While watching the new documentary about the Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who I wrote about when he died, there was an Aha! moment for him towards the end of his career while he was a player and coach for the team.
Russell was addressing his teammates towards the end of a nail-biter game, when he suddenly loses it, and starts laughing hysterically. According to the film, which quotes from Russell’s book, he awoke to the silliness of basketball. Paraphrasing here, he thought about the absurdity of what he was doing -- a grown man, half-nude, running up and down a court chasing a ball.
As an aging football fan, I had a similar eureka moment several years ago. A passionate Steelers fan, I never miss a game. Yet, one Sunday as I sat watching, something bizarre occurred to me.
Here I was, a middle-aged man, watching a bunch of younger men tackling each other, chasing a weird-shaped ball on a field, with big lugs pushing back against other big lugs, diminutive dudes who just kicked the ball, middle-aged coaches losing it on the sidelines, middle-aged fans wearing war paint, and middle-aged men being paid millions of dollars to talk about younger men chasing a ball.
Then I got to thinking about the pre- and post-game analysis. How many ways can retired players, making millions goofing off behind a desk prior to the game, say about both teams, “The defense needs to keep them from scoring,” or “The offense needs to score more”?
And post-game, how many ways can sweaty players, with eyes painted black, say, “We kept them from scoring,” or “Our offense was able to score today”?
It bugs me when I hear Al Roker say, “Football night in America,” while hyping NBC’s Sunday Night Football on the Friday morning Today Show. Implying that you're only American if you watch their game. And then there’s the way over the top production before the kick-off, where Carrie Underwood sings, "Waiting All Day for Sunday Night." Sorry, but for me, Sunday night is when anxiety settles in about the next day being Monday. I try to hold-off Sunday night as long as I can.
This is ridiculous, I kept thinking. This is a big waste of time, for them and for me. It’s silly.
Yet, I continue to watch the game, and continue to watch the Steelers and continue to treat their games like a life-or-death situation. I’m always pissed when they play night games since I never sleep from being keyed up past my bedtime.
Besides being periodically detrimental to your sleep, there’s more bad things about the NFL. So many injuries that seem so unnecessary. The astonishing number of concussions. The fatal consequences of those concussions. Reconstructive knee and shoulder surgeries. And then there’s the frightening case of Damar Hamlin who suffered a hit-induced heart-attack this season and almost died on the field.
And then of course, there’s the machismo of the league which is primarily the reason there is only one out player in Carl Nassib. To their credit, in recent years, the league has done more outreach to our community, but there’s a long way to go.
Ok, now that I’ve taken all of the proverbial air out of the football (this is not a reference to Tom Brady's cheating), let’s talk about why football, and namely the Super Bowl, still matters to most of us.
First, I always considered myself lucky growing up in the 1970s in Pittsburgh, when the Steelers won an unprecedented four Super Bowls – which were four of the happiest days of my childhood. No matter the distance from Pittsburgh and distance of time from those glory days in the ‘70s, I have always remained a die hard Steelers fan.
Most of us probably feel the same way about our own teams, especially when you watch them play and it hearkens back to days of your childhood, so there’s an affinity that is learned and retained. Even if your teams weren’t winning when you were coming of age, you continue to root for them, and hold out hope they’ll make it to the Super Bowl each year.
If you’re gay, you remember the very first time you walked into a gay sports bar to watch a football game. That didn’t happen to me until I was 40, and I went to the Gym Sports Bar in Chelsea with two of my closest friends, Jon and Ed, who were both built like football players.
I always thought I was a bit of an outlier because I liked football as a gay man but walking into the Gym Bar on that fall Sunday 18 years ago made me feel accepted in a whole different way, and I met a few gay Steelers fans – heck, for years I thought I was the only one!
Long time Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs fans – young and old – are lapping up the successes of their teams this year. This is Super Bowl LVII (57 – the Roman numerals still throw me off.), and it is another indicator of the exceptional speed of time passing. In the 1970s, the Steelers won Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XVI – so the fact that we are up to 57 just makes you feel old.
And while the Super Bowl is aging, it’s more popular than ever. In fact, arguably, it’s the only day of the year that we all come together, and where it truly is “Football Night in America.” Ok, you can say it, Al.
No one needs to be reminded that we’re more divisive than ever. That we’re all growing apart, with barely a commonality among us. Yet, Super Bowl Sunday is when we all truly come together. You might be rooting for different teams, but we’re all tuned in, more or less, to the same event.
There is no such thing as appointment television anymore, except on Super Bowl Sunday. There is a plethora of television shows now, scattered across broadcast, cable and streaming with on demand recording, DVRs for some, and binge watching a staple of viewing. The ratings for the Oscars (sometimes jokingly referred to as the gay Super Bowl.), the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys decline nearly each year.
Everyone tuning in at the same time for legendary TV finales like M.A.S.H., Cheers, Friends, or Seinfeld don’t happen anymore.
It used to be that everything stopped when Space Shuttles were launched. That’s why everyone remembers where they were when the Challenger exploded in 1986. Space Shuttles have been replaced by billionaire space capsules that launch much too frequently.
But the Super Bowl? It seems to pick up speed each year. The pre-game is over three hours when the analysts and former players find a million ways to describe offenses and defenses.
Super Bowl commercials, even if they don’t all actually air during the Super Bowl, are a bonanza for brands and advertisers. Betty White started her comeback in a Snickers Super Bowl ad. And don’t get me started about GoDaddy's annual ads.
Even within our community, Super Bowl Sunday conceivably outdoes drag show brunches. Jeffrey Sotland of Woody’s, with three locations in and around Philadelphia, said, “We have always had a great crowd for the Super Bowl, but considering the Eagles are in the Super Bowl this year, we expect the biggest crowd ever. This is the first time we are in our new space with the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and we expect a packed house.”
“We open doors at 12:30 p.m., and we’re not charging a cover like other bars, and we already have groups who tell us they will be there at opening. We have canceled all other events for the day and all three floors will be showing the game, including our video wall on the dance floor.”
At Gaels Public House & Sports in Kansas City, the game will be broadcast on 25 televisions indoors and one on their large outdoor patio. The bar’s manager Derrick Bachman said, “We sold out of Chiefs Party Packs which reserves your table with beer, pizzas, and wings. For the Rihanna Halftime Show the drag queens of our Sunday night program, #GOALS, are serving up half-price Don Julio to cheer on Queen Rihanna.”
I’ll be watching the game, and Rihanna too, but by myself this year, since the Steelers aren’t in it, and I have no skin in the game. I couldn't care less who wins. I’m one of those people who just says, “I hope it's close.” And I’ll be rolling my eyes at all the analysts’ babble preceding the game, as they find umpteen ways to explain a game where men chase a ball up and down a field and tackle each other.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.