David Stairs

On Sunday February 6th I went to my local grocery store to get some canned tomatoes for the dinner I was planning. The place was mobbed. I looked around, half expecting to see the Lord descend in a cloud of glory, but I should have known better. After all, it was Superbowl Sunday. In the religion of early twenty-first century America, it was a high holy day.

In the weeks leading up to the annual glutfest, it was hard to escape the frenzy. Most sporting seasons have been stretched to the breaking point by commercial endorsement and prolonged playoffs. But the extent to which America becomes addicted to spectacle where big sporting events are concerned easily rivals the panem et circenses of the ancient Roman blood sports. Of course, the sheer economic magnitude of the event beggars comparison. Sure, Jerry Jones’ billion-dollar stadium doesn’t hold many more people (103,219) than the Coliseum at its fullest (80,000). They won’t be holding any mock sea battles there soon either, but the irate fans who drove across country only to be displaced from their $800 temporary seats by the fire marshal were certainly right to be disgruntled. Rome had nothing to match the 100 million viewers of the worldwide television audience, and the unparalleled orgy of commercial advertising trolling for their business.

While super bowl ad viewing has in itself become a spectator sport, the $3 million price tag to air a 30 second spot, not including production costs, dwarfs the magnanimity of Emperors and puts America in a class alone in the ranking for “most decadent.” It was all there, the flag-wrapped Fox prelude, the Medal of Honor winner, the cheesecake, the marching bands, the cheeseheads, the towel spinners, the superstar national anthem, the pre-national anthem, the appalling half-time show that attempted to one-up the Beijing Olympics and failed. And then there was the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. This last is the NFL’s attempt to reward something other than physical prowess or statistical overachievement. It’s an effort to recognize the importance of good citizenship.

Now, I know that many NFL players make guest charity appearances. They ought to, given the player’s pay scale. But it was a little unusual that this year’s nominees, Nmandi Asomugha(Nigeria), Israel Idonije(Nigeria), and Madieu Williams(Sierra Leone) were all from immigrant African families and were interested in doing socially beneficial work in communities both here and abroad. The award, designed by Daniel Schwartz, went to Williams, but Idonije had been nominated twice previously, and may be again. In the game’s aftermath there’s been much hoopla in the sporting press about the return of Tiffany and Co.’s Vince Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay. But for my money, which is always on the social end of the spectrum, I’d be much more inclined to want to rush the pearly gates with the recipient of Schwartz’s “Gladiator.” It’s not that Williams, like John Lennon before him, is “Bigger than Jesus.” It’s just that he proves once again that religion is in the eye of the betrophied.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project