In Clifton, New Jersey, of the ’70s and ’80s, the Super Bowl was pretty much a non-sectarian holy day. It was easier to gather a team of warlocks than to find the few guys who didn’t watch the big game. It was especially tough because I didn’t believe in witchcraft, either.
I’ve remained a Super Bowl non-believer for all of my adult life. But then came a deadly pandemic, followed by a divisive election and a bloody insurrection. Now, I can’t think of a better way to distract our country from the sobering realities it faces.
My newfound appreciation for the Bowl’s cultural role has come after more than 50 years of being a football hater. It all started when I was a pudgy, last-picked-for-kickball schoolkid with a precocious interest in Watergate and the bright lights of Manhattan. In my view, the game inspired people to spend the night screaming spontaneously (much like Halloween, which I also hated). It didn’t get any better in high school, when at Super Bowl parties I hid my boredom by spending a bit too much time discussing the snacks ("Wow, is this really just onion-soup mix sour cream and Corn Chex?")
In college, my fraternity’s Super Bowl-slash-recruiting events tested my mettle. Unsure of my sexual identity, a great deal of effort went into hiding that conflict. But Super Bowl Sunday was a trigger, a reminder of feeling "other." My coping mechanism in those years? A manufactured interest in the game’s big-budget commercials. I served up windy analyses of the latest Apple or Hertz ad, oblivious to the drama on the field. I’m guessing this tone deafness from a fraternity officer hardly helped our recruitment efforts.
My liberation came at 26, with Super Bowl XXV, the Giants versus the Bills — an upstate/downstate New York faceoff. Now living in the city, I played with fire and declined all Super Bowl invites — and found out I wasn’t alone. As I walked down Second Avenue during the game’s third quarter, people were shopping, dining, even having first dates (gay and straight). This just didn’t happen in Clifton. In the years since that Super Bowl 1991, I’ve given the game the finger in many ways: I’ve sorted tax receipts, done laundry, and even watched "Mommy Dearest" at a drag bar.
My disdain persisted for three decades — but this year, due in part to COVID-19, it’s softening. While you’d think that the pandemic would draw us together as a country, it has instead created a chasm between the masked and the unmasked. And that divide is only fueled by the other virus — the political rancor and hateful epithets coming from D.C. — as Republicans and Democrats fight for the same democracy from two alarmingly distant sides.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we need Super Bowl LV to bring us together. Want proof? Even I know it’s Tampa Bay against the Kansas City Chiefs. Full disclosure: I haven’t suddenly developed a passion for the game. In fact, I’ve already got a Zoom call scheduled at the same time. But I’ll watch the halftime show and a YouTube summary of the commercials. And maybe for a few hours, millions of Americans, whether they’re Democrats or Republicans, can pull together as one — and forget that in just a few days, we’ll be dealing with the far more serious battle of the impeachment hearings.
Ron Bel Bruno writes about culture, technology, and urban life. He is currently working on a memoir.