccer

American exceptionalism is alive and thriving on Super Bowl Sunday. National Football League franchises are overwhelmingly owned, managed, and manned by American citizens.  Neither immigration nor foreign capital has made a perceptible dent in the game. And you and I have proudly subsidized all this. American taxpayers have built many NFL stadiums. Most American universities, with their government grants, have sports schools attached; those multi-million-dollar athletic departments (despite claims, they are rarely profitable) train the players and one of academia's latest revenue-producing innovations -- sports management departments -- train the front-office personnel.

American football is barely played outside the country.  Call it a failure of colonialism (as baseball and basketball might), but it's really a tribute to good old-fashioned protectionism. Those other major sports, even ice hockey, are increasingly being taken over by Latin American, Asian, or Eastern European guest workers. Pro football remains a native game.

The "futbol" that most of the rest of the world plays is a game that American male athletes and sports fans have never found compelling. Why? What's not to like? The so-called "beautiful game" is exactly that, and the past several generations of American school-age girls and boys were lucky to have recreational soccer programs. But there was no room on the sports "shelf" for a game so poorly suited to commercial TV interruption and American domination.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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